Online courses

Empty seats in a stadium

Empty seats. Photo: Nina Matthews Photography, via flickr.

There was a period in my life where I was a full-time qualitative researcher. I used to moderate focus groups. The projects were about anything and everything: soup, fizzy drinks, shampoo, insurance, you name it. I usually moderated two evening sessions back-to-back, and I would drive out to some far-flung venue in the London suburbs through rush-hour traffic.

It turns out that the worst part of facilitating a focus group is waiting for everyone to show up.

Your first session starts at 6.30 maybe, and from 6.15 you are pacing around wondering whether everyone will show. There are empty seats arranged in a circle. Bowls of crisps, notepads and pens, stacks of non-disclosure agreements. The show’s supposed to start – but where is everybody?

Ten minutes feel like ten hours.

Then they start to arrive, one and two and finally the whole contingent. Eight women bustling with their bags and coats and glasses of wine. The worry’s over. You’re ready to start. You sit down in your own seat at the front, smile and start talking.

Those nerves never go away. Indeed, I’ve learned to love those nerves, as a sign that I’m truly engaged in that early process of bringing people into to the room.

But the truth is that the project itself stands or falls on what happens in the room once we are all gathered. How I frame the discussions, the questions asked, the tasks assigned, the quality of the conversation that unfolds and is recorded.

Those first few minutes of worrying about whether anyone would turn up? Meaningless.

(In the scheme of things).

Which brings me to online classes. I tend to see a whole lot of emotional energy expended in discussing how to bring people in, how to sell the class, how much to charge, and how to make sure there are enough participants to make a profit. It matters a lot: no people, no viable class.

But from the participant’s point of view, their moment of truth is when they show up for that first lesson. How they feel about coming to the second lesson.

For you, the class is sold. Sold out, even. Worry over.

But for them, it’s just unfolding.

What actually happens in the class matters a lot. If people love it, they will feel that their money was truly well spent. They will be happy. They will feel wise. And they will tell their friends and sign up for the next thing that you do. Get it right and you have a nicely rolling snowball. Get it wrong, and they fade away again.

Example: I did a face-to-face language class recently (I do lots of classes :) ). I went for a term and I definitely improved, but I didn’t really look forward to the classes. They felt like really hard work and not a lot of fun. I learned a lot about the correct terms required to discuss central heating, but I still can’t order a ham sandwich. So I didn’t sign up for the second term. Perhaps it was me (I mean, they never actually promised to cover the restaurant experience in detail).

This is the learner experience in a nutshell.

It’s unusual to have people run up and demand a refund if they are a bit disappointed (if it was billed appropriately and they didn’t have to sell their grandmother to attend). People will feel that it was them, not the class.

So how can you make a great online learning experience?

What makes it different from running a regular face-to-face course?

Here’s my initial list of stuff to discuss.

Motivation and goals: why you need to understand what drives your participants
Lesson structure and course structure: building a core that leads to success
Online dynamics: the hidden rules of interaction
Assignments: homework for stretching, rehearsing and playing
Classmates and social needs: the need to talk, versus the distraction of socialising and teacher burnout
Time and Space In Relative Dimensions: live versus canned, video, audio, webcasts, phone-ins and what do we mean by live anyway?
Price: Because you’re worth it..?

What interests you most?

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on this, interspersed with web design discussions.

You can sign up for updates – right now, there’s nothing to tempt you apart from the subscription, but I’m planning to bring back my Website Check Up and Cure guide, plus some other resources on training, online behaviour, and understanding customers.

And in the meantime here are some other posts I wrote about classes and communities.

Do you have a flock, a convoy or a sidecar?

Plotting your customer’s emotional journey.