course design

Large clock face

Time, by MartyBell on DeviantArt

In my last post I promised to write more about designing online courses. How long should your online course be? I’m thinking of a course that the learner takes over a period of time, not one that is instantly downloaded.

My first reaction to the question is a simple knee-jerk: well, obviously, it’s as long as it needs to be given the audience, the subject matter and the course goals. But you know, I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.  Some patterns work better than other. There are lots of unspoken expectations about time in courses. Here’s my take on the meaning of time promises, based on personal resonance and a bit of Googling. Somewhere in this list there is an infographic begging to be let out.

As you go through, consider your own material and the nature of your audience. What are the expectations? What would work well and what would be downright odd?

The Miracle Zone

One hour
Task acquisition. Software mastery. Bite-sized videos.

24 hours
I once bought a book called Learn CSS in 24 hours. Turns out that the 24 hours aren’t “a day”. They are 24 …hours. It is a good book. I have it about 2 years and I think I’m only on Hour 11, although I’ve already had to jump ahead to Hour 22.

You can learn a lot in a day, but I am not convinced you can do it very easily online.

48 hours
Popular film with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. Lost weekends in Vegas.

Mysteriously lacking in resonance, although ‘weekend retreat’ has a much better resonance. Very difficult to deliver online though: people can’t sustain their attention, and are constantly tugged away to dinner, films and football.

3 days
Packed with resonance. Death and rebirth. Meditation. Deeper personal change. Good for live events, more difficult for online.

7 days
Seven days of creation: goodness, a lot is possible in 7 days.

There’s a whizz-bang feel to seven days. Throw yourself in and get results. At the same time, it’s a very demanding time promise. What if you’re working? Do you take a week’s holiday? Do you do it in the evening? Also it is hard to stay engaged over 7 continuous days – real life gets in the way. It might be possible if your target is young and single.

The danger of seven days is that the audience fades away after 4, because they can’t sustain their involvement. Also, if instruction is continuous, there is limited time for response and reflection. The space for response is absolutely critical to the success of an online course.

(Digression: I bought a book on organising called Unclutter Your Life in One Week.  It’s a good book but sadly it’s not true. Again, the author points out that the 7 days are conceptual, rather than continuous: in this case, I don’t think the concept really quite worked. I felt slightly cheated, although I do wonder if I would have bought a book called Declutter Your Life in Approximately 8 months, Give or Take).

10 days/2 weeks
Weight loss zone, for some reason. Probably because this is the minimum time you can work out and get some visible results. It’s also the War Zone. 10 days that shook the world.

The Realistic Change Zone

21 days, 28 days
Habit change zone, especially for diet and fitness. If you can do something for 21 days, perhaps you can change forever? 21 days is short enough for momentum to power you through, long enough for some significant change to happen. (However! My trusty Google tells me that the psychology researchers from UCL say it’s more like 66 days to change a habit). Damn you, evidence-based people.

21 days feels good. It’s an achievable stretch. Actually, it feels stretchy. 21 days of yoga. That would work.

31 days
Daily practice over one month. 31 days to a better blog (but not in February).

Suggests a slow build and the acquisition of a more deeply engaged habit. As with 7 days, there’s an risk of overkill here: people do need a bit of space.

5 weeks
Untidy. We really don’t like fives as weeks.  Unless they are paired with another 5 or doubled to 10, when they recover the magic of 5. Five weeks to 5k. Five weeks to lose 10 pounds. This is a rather good length for a course but you might feel driven to add a week to make it neat.

The Goldilocks Zone

6 weeks
Many things are possible: transformation, skills acquisition, weight loss. This is the Zone of Credibility. A sweet spot. Change seems possible, even likely.

I like 6 weeks. It is the typical length of a half-term in our local school system. It’s the typical length of many of my projects – it can cover planning, executing, and reporting rather nicely. There is room to grow, room to think.  Room for homework assignments. Room to discuss things, reflect, work, conclude.

