Online course for seniorsMaking the transition from traditional textbook learning and instructor-led classroom courses to the strange new world of online learning can be a daunting challenge – especially for first-time online learners who’ve never had to navigate a digital learning interface before. As a result, many adult or senior students who are new to distance learