Early Signs of a Winning Project

The hallmarks that differentiate successful online projects from the poor ones

For the last 6 years I’ve designed online learning experiences for universities, large corporates and charities. These are some signs that indicate the potential for a great future product.

1. Clear reason for creating an online experience

The project should have a good reason for why the learning experience should be delivered in an online format (instead of any other forms that the lesson can be delivered). This can be for a number of reasons:

  • I need to prepare students to safely conduct themselves in a lab setting and there are too many students and not enough lab space. It is too valuable to spend much time on safety procedures
  • I want students to cover content during the week so that we can free up tutorial time for discussion and explanations during the face to face tutorials (flipped classroom approach)
  • I want to ensure students to be proficient in prerequisite knowledge but I can only spend 1 week at the beginning of the semester to cover these topics

In comparison, poor projects offer generic reasons for creating online learning experiences such as “we need to move to an eLearning module” or “we need to upgrade because of a digital uplift project”.

2. Not just a file format, hosted online

Whenever a new media format arises, the first use case is to port existing media onto the new media. Early tv shows were just a tv camera pointed at an existing popular radio show. Early film experiments were recordings of plays. This direct porting does not exploit the unique capabilities of the new media format. E.g. a film recording of a play doesn’t fully utilise the techniques available to film – cutting, camera movement, overlaid music, graphics, voiceover etc.

This is the current state of online courseware. A PDF is just a piece of paper, hosted on an online server. A video lecture is just a recording of a lecture that has been delivered in real life. These current formats go nowhere in exploring the capability offered by the Internet or computing in general.

The best and most effective courseware explores the unique capabilities of this new medium – the ability of the system to respond, uses the rich media: text, video, to create a cohesive experience or the ability of data analytics to represent how users are responding, interacting with the system.

The music industry is an interesting example. When Kazaa and Napster were destroying the music industry, they were offering literally the same audio files as their piracy competitors. The service offered by legal means (CD’s and online song or album downloads) were often less user friendly than offered by piracy programs. When offered the exact same product – users will choose the free option over the one that costs money. It is only when music streaming services such as Spotify were invented, did the damage from piracy begin to slow and eventually reverse (little known fact – music industry revenues have begun to retest all time highs). This is because the service offered by streaming was different – the ability to stream the world’s entire library of music as compared to downloading individual song files. Subsequently they’ve continued to build more useful services – recommendation and discovery features, social sharing and streaming across multiplatform (streaming across computers, mobile phones, smart speakers, gaming consoles).

3. ‘Build, Ship and Improve’ Mentality

Building and releasing online products is very different from publishing a physical book. It is possible to update a product after it has been shipped. A second aspect is that user feedback is more readily available and much easier to obtain (through user analytics). The third and final thing is that technology moves rapidly and the passing of each day degrades current technology, making it more obsolete.

These aspects hint at a general point – Products should be designed, built and most importantly shipped to real customers. It is much more preferable to have a product that is 90% complete than it is to spend years trying to iterate to a 99% product.

It is much too easy to get stuck within endless internal iteration cycles and the product never gets delivered to real users. There is always something that can be improved or adjusted but these iteration stages reach a point where they are no longer improving the learning experience.

Good projects deploy when they reach a satisfactory level and importantly they feature a plan of future improvements. They also have frequent deployments to new cohorts of students which means that newer versions of the courseware can be tested.

4. Not a purely online experience

One of the most egregious misconceptions is that an online learning experience is purely online. Both evangelists and detractors have this implicit assumption. Evangelists believe that the mere fact that content is delivered online imbues magical properties to it which makes the experience superior. These are the same people who try and tell you that an online PDF is a huge innovative step towards the future.

On the other side, are pessimists who view an online learning experience with huge suspicion because it represents everything they fear and despise about the modern education system – increasing depersonalisation, diagnostic testing.

The best online learning courseware projects combine online and offline learning experiences in a meaningful way. The most effective example was a academic language course which adopted a flipped classroom where students were introduced to weekly content through a series of online lessons which covered 2-3 hours of learning time. These lessons often involved reading texts (written excerpts, newspaper articles, speeches, poems etc) and were asked to respond to questions (mainly multiple choice and text inputs). Tutors were trained to read the student responses before hosting a face to face tutorial group, which would be led largely by any misconceptions or weak points indicated by the student answers. This was a simple, but powerful example of a hybrid online-offline mode that harnessed the benefits of both modes of instruction.

The final message is that online lessons and learning experiences should be seen as one of many tools that are available for instructors. It is still early days when it comes to discerning what online learning experiences can be.