Designing Successful Online Courses: Know and Respond to your Learners’ Needs
Just as it is important to make conventional face-to-face teaching and learning processes engaging and learner-centered, online learning requires also a great level of care in its design to make it attractive, fun and ultimately effective. There seems to be a common agreement that online learners are more demanding and focused than their classroom counterparts. Most of them are very busy people with very tight and demanding schedules. They are either professionals trying to acquire specific skills to advance their careers or at-home parents raising their children while preparing for re-entery into the job market once they are finished. Others are entrepreneurs looking to acquire new competencies and knowledge in a specific area of business they are engaged in or interested in pursuing. But even that is changing. Researchers are now discovering that due to globalization, the scope of the online learner population has shifted from “a homogeneous profile of mostly adult, mostly employed, place-bound, goal-oriented, and intrinsically motivated to one that is heterogeneous, younger, dynamic, and responsive to rapid technological innovations” (Dabbagh, 2007). Another thing that has changed as well is the notion of the independent distance learner in her or his corner studying in isolation from others. The trend now is towards socially mediated online learning activities whereby a learner is a member of a network of learners or a community of practice (CoP) in which social interaction and collaboration are the norms.
This diversity of learner characteristics and shifts in paradigms have pedagogical implications for curriculum developers and lecturers/instructors dispensing online courses. It is thus important for institutions and their faculty to determine the characteristics and educational needs of learners as this could help them (a) understand the profile of the learners enrolling in online courses (b) identify the factors behind the motivation of the learners and (c) anticipate potential challenges that could prevent some of the learners to successfully complete the courses. It is assumed that once equipped with this knowledge, administrators, lecturers and instructional material designers could provide the most engaging, fun and adapted learning experiences to their learners.