Taking An Online Course: Lessons Learned

While I am in the early stages of planning my online course, I am also in the middle of taking two of them! It made me wonder how many people who teach online courses have gotten the opportunity to take one? We’ve all taken plenty of face to face classes for years on end. Doing so has given us lots of opportunities to consider what we like or don’t like about that type of instruction. But I’m guessing most of us have had very limited opportunities to see what online classes look like and to experience different structures.

I didn’t seek out online classes because I wanted the experience of taking them. I happened to come across two that fit my professional needs and so I signed up for them. While I am learning content relevant to my needs in both courses, I am also taking the time to pay attention to how the instructors organize the courses and what kinds of experiences I get as a student. In today’s post I want to discuss some of the big ideas I have learned from one of them.

Background: The Twitter Masterminds

Twitter Masterminds is an online course developed by Mark Barnes (@markbarnes19 on twitter). The goal of the course is to help you become an expert at using twitter. This includes identifying relevant people to follow (and hopefully be followed by) and how to use twitter in more thoughtful and mindful ways.

I had found myself in a bit of a twitter rut. I enjoy using the tool. I’ve written a lot about how to use it in teaching. However, I was getting stuck in terms of finding good people to follow, building my followers, and I knew I wasn’t getting the most out of the tool. I took this course because I wanted to address these issues. FYI: It’s an amazing course, and I’ve gotten everything I wanted out of it and more. I’ll be reviewing it in a few weeks, but go here if you would like to take a closer look at it.

For the rest of this post, I want to talk to you about one of the big ideas I learned about how the course was structured and how I am thinking about it in terms of an academic/higher education context.

Self Paced: All The Content At Once

In Twitter Masterminds (TM), you get access to all the content at once. Having all the content at once is a bit like being turned loose in a candy store and saying you can eat anything you want however use please. While some things don’t look useful, most do. Most everything is exciting. You want it all, and you want it all at once.

Once I got over the fact that I had all this awesome, useful content available to me I calmed down and allowed myself to skim through it. I didn’t concentrate on anything too deeply at first. I allowed myself to flit in and out with no commitment. I didn’t focus on learning or using anything.

By giving myself time to play, I was able to understand what content was available to me and where I wanted to start my journey. Because all the content was available to me, and the course is self-paced, I was able to structure my experience however I wished. Although TM is structured around modules, and each module has multiple lessons, I could do the modules in any order I wanted and navigate back and forth as I saw fit.

For the most part, I made myself go through the modules in the order in which they were created. I assumed they were placed in that order for a specific reason. If I hit content I already knew or didn’t want to apply just yet then I skipped over it to return to later if needed.

What I Learned About Myself as a Student

Once I got settled into the TM course, I immediately identified a couple of skills I wanted to focus on developing in terms of getting better at twitter. At some point, I became aware that while I was actively applying what I had learned (and getting great benefit out of it!), I had stopped engaging with new content in the course. This is neither good nor bad. However, once I recognized this I started diving back into the modules (slowly) and working on learning more. I continued to apply what I was learning.

This structure of having all the content available is great if it is narrowly focused (which the course is; recall it’s focused on helping you become better at using twitter) and meets a specific need for the user (which of course it did for me or I would not have purchased it). Because I have learning goals, I could go into this space and utilize the teachings. I was also exposed to new ideas that I would never have thought of on my own.

My Take Aways for an Academic Course

In the TM course there is no deadline on learning. The course is mine to access forever. It’s just like if I went out and bought a book to help me learn something. In thinking about what I learned and how I might apply it to an academic course, I realized the following:

  • There is probably no need to release all the content at once. Doing so (to the tune of about 15 weeks worth of content) could be way overwhelming for any student. Releasing all the content at once around a very specific chunk of the course makes the most sense. TM has a good amount of content that is appropriate for the cost. An academic course would have significantly more content. A full release wouldn’t make sense (which got me thinking about how we release content in academic courses in general, but that is for another time).
  • Students need learning goals, and they need to set these for themselves. I came into the TM course with my own set of goals. The course helped me meet those goals as well as extend them. However, because I had my own goals I always felt empowered by how I approached the content and applied it. I usually ask my students what they want to learn in a course, but I never really do much with that information. I use it to get to know them better. If we are going to be studying something that links to one of their goals, I point it out. However, I don’t think it’s my job to do something with everyone’s goals. I do think I could do more to help students think about goal setting in ways that make sense for the course and empower them to realize them.
  • Having freedom to navigate the course and use the information to help me meet my goals was extremely helpful. So while I don’t think releasing all the content at once is the way to go for a 15 week academic course, I do think there’s something to consider here in terms of when and how people get access to content and helping them think about how they use it. I think people tend to use a syllabus in a linear manner, and I’d like to think about how to break that.

Next week I’ll be writing about lessons I have learned from a second online course I am taking. This course is structured much differently and my experiences with it are giving me a broader perspective on what it means to teach online.

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago


3 thoughts on “Taking An Online Course: Lessons Learned

  1. Colleen Smith March 30, 2017 / 8:25 pm

    Thanks for your reflections Leigha! I very much appreciated your thoughts. One thing that stuck out to me was the timing of releasing content. Have you gotten into that in another blog? If so, I’d like to read it. I’m new to the online course curriculum piece, but I am exploring some ideas to start my own rogue project for student leaders in higher education. I, like yourself, have the same outlook on structuring a 15-week semester just so that everyone is on the same page. I wonder what would happen if the syllabus was a less linear structure? Do you have examples of how you have pushed your own curriculum to be “less-linear”? Thanks again!

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