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How to optimize the self-paced course experience

A version of this post was originally published on eLearning Industry, on May 3, 2020.

Optimizing the learning experience is the holy grail of online courses. After all, it’s the key to attracting more learners and keeping them as returning clients. That’s why it’s so important yet so challenging for instructors to engage learners in asynchronous courses. And yet, asynchronous or self-paced courses are the most flexible form of online learning, which can be done anywhere and at any time.

However, taking a self-paced course means that the learner needs to be motivated enough to dedicate their limited time and attention. And while you can’t control certain aspects (such as the amount of free time they have), as an instructor, you can make their experience as enjoyable as possible and limit any barriers to effective learning.

How to optimize the self-paced course experience

So whether you have a small business selling courses or are thinking of making the switch to self-paced courses for your learners, here is what you need to know about optimizing their learning experience:

  1. Optimize learning content

    Forget about learning styles — this theory doesn’t hold water in the educational world. Instead of worrying whether your learners prefer to listen or to read, make sure that whichever format you choose is the best for what you’re trying to teach.

    For example, you might find out that your text’s readability score is about the 11th-grade level. However, the optimum reading level should be about 6th or 7th grade since concentrating while reading online takes more brainpower. Moreover, how readable is the font you’re using? Is it free of grammatical errors?

    The same goes for online course video content. Do you include captions that make them easier to follow? Could you create short videos that learners could consume in 5, 10, or 15 minutes? Could you illustrate your point by creating an infographic instead of plain text? Optimum online content is balanced and enjoyable regardless of the subject you’re teaching.

  2. Optimize for distraction-free learning

    There are many online distractors that keep us away from learning. Pop-up notifications and cluttered interfaces have to go if you want learners to concentrate on what they’re doing.

    If you have a choice between many platforms, choose an LMS with a user-friendly interface. To optimize learning without disruptions, users should be able to enjoy hassle-free navigation. From the moment they log in they should be able to: easily find courses, visualize their progress through modules, and access content with a single click or tap on their screen.

    As for the learning content, the best practice is to keep everything on the minimalist side. This lowers cognitive load and increases focus on the task at hand. The course interface should have only the necessary elements. For example, users find it hard to concentrate if you have a lesson page with a comments section. If you have a 1-hour video, divide it into 10-minute segments that are easier to digest.

    Read more: 4 Ways to create meaningful microlearning in your online course

  3. Optimize communication channels

    Especially now, learners would like to connect with other people. Self-paced courses don’t exclude human interaction - in fact, social learning is part of the process. Ask yourself these questions before launching a course:

    • What are my learners’ favorite communication tools?
    • Do they know where to ask for help?
    • Do they know how to contact me?

    Your role as an instructor is to facilitate communication and give them plenty of options. You can have a course chat to discuss assessments or discussion forums centered around one topic. Learners can be part of groups that are dedicated to a specific part of the course. If your platform has a friend feature, they can even connect on a personal level.

    If they have options, they’ll have zero excuses not to use them. Start conversations yourself to get the ball rolling and you’ll build a learning community in no time.

    Read more: 9 Tips on how to build a learning community using LMS tools

  4. Optimize for flexibility and accessibility

    Spend some time to really know a platform before investing in one and change what you can to offer a great experience. First and foremost, learning should be enjoyable on any device. If your platform is not optimized for mobile learning, your students will just find more excuses to postpone learning. And there’s a chance they’ll give up altogether!

    Although learning platforms have come a long way, you have to consider the accessibility of your courses. Is it optimized for learners who are visually challenged or are differently-abled? If you’re not sure where to get started, a high contrast theme option is a great start. If your platform has a skip-to-content option, that’s even better. You can also make sure that they can use a screen reader for text or offer captions for all of your videos.

    These changes make a whole world of a difference. As long as your content is accessible, everyone can benefit from it.

Final thoughts

We often speak in terms of boosting performance when it comes to e-learning, but for self-paced courses to be truly effective, we need to talk more about learning experience optimization as a motivating factor.

For an optimal learning experience, instructors need to consider four major categories that have the most impact on the overall satisfaction with an online course. These are: learning content, communication channels, distraction-free learning, flexibility and accessibility.

Choosing the right learning platform and tweaking your content for maximum impact should be a priority for all online instructors.