Worried about student engagement? To author engaging online learning content, start with these fundamentals.
Perhaps your online course covers a super-fun topic students are eager to learn and will voluntarily pay for. Or perhaps your course is a required job training and the students have little to no desire to be taking the course. Either way, you likely feel responsible for ensuring the course is engaging to students.
An engaging course starts with engaging content. I don’t mean that the topics must be innately engaging. I mean that as the content author and online course producer, you’re responsible for ensuring that your content is clear, approachable, and relevant so that students have the best chance of being drawn in.
Here are 9 fundamentals for how to author engaging online learning content.
Keep the material concise and clear.
Having content that is clear and concise shows students that you value their time. Longer content is not better. The goal is to cover the material that is required with the depth that is required to do it justice, and then move on.
Producing concise material requires a concerted effort. (As Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”) To do this, start by having a well-organized content plan with a strong set of Learning Objectives as the backbone. After authoring your content, go back through to evaluate its pace. Is there material that can be consolidated? Are there places where the wording can be tightened up? You can always provide a list of additional resources at the end of the course for students who want a deeper dive.
Answer the question “Why should I care?” proactively.
I’ll be the first to admit I asked “Why should I care?” during my days as a student. Now that I’m on the flip side of the education equation, the question is even more relevant. We can anticipate this question from students and address it at every opportunity.
If your course is voluntary, students may already be committed and ready to learn. If the course is required, you can show that time spent on your course is valuable by anticipating the “Why should I care?” question (or its cousin, “When am I ever going to use this?”) by answering it proactively throughout your content. For example, if you’re building a required training course, think about the roles of the different students. Can you tailor part of it to their specific role so that it’s clear you had them in mind?
Don’t be afraid to use humor.
Just because something is educational doesn’t mean humor is off-limits. Feel free to insert humor when you see an opportunity as long as it doesn’t detract from the learning experience and is appropriate for the setting and audience.
My college physics book regularly used penguins in the examples, complete with illustrations. The physics concepts were all there, of course, but so were the penguins. The amusing examples made me smile and made the material more palatable.
Write with inclusive language.
Using inclusive language makes your course content welcoming and approachable and reduces the chance of alienating students.
Select examples that resonate with students.
The examples in your course need to be relevant and resonate with students. I learned this lesson the hard way while working on a college math course when a professor from a rural area criticized an example about the cost of buying a house. While the house price seemed perfectly normal in California where the example’s author lived, it felt unattainable and laughable to the professor’s students.
This doesn’t mean students can never be exposed to new and different ideas, but rather that if a skill is billed as a “real-life” skill, it should reflect the real lives of the target students.
Produce high quality content.
The final version of your content should be thorough and consistent and have few mistakes. It’s tempting to proof your own content if you’re a subject matter expert in a particular topic and well-qualified to teach the material. Sometimes though, it's hard to critically view one’s own work.
Designate someone else to comb through your course before the students do, or better yet, let an editor review it. A fresh set of eyes can catch mistakes and point out gaps, which are major detractors to students. Polished content makes it easier for students to stay engaged.
Tailor the material to its delivery format.
When planning your course, think about how best to represent the content and what content delivery formats to use. The content can then be tailored to its delivery format. For example, an eLearning video script about a topic is different from paragraphs a student will read or feedback they’ll receive upon answering a question. Each of these delivery formats is different and what students expect to see in these formats varies.
Follow accessibility guidelines.
If parts of your course are not accessible to your students, such as from failing to include alt text, you can’t blame students for feeling disconnected or falling behind. The content needs to be presented in a way that all students can access.
Create more than one path through the material.
Gone are the days of all students progressing through the material in the same order, at the same time, and at the same pace. Your course content can now be organized in multiple ways, such as allowing students to hop over unnecessary material or access review or bonus material on-demand. You can even create role-specific material or present students with scenario-based branching choices.
Creating multiple paths through your course based on a student’s role or learning goals or previously mastered topics is another way of showing students that you value their time and had them in mind while designing the course.
If you’re a content author for an online course, likely you want to feel proud of the final product and are invested in it being an effective learning experience for students. It may feel weird that much of the student success equation is out of your control. You can’t control students’ study habits, other time commitments, or innate enthusiasm for a topic. And regretfully, there’s no magic pill to make students actively participate in your course. But you can control the content you produce. The foundation of an engaging course starts with you.