Teach Members & Customers How to Succeed as an Online Learner

Is learning like riding a bike? You just get going and it all comes back to you before you fall off or crash into a wall? Don’t count on it. Many of the people who register for your online courses haven’t taken a class since high school or college days, or have never participated in an online learning program.

Prevent members and customers from crashing into obstacles and falling short of their educational goals by showing them how to succeed as an online learner. Help them acquire the skills and knowledge they seek and your association will gain a reputation for effective online learning programs—programs that really make a difference.

Teach customers how to succeed as an online learner

Find or develop free resources that teach new (and returning) customers how to succeed as an online learner. Make these resources accessible to anyone so they don’t have to enroll in or purchase an educational product to view them.  

Some people will assume they don’t need this help, and others won’t want to spend any extra time on additional work. You might change their minds by providing testimonials from people like them who have used these resources. Get testimonials ahead of time from beta testers who agree to provide them in exchange for a credit or promo code they can use for online learning programs.

Encourage new learners to take an optional or mandatory self-assessment that shows them how ready their brain is to learn. This quiz can ask questions about principles of adult learning and effective study habits.

Offer a “learning how to learn” mini-course made up of short videos and readings. For inspiration, check out the popular Coursera course, Learning How to Learn, from Dr. Barbara Oakley. Or, watch a shorter version in her TED talk.

What do online learners need to know?

In addition to the online learning tips we share below, Celisa Steele and Jeff Cobb of Tagoras suggest interviewing “learners, members, customers, and staff about how they apply metalearning practices in their work and life.” Because most people were never taught the principles of adult learning, they don’t understand learning-to-learn concepts like effortful retrieval, elaboration, the value of spaced practice, and how to take and use notes effectively.

Ask online learners to opt into an email campaign that sends out one tip a day with links to resources. In each email, include a related tip from a previous student to lend credibility to your advice. Create a one-pager full of online learning advice and links to deeper dives into each topic.

8 tips for succeeding as an online learner

#1: Document educational goals. Ask learners to document (privately) their reasons for taking the course. How do they expect it to make a difference? You’re more likely to achieve goals when you write them down. Keep these goals handy because they will provide motivation during times of stress and overwhelm.

#2: Prepare for overwhelm. Like any new experience, it takes time to build online learning habits and routines. The discomfort you feel is temporary. Keep your goals in mind, celebrate progress, and keep moving forward.

#3: Identify potential obstacles. Alert them to the typical obstacles faced by adult learners. Advise them to create a contingency plan for dealing with those obstacles, for example, increased workload at the office or other unexpected demands on their time. Talk to past learners to find out what they faced and how they handled it—advice you should share.

#4: Beware the perils of flexibility. Everyone loves online learning because it fits into busy lifestyles, but that’s both a benefit and a curse. That same flexibility makes it easy to procrastinate when you’re on your own with nobody watching. It’s easy to blow off a study session or fall behind when you’re not expected to show up somewhere every week at the same time. Encourage learners to block off time each week for coursework and stick to their schedule.

#5: Hold yourself accountable. Or find an accountability buddy. Learners need to establish a system to stay on track.

#6: Identify and minimize distractions. Who’s to know if you take a few minutes to check Instagram or read your email? But those few minutes can easily turn into a lost hour. Identify and eliminate distractions so you can focus. Designate a study place and time. You may not have many options but work with what you have: don a headset, close the door, or leave the apartment or house and find a quiet spot to focus.

#7: Connect your way out of isolation. If you’re used to face-to-face educational events, online learning can seem lonely. Find ways to connect and build relationships with classmates. Make fellow learners part of your professional network—one of the most valuable benefits of association education.

Schedule time to check discussion forums every day. Don’t limit your discussion postings to instructor prompts. You and everyone else will get a lot more out of the experience by adding insights, questions, and links to relevant articles.

#8: Ask for help when you need it. When learning from a distance, you’re not in immediate physical contact with an instructor, so you must be intentional about communication. Ask questions when instructions aren’t clear. If you start to fall behind, talk to the instructor. Be proactive in asking for help.

You can’t assume online learners will know how to make the most of their educational experience since this is new territory for many of them. Help them understand the benefits and the risks so they’ll begin their learning journey fully equipped to succeed.

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