Crickets and Conversations: Lessons in Online Course Design

According to Guinness World Records, the quietest place on earth is an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesotawhere the background noise measured is actually negative decibels. While this is impressive, can think of someplace quieter – a Zoom room after a conference presenter has asked a question 

The silence that follows is truly deafening as audience members, who have suddenly realized the presenter has stopped talking, decide to wait for someone else to speak or start to comment, but then recognize with relief that they’re on mute.  

This scenario came to fruition for me at the Association for Continuing Legal Education’s (ACLEA) 57th Annual MidYear Meeting, where I spoke on designing online courses for increased engagement. Awith any talk, if you don’t nail the intro, its very hard to recover. I gave a brief hello, made a few comments, and then I asked a question… 

Those few seconds seemed like an eternity — iwas possibly the longest period of time in recorded history. Then, someone finally made a comment, someone else agreed with them, a hand was raised, and we were off.  

Thankfully, my talk at ACLEA appeared to go well, but most people aren’t trained ionline course designHere are some lessons I learned from my experience.   

Prepping for a presentation 

When I was asked to speak about online course design, my first reaction was, “Excellent! That’s right in my wheelhouse.” However, as I thought through the process more, it became obvious that the topic of online learning strategies was both amorphous and ubiquitous. struggled to find something new to say when much of what I know about the topic is available to the masses online 

So, I returned to my roots and applied instructional design strategies to the problem 

What is the problem? 
developed my presentation by first identifying the problem I aimed to solve. In this case, there continues to be a need for highquality CLE, but there ialso a wealth of guidance available onlineA lack of knowledge or awareness of the principles of online course design is likely not the issue. Maybe it’s the application of the concepts? 

Key takeaway: Not knowing something and not applying something are two different issues, with two different solutions. Make sure you recognize which of these it is.  

Who is the audience? 
Next up is the audience. ACLEA is dedicated to the improvement of legal education, so those who attend an ACLEA conference have likely already been educated on learning principles and online course designPrinciples of Course Design 101” isn’t going to be new or exciting for them 

When an audience already feels comfortable with the concepts they’re hearing aboutthere is a desire to apply them. Ever read the instruction manual from front to back? Most of us read a few pages and wing it. Wonly go back to learn more when we get stuck (for those of you who do read the whole manual, I have a faulty dishwasher I need help with!).  

I knew this audience would be well-informed on the topic, so the application of the concepts needed to be included.  

Key takeaway: You may not always know your audience, but even the process of guessing will help you develop a more learner-centered approach.  

What’s the format? 
The session was supposed to be 45-minute prerecorded video. However, since the audience was made up of adult learners, I wanted them to be involved in some way. So, I reached out to the event coordinator who agreed to change the format to a 30minute recorded session followed by a live 15minute debrief over Zoom.  

Key takeaway: If the format isn’t working for you, speak to the provider to see if you have options. If you don’t, consider how you can involve the learners in the content. This includes asking them to complete activities, even if you don’t see the results of those activities.  

Bringing it all together 

So, let’s recap: the problem was trying to solve was a greater application of design principles in online courses, the audience was well-informed on the topic and likely comfortable with the conceptsand I wanted the audience to be active participants in the session 

Given this, I concluded that a session that allowed the audience to apply common online course design principles to build out practice course could reinforce what they already know while introducing new tips and tricks. Then, they could discuss their ideas during the 15-minute live portion.  

However, engaging the audience via a recorded video was going to be challenge. One way to get around this is by letting the audience know what you are expecting of them from the beginning. So, one of my first slides laid out the session’s format and let the audience know that they were expected to participate in an activity.   

Session Structure Slide 

From there, I turned to the urgency principle. Simply put, if I ask the audience to write down some ideas, they may do it. If I tell them they have one minute to write down as many ideas as they can and I display a countdown timer, they are much more likely to comply 

Additionally, I had to make it clear when it was time for the activities. So, changed the look of the activity slides and added a timer instead of my talking head. This can be easily done by adding a timer video to the PowerPoint slide 

Content Slide

Activity Slide

Now, let’s assume the session is a hit. The audience records a range of ideas on their notepads and creates a great outline. But then they move on to other things. They turn the page and their notes are gone.

Three months later they want to use the same process but cannot find their notes. This is why I like to use a participant guide. A participant guide isn’t a PDF with slide images or a 90-page treatise of related articles and cases. It’s a simple workbook with the pertinent takeaways, activities, and prompts intended to remind the learner of the session’s content and help them replicate the practice demonstrated. Ideally, it should be able to stand alone as a resource participants can use in the future.

What I would do differently

While my online presentation seemed to go well, there were some areas I would change. As I mentioned, I jumped in early with a question. That was fine, but the silence that followed probably meant I was a little too in the weeds at the beginning. I would have kept the question more general. Just like in sports, people need to warm up first.

There was nice interaction in the chat referencing the on-screen content during the video portion. When I responded to the questions, it prompted even more comments. Presenter engagement is important. If you get into discussing the content, so will your audience.

We ran out of time in the 15-minute live debrief and I would say that was because I included too many activities. Next time, I would opt for three or four activities instead of six and request a longer live session. That being said, the format seemed popular. Someone even commented that they liked “how this session includes interactivity BUT can still live on its own as an effective learning tool for [on demand.]”

I hadn’t thought about the on-demand possibilities of running the course without the live section. It got my wheels turning about how eLearning could serve as a workshop for organizations. For example, imagine a 30-minute eLearning that addresses communications challenges in the office, followed by a live facilitated session to discuss participant findings and recommendations.

Although I would tweak the format of my online course design session a little, the blended elements of recorded video and a live debrief have been established as effective methods of delivery over the past several months. Adding the element of activities and trusting your audience to complete them is nerve-racking, but I recommend it. It provides a focus for the live section, offers a simple set of takeaways, and gives learners control over some of the concepts they are applying to their lives.

I’ll be applying what I’ve learned about online course design at our The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference, which will be held virtually from April 27-29, 2021. Registration opens this month. Sign up here to stay updated. 

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