4 Key Features of an Effective Online Learning Program



Around a year ago, when I first joined General Assembly, the zeitgeist held that Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, were dying and that online education was doomed to fail. It was around this time that The New York Times cited a UPenn study that stated that only 4% of MOOC registrants complete their lessons and only half ever even view a single lesson.

So it was with a healthy dose of skepticism that I took on the role of Online Instructional Designer, tasked with building GA’s first online course: “The Essentials of Digital Marketing.” Over the next few months, the Essentials of Digital Marketing grew into an extremely successful and engaging learning platform, boasting a 71% engagement rate of students who complete lessons. To reach this point, my team engaged in a whirlwind of testing and discovery that uncovered a number of defining features for building effective online learning experiences.

1. Combat the loneliness of the web

By nature, the internet has evolved into an fairly lonely place. With certain exceptions, notably social platforms, the experience that most individuals have when exploring new ideas and information online is an incredibly solitary one. From the outset, my team and I made every effort to engage our users beyond the 12” of screen space in front of them and make them feel a part of a real group of like-minded students and instructors.

To include a human element into the online learning experience, we coordinated occasional live stream events, providing students the opportunity to interact with instructors and course engagement managers in a real-time, interactive session.

A recent livestream event including interactive polling and Q&A.

A recent livestream event including interactive polling and Q&A.

Our team also experimented with facilitating in-person learning events. These events were designed to provide deep dives into particular topics based on student feedback and surveys. It was crucial for us to acknowledge that no matter how interactive we made our content, it was still going to be consumed individually. To balance this, we’ve made continual efforts to build scaffolding around the course’s core lessons to humanize our instruction and give students the opportunity to internalize and apply their learnings beyond their time on the platform.

2. Shift your source of inspiration

By default, our attempts to create effective online learning experiences are informed, and often inspired, by our most memorable classroom experiences. However, this is simply not-transferable to an online context considering the vastly different expectations of online students. When we design our content, we draw inspiration from a few sources:

Short content is king. TED nails it by keeping their talks under 18 minutes (and I would argue that this is slightly above the threshold for maximum engagement). Our video content and interactive exercises are short, stackable, and bite-sized – the exact recipe that individuals are accustomed to when learning online.

Online Learning Blogpost   Google Docs

Lessons on The Essentials of Digital Marketing are roughly 10-15 minutes long.

Additionally, it’s important to keep your students and end-users in mind when seeking inspiration or even implementing best practices. For example, the vast majority of best practices related to curriculum design are informed by conversations around pedagogy, which primarily focuses on K-12 audiences.

However, considering that our audience consistents of corporate employees, it is obviously important for us to rely on theory and inspiration related to adult learning. Theorist Malcolm Knowles was a particularly helpful source of inspiration when developing The Essentials of Digital Marketing.

Malcolm Knowles

Malcolm Knowles

Knowles popularized the term andragogy through his work and research on best practices for teaching adults and has inspired huge movements of research and insight into the best way to keep adults engaged and on task.

3. Be interactive

High degrees of interactivity will yield greater engagement (and more data points). The greater the number of touchpoints (clicks, interactive exercises, assessments, reflections) that are built into the learning, the more the user will feel guided through an active learning adventure.

knowledge check

Short quizzes maintain strong engagement throughout our lessons.

Dynamic content based on user clicks also encourages interactivity

Dynamic content based on user clicks also encourages interactivity

4. Keep your students’ behavior in mind when developing your platform

More than any one single lesson or piece of content, your primary point of interaction with users will be your LMS. Here is where design really matters. Over the last year, we’ve conducted countless user interviews, experimented with dozens of wireframe prototypes, and constantly iterated on the design and feature set of our platform.

Online Learning Blogpost   Google Docs

As you have probably noticed, the platform has drastically evolved throughout the year. Initially, our platform was a portal for users to access content as quickly as possible. However, we quickly realized that if want to create a site where users will actually spend time, we needed to add more features and area for exploration and deeper discovery. We’ve added a blog, guides for how to navigate the site, as well as advanced content categorization and tagging systems for a more robust user experience.

While we are very happy with success of The Essentials of Digital Marketing and its rate of engagement across our corporate students, there is still plenty more to learn about training students through online platforms.

For a sneak peek on future experiments, early next year we plan to relaunch our learning platform to include more frequent updates of our lesson content, a reorganization of our content based on user feedback, and a more consistent style and voice that will encourage seamless transitions from one lesson to the next. Stay tuned!

Interested in our approach to online learning through The Essentials of Digital Marketing?

Try a sample 10-minute module

Disclaimer: General Assembly referred to their Bootcamps and Short Courses as “Immersive” and “Part-time” courses respectfully and you may see that reference in posts prior to 2023.