The secret to the perfect online course
Four factors for effective eLearning
Since we believe that knowing the details is key, we’re going to let you in on the secret of successful online courses right from the start:
The more individualized and thus more relevant an online course is for your learners,<br/>the better their learning outcomes will be and the more successful your online course will be.
But which are the factors that determine whether learners will find an online course relevant? We explain why it’s so important for online courses to be relevant to learners, how to make your courses relevant, and how to adapt them to your learners’ individual circumstances. We’ll help you optimize your online courses in the shortest possible time and maximize your learners’ motivation. Two essential goals that are easy to achieve.
Why is it so important for content to be relevant?
Let’s go back to what we said earlier: “The more individualized and thus more relevant an online course is for your learners, the better their learning outcomes will be and the more successful your online course will be”. What exactly is the connection, and what are the factors that determine how effectively an individual will learn?
The key factor is the learner’s own motivation—which is known as intrinsic motivation. It drives each of us and is not externally determined. This is why it is important to ensure that learners are as self-motivated as possible. Just think about yourself for a moment: When are you most receptive to acquiring new knowledge? Probably when…
- The knowledge you are acquiring actually helps to take you forward.
- You don’t have to waste time absorbing material you don’t need, without learning anything useful.
- You feel neither overwhelmed nor under-challenged.
- The content is explained using examples that relate to your own professional experience.
You will undoubtedly be able to add items to this list, but they would all point to the same conclusion: Your motivation is likely to be highest when content is perfectly tailored to your needs and is therefore relevant to you. This enables you to optimize your mental energy and assimilate knowledge to the best of your ability.
P.S.: When we talk about individualization in the context of online courses, we mean “adaptive learning”. Adaptive learning means differentiated teaching, i.e., teaching that is adjusted to the needs of individual learners.
The 4 key factors
Learning outcomes are not solely related to course content, but rather to a whole range of other factors as well. Most of them can be directly or indirectly influenced by how you design your online course. So it’s important that you first analyze the 4 factors below, and then incorporate them into your course.
Factors relating to individual learners
Factors relating to individual learners: Learning style
Not all people learn the same way. We can group them into 5 different categories, depending on how they best process information.
learn by seeing, reading, watching, and observing. The types of materials that will help them learn best include pictures, graphs and diagrams.
are particularly good at processing what they have heard. They learn best when material is read aloud or presented, and when they can verbalize ideas for themselves.
acquire new knowledge best when they can get to grips with it hands-on. They will maximize their learning outcomes when they can play an active role in their own learning.
Reading and writing learners
retain knowledge best when they are able to read and absorb the key information.
learn best by interacting with others. They will learn most effectively through participating in discussions and giving presentations.
eLearning is better suited to taking different learning styles into consideration than any other teaching format. For example, you can opt to deliver particular sections of your online course as text, audio or video. This ensures that you are catering at least to the majority of learning styles, and consequently improving individual learning outcomes.
Factors relating to individual learners: Prior knowledge
If you think back to your own student days, you’ll no doubt remember the important role played by prior knowledge: Advanced courses were only for students who had already completed a foundation course, and students who had already completed a specialized apprenticeship were permitted to skip the work-placement semester. Likewise, although it’s not strictly individualization, eLearning can also take learners’ prior knowledge into account by only offering them the courses or chapters that they actually require.
Taking prior knowledge into account is essential to achieving good learning outcomes. On the one hand, it prevents learners without prior knowledge from becoming demotivated as a result of feeling overwhelmed by new content; on the other hand, it motivates learners who do have prior knowledge, since they receive recognition for it and don’t need to waste valuable time on content they’re already familiar with. Learners’ prior knowledge can be determined through pre-tests and interim tests, enabling them only to take the courses and course chapters that they actually need.
Simply start your next online course with a pre-test. Before your employees start engaging with new content, give them a test to check what they already know. This will enable you to make an accurate assessment of the level they are working at. Based on their results, they will then only be shown the online course chapters that are actually relevant to them. Modern authoring tools support this process in a very straightforward way.
Factors relating to individual learners: The learning environment
Learners are also influenced by their environment. It goes without saying that the quieter the environment and the fewer the distractions, the more effective learning will be. However, since this is seldom the case in reality (especially for learners who wish to take advantage of the benefits of mobile learning), online courses need to offset potential disruptions, for instance by adapting media or changing the lengths of individual units.
Motivational factor: Intrinsic motivation
In addition to extrinsic factors, learners are also driven by intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic incentives come from within individuals themselves, or arise from the role or task in which they are engaged. This type of motivation therefore results from learners’ partially unconscious drive to achieve or avoid a particular thing. In the learning context, this means that the more relevant and applicable the content, the greater a learner’s motivation will be to master it.
Intrinsic motivation is essential for positive learning outcomes, but it is difficult to measure and therefore difficult to generate deliberately. Research shows that learners are more receptive to learning that is individually tailored learning and that this leads to better outcomes. To activate your employees’ internal drive to achieve, you should therefore only offer them content that is immediately useful to their everyday work. Conversely, you should ensure you do not offer any redundant or irrelevant content. After all, who wants to take valuable time out of an already packed day to work on something that won’t be relevant to them?
Motivational factor: Extrinsic motivation
Whereas intrinsic motivation comes from within learners themselves, extrinsic motivation arises from external stimuli. The latter are specific additional incentives to take action that will bring benefits. As a rule, these incentives are not directly related to the applicability of the knowledge in question.
Whereas intrinsic motivation can only be influenced indirectly via course content, extrinsic motivation is easy to enhance by more direct methods, such as title bumps, public recognition, bonuses, salary increases and promotions. Within online courses, this can be achieved by means of gamification features, feedback and certificates.
Learning is of course also affected by our emotions. When considering emotions, we can draw a distinction between short-term emotions (such as irritation after a negative interaction with a customer or excitement after a presentation) and long-term emotions such as mourning a loved one or long-term dissatisfaction with one’s job. The result is often the same, however: negative moods, or alternatively extremely positive emotions, make it difficult to concentrate on work or to learn anything at all.
Learners’ emotions are individual and complex and it is impossible, or very difficult, to influence them. However, it can be helpful to bear this factor in mind when analyzing learning outcomes and assessing any fluctuations. In general, it is of course true that the more positive the atmosphere—and the more positive the experience of the learning platform (keyword: usability)—the better.
Cognitive load theory starts from the assumption that working memory plays an especially important role in learning. The capacity of the working memory is limited, however, meaning that it can only ever retain a certain amount of information. To enable learners to optimize their working memory, they must on the one hand be encouraged to take on a certain cognitive load, but on the other they must not be overloaded.
Cognitive load is closely related to the complexity of content. To avoid overload, large amounts of content should be subdivided into short lessons (keyword: microlearning). You should also ensure that you give your employees the space and time to learn. As well as causing stress, the double burden of work and learning can result in cognitive overload. Pre-tests can also help to prevent overload.
The bottom line
The more individualized an online course is, the more relevant it will be to the learner. The result: Valuable professional and personal time is saved, motivation is enhanced and learning outcomes are improved. For organizational and economic reasons alone, it is difficult to tailor face-to-face courses to individuals, and personal requirements can hardly ever be taken into account; by contrast, eLearning has learners’ individual needs at its heart. It achieves this by using information that is already known about individual employees or that is acquired in the course of the learning process (e.g., department, learning style, prior knowledge, etc.). However, it is only possible if you have a suitable eLearning suite that includes all the necessary features for adaptive learning.
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Title image: Dean Drobot/shutterstock.com