7 weeks
Strangely unpopular, unlike 7 days. If you feel compelled to go with an awkward length, remember the power of alliteration. Seven pounds in 7 weeks.

8 weeks
The alternative to 6 weeks, if you have more ground to cover. Mysteriously more powerful than 2 months, but very bad for alliteration.

10 weeks
The Academic zone, where I am in the UK. Evening classes, terms, major change. Within an online course, unless certification is at stake (you have to deliver two essays and get 60% in an exam), learner momentum starts to fade. We move from powering through to slogging it out. It feels like a big commitment, especially if there are no breaks.

The interesting thing is that people will do longer courses – but they might need these broken down into units and they might need rest weeks/implementation weeks. Think of pulses of work and rest.  Absorb, learn, reflect, rest. There’s often an natural energy in the work you want to communicate and it will help greatly if you can build it in.

The Long Term

3 months. 90 days. 12 weeks
We’re back in the Fitness and Weight loss zone.

4 months, 5 months:

16 weeks to a better body? Tricky. But this is the beginning of the Marathon zone, for a reason.

6 months
The business planning zone/business turnaround zone. Rather long for personal change, unless it’s with a highly committed inner circle.

The Distant Certificate Zone

9 months
Pregnancy and birth, obviously.  The true length of the academic year.  Time to acquire a diploma or formal certification.

12 months
A full year. The full working cycle for most of us. Probably too great a stretch for an online course, but you might plan for a yearly cycle in months or seasons.

One year/two years/three years/five years

The zone of academic transformations, via degrees, or business planning for golden futures (but note: you might be planning your next five years, but you are probably not going to spend that amount of time on it).

Merely thinking about these longer  time frames may bring you out in hives: wow, I have no idea if I can deal with my customers for the next eight weeks, let alone three years.

How do you decide what’s right for your material?

I think it comes down to identifying the natural cycle in your work. How long is long enough to absorb the lesson, reflect and experiment? My hobby is working with glass. The evening class I’m doing now takes us from initial idea to completed stained glass panel in 10 weeks, with a one week break.  It’s all broken down into phases: sketching and choosing colours. Cutting the pattern. Painting. Leading. Every week is full, but it’s not rushed, it’s been broken down, and at the end there is a completed piece. That’s the kind of effect you often want: an achievable goal, delivered at a pace that suits you, your people and your material.

I would love to know about other time resonances, especially what seems wonderful or just plain wrong. Seven weeks feels very odd, to me.  :)

This is one of a new series of posts on designing online courses. Do sign up if you’d like to get 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, and develop some other resources on training, online behaviour, and understanding customers.

Other posts you might like:

What you need to know about designing online courses.

 How to attract, engage and keep your online students


Maximising motivation in digital workshops and online courses

Keep going. Image: Reuben Whitehouse via flickr

Online courses are being offered more and more, both as an alternative way of taking part in a traditional class, and as a way of providing totally new types of course.

If you are designing an online workshop, you will usually want to create something that provides the participant with genuine value and satisfaction.

This means producing courses that encourage the participants to sign up, then take part fully, and keep going right to the end. People who drop out or disengage are likely to be much less happy with their experience.

Motivation is a slippery concept. My old organisational psychology textbook defines motivation as the way in which behaviour is started, energised, sustained and directed. I would define it as a kind of forward energy which keeps us engaged, involved and acting.

There are at least three elements that motivate people to enrol in the first place.

  • A highly desired outcome

This could be a recognised qualification or formal course credit. In non-certificate courses, it is likely to be the knowledge or skills gained.

I think that course participants are often looking for some kind of personal transformation, too. This could be the simple acquisition of a new skill, or it could be a much deeper change in behaviour. Transformation is a hidden factor in non-academic courses: for example, I secretly hoped that the home organising course I did would help to turn me into a serene Martha Stewart figure. (Still sad…)

If the course doesn’t actually deliver what it promised, this can be pretty disappointing. Obviously, you can’t control what people do or what motivates them to sign up. You can, however, create an online experience which is very satisfying, giving people the very best chance to reach their outcome. Sadly, I did not turn into Martha Stewart, but I came away with loads of ideas and insight, and a huge sense of value.

  • Strong reputation of the teachers, the course or the institution.

Some classes are particularly coveted. I do evening classes at the Cambridge University’s  Institute of Continuing Education, and there’s no doubt that the  ‘Cambridge factor’ is a major attraction for students, irrespective of the content.

  • Interesting classmates

Unless someone is embarking totally on self-study (which is hard going), it’s likely that you’ll have classmates. At the very least, you’ll share the same journey. Connecting with classmates may also turn out to be a rich part of the experience, whether it’s to discuss and share class content, or to gain access to a valuable network on graduation.

As a course organiser, you can’t really control who shows up, but your course content and structure will attract some people more than others. You need to set clear expectations at the start: how much time is needed, what kinds of resources are important. You may need to gently filter out the people who don’t have the knowledge or experience to get the best out of the course.

You can also encourage the participants to be their best selves, in the way that you structure the course from the start.

Those are the entry factors. Let’s move on to the next phase: staying the course.

For some students, receiving course content is enough. For most students, a satisfying course that justifies the investment is one that they complete in full. For students to come back and sign up for every course you offer, you need to be offering something rather special: great content, great experience and good value for money.

So how do you help to build and sustain your student’s motivation during a course?

1. Through effective course content and structure

Get the basics right. Be very clear about the structure: class timetable, release of new material, deadlines, assignments, call times, assessment methods (if relevant). Make sure it all happens just as you laid out, especially at the beginning.

There are so many different approaches to structuring a course, that I can’t generalise. But consider: all courses have an element of journey to them. You can create a very simple journey of beginning, middle and end, or you can create something that is more demanding, which unfolds dramatically over time.

Maybe, like a movie, it will have a tricky final act where participants bring together everything in their final task. Perhaps it starts with a strong challenge which sets the scene for the journey that you’ll undertake together.

How can you dramatise the learning journey effectively?

2. Through encouraging peer-to-peer interaction

Personally, I struggle with courses that don’t have any peer-to-peer element. In the online context, it feels like I’m getting much less. Other people’s experiences and opinions can be extremely helpful in clarifying our own thoughts. Joining a class with peers also means sharing the journey – being able to look back and congratulate yourselves on the progress made and the knowledge gained.

For most subjects, a well-thought out private online forum, or small breakout groups, will enrich participants’ experience. It can be an add-on or a core part of the content. If it’s core, make sure that you’ve allowed sufficient time to moderate or facilitate the discussions.

3. By assigning great homework

Much like peer-to-peer interaction, good homework extends your participants’ engagement with your subject and your material. A well thought-out assignment can stretch your people. Make early assignments clear, interesting and doable, and assign them right from the beginning to set the tone of your course and bring people in.

If formal assessment isn’t relevant, then sharing the results of homework is powerful.

4. By providing constructive feedback and commentary

In many courses, participants hang on the leader’s every word. Maybe that’s not your model – but typically, your people do crave your insight, feedback and interest.

If your subject is heavily technical and curriculum-based, this may not matter so much.
For transformational work, I think it is very helpful to provide touchpoints – feedback, calls, responses, video – that show that you are out there, listening. Encouraging peer feedback will also strengthen this element.

5. By starting and ending strongly

A lot of professional courses really fall down here, especially at the end, by a dribbling start and a fizzling-out finish.

Where possible, create a positive start and a clear ending.  Welcome people in and give them things to do while they’re waiting for the course to kick off.  Set the tone and the energy you want right there.

For the finish, you could create an event, a roundup, a reward – anything that celebrates the course, the participants and what you all learned.  Just make it light, accessible, and inclusive of everyone.

It’s still early days for online courses, and there is huge freedom to do things in new ways, so I think it’s also important to be fun and surprising, especially if you’re creating your own curriculum. These things make for a truly rewarding experience, that will make your students happy and coming back for more.

Questions? Thoughts on what’s worked for you? Add them below.