Posts Tagged ‘online courses’

Abstract: I present a summary of lessons learned from the development of a wide range of online courses for teachers and learners in ELT. An experienced developer of ‘e-learning’, I will identify key lessons for the successful development of online courses. This is based on my own experiences and those of a survey of seasoned practitioners in the field of online course development.
Slides available from; white paper coming in about a month from the same site.

Nowadays more and more people are moving into creating online courses.

A lot of people run into problems:

  • publishers – with course delivery
  • teachers – novices to creating content professionally

This talk is based on interviews with people experienced in online course delivery (who have created over 13,000 online course hours between them).


They answered the following question: what were the five biggest problems you faced?

Paul Sweeney decided to categorize the issues by where they happen in the process of course development – issues at different stages might have different impact.


Paul Sweeney decided to use the metaphor of a river:



  • Senior managers (who commission those courses) lack knowledge about them. Vendor surveys are not very informative and don’t give you a good picture of the composition of the costs, especially the ones related to technology (also, vendors have very different goals – e.g. selling a one-off package or continuous support – or simply taking you for a ride).
  • E-learning is not content. It’s a tutorial experience. 95 percent of your effort may go into creating content, but the main question should be in what ways is the used going to interact with this context? E.g. how many learners are prepared to go self-paced, or are they a lot more likely to need teacher support?
  • e-learning content is not ‘copying’. It is very difficult to create content and this difficulty gets vastly underestimated.
  • Some projects are just too ambitious. You can hear, ‘We want a course that would involve 100 hours and we’re aiming to launch in 12-18 months.’ Well, that’s just not realistic

Upper course 

  • Envisioned timescales
  • Reversioning (putting offline content online) – beware! Even if you’ve already got content and don’t plan to change it (which is very unlikely), people often underestimate that content has to be completely broken apart, and this editing is very complex.
  • Scoping: begin with the end in mind. What often happens is writing content that can’t be turned into online content because the tools do not allow that. Also often course developers don’t know what countries / context they have in mind. You need a good developing story and use cases and an understanding in what context / countries /… the content will be used.
  • It’s improtant to keep the following elements in balance: tech / UX – user experience / pedagogy / marketing / operational. Getting excited about one bit of technology isn’t good for pedagogy.
  • Going mobile: many people assume that using HTML5 is the simple answer because it works on all devices. But devices have different screen sizes – small screen experience is completely different etc. You need to ask yourself questions like ‘How will this text be laid out on a small screen? Do questions for the text go after the text? Do they pop up?’
  • The pernicious single platform fallacy
  • DIY authoring platforms – might be extremely difficult to use for writing and everything takes twice as long than it should for writers.

Upper course 

  • Planning & syllabus. Planning, planning, planning. People under-estimate how much planning is needed. It takes weeks.
  • Editors are often not seen as essential part. The thinking goes, ‘Let’s give it to writers and then to technical people’. When there’s no editors, no training of writers (who are often creative responsive classroom teachers, which is not the same thing as ‘a good writer’), no standartisation – this always go wrong.
  • Roleplaying: technology vs. content vs. UX. Content writers need to think through the process of putting it online: the person building the exercise won’t have teaching background / or this will be done automatically.
  • Prototyping. It’s important to develop a proof of concept before creating the whole course.
    20-30 minutes of learners, representative content, sampled in representative context

Middle course

  • Welcome to the sausage machine! How to keep track of hundreds of texts, images, audio clips? Develop naming conventions!
  • Content put together by distributed team – how to build the team and get them to work together properly, especially at the opening stages?
  • Testing & piloting
  • Learning analytics – not only for learners and teachers, but what about from development perspective – what was clicked, etc?

Lower course

  • Product support information & training. Again, it’s wrong to think of a course as ‘content’ or ‘a box’. People buying it need excellent overview information of how this product is put together. How can they flick through it and analyze whether that meets their meets?
  • Testing (you fail). One of the misconceptions about testing is that the developer is a good tester. But you know how it should work. Give it to someone who doesn’t have a clue – you’ll realize what features they’re not using, where they’re missing out etc.

Final notes

Lots of products fail to exploit the potentional of e-learning. We see PPP again, etc. The interactivity isn’t in clickability of the content – it’s about how the users interact with what’s on the screen. How to differentiate between the core content and extra content?

I don’t want to write the platitudes that this was an incredibly useful session (although here I am writing it). What a treasure trove of insight. 


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.


Zhenya shared his tips for running an online course. He has done this twice, running a writing course called My First Preprint (online) at Higher School of Economics Academic Writing Center.

Course description:

  • Completely online (first delivered through wiziq, but then they switched to anymeeting, which is free of charge), group size: 20 s/s
  • Learning by doing – working and re-working their own texts. A product-oriented course
  • Very intensive with strict schedules (writing a paper within a 3-month period – a challenge, but a manageable one)
  • Peer review
  • ‘One size fits all’ approach (people from a range of fields, e.g. economics, logic, linguistics)

Technology stack (all free of charge):

  • Anymeeting to deliver webinars
  • Skype for one-to-one meetings and group discussions for peer feedback
  • Schoology – a platform where they created virtual classes – discussions, threads, materials. Zhenya recommends creating an account because this will allow you to transfer all your materials to another course.

Structure of the course

Six 180-minute webinars – each covering one part of a paper (Intro/literature overview / methodology & results / findings / … ), led by two different tutors – interlaid with homework done through schoology. Between webinars, 1-2-1 proofreading sessions with tutors or native speakers, distant proofreading, online peer correction with a tutor.

Potential problems and some tips

Creating webinars:

  • Webinar preparation is time consuming (It took Zhenya up to 4 hours to prepare a one-hour class)
  • Requires clear structure. Plan well ahead and know what you’re doing – you can’t ‘go with your students’, since they can’t even see you
  • Show consistency – let each webinar follow the same structure, because you’re also educating s/s to work with you
  • Should be entertaining! Zhenya’s rule of thumb is ~1 slide per minute. To add interactivity, get the s/s to type their answers in the chat box – works a lot better than online converstation because headsets normally don’t work, there’s echo etc

For a successful online course:

  • To avoid high drop-out rates, make the structure of the course crystal clear. S/s need to know what happens when, what the rules for attendance are, etc.
    Start each webinar by reminding what has been covered, when you meet next, etc
    Send the s/s a reminder 3 days before each deadline, so that they don’t lose track and don’t start procrastinating. On Zhenya Bakin’s course drop-out rate was ~35%
  • Be prepared to support s/s with technology – they’ll have technology issues, be ready to come up with tips what to do
  • Show enthusiasm. Online teaching is like fairies: they die if you don’t believe in them. Give people support.

Check out Zhenya’s group and his website or email him at