It seems like I’ve been teaching online non-stop since the end of April. Oh wait, I have.

I had the good fortune while I was doing a contract as an Instructional Designer at Royal Roads University this past year to co-facilitate their Instructional Skills Workshop Online (ISWO) course twice. The second course started in May, five weeks’ worth of facilitating online, talking about facilitating online.

Right after the ISWO was finished I started co-facilitating Volunteer Victoria’s course that I developed for them last year, now called “Leading Volunteers: Foundations in Volunteer Management.” Volunteer Burnaby contracted Volunteer Victoria to have us offer it for them, and it was one day in person, four weeks online (plus a pre-week). It ended a couple of weeks ago.

Teaching back-to-back like that made for a busy spring and start to summer, but facilitating those topics energized me. They are both great, interactive courses which actively support participants to really increase their knowledge and build connections with other participants. And by and large, they were successful. But it was clear that a few people weren’t prepared to participate in what constitutes effective online learning these days.

If you haven’t had any previous experience learning online, or if you’ve been part of an online course that has been designed badly, you may be startled when first you participate in an effectively designed online course. To keep you pointed in the right direction – only taking good online courses – I’ve made a list of bad courses to watch out for – beware the following!

Online education should not be:

  • “Read and Regurgitate” – a course where all the students do is read the copious text and readings, write two papers (alone) and they’re done
  • “Where’s Waldo?” – a course where all the students are present, but they rarely find the instructor online anywhere
  • “Technophobe Central” – a course where the students spend the entire length of the course frustrated about technology or course platform, because no systems have been put in place to assist them to learn it
  • “Transmission Dullsville” – a course where students watch dozens of long YouTube lectures or PowerPoint presentations but never get the chance to comment or discuss any of them with other students or an instructor
  • “Bug City” – a course where the learning platform is so old, broken and tired that it isn’t up to the challenge of facilitating learning; or where the platform was never intended to be used for online learning in the first place (such as a blog)
  • “Crickets” – a course which runs with too few students in it, so the quiet is deafening
  • “Hog It All” – a course in which the instructor takes all the air time and leads the students through a prescribed, narrowly confined learning process that doesn’t allow for student leadership or creativity

Do any of these sound familiar? I’d like to hope that they don’t, but I think we’ve all been in some bad online courses if we’ve made the effort to attempt online learning before. Which makes it even more important for you next time around that you ask questions of the organization about how the online course you’re interested in is designed. Is it facilitated? Participatory? Based on authentic (as close to real life situations as possible) learning? Does it use interesting technological tools, not because they are cool but because they are appropriate to deepen learning? Does the instructor know how to facilitate conversations instead of lecture? Teach participants how to do so? Create course elements that are visual as well as textual? Share leadership in the course with participants? Are the assignments active, relevant and broad enough to allow for real-life applicability and creativity? Does the course incorporate a broad range of current readings/videos/resources relevant to the field? Does the instructor have training in online facilitation?

This is what you want to see in online learning. (And more.) And what I strive to create when I’m developing and facilitating it.

So ask those questions! Avoid accidentally signing up for those terrible courses listed above. And turn your thinking around about what online is and isn’t. Your brain will thank you (when you really learn the material well in the end), and so will your facilitator…because you showed up online knowing what to expect, and prepared to set aside the time to play your interactive and contributive role.

Happy online learning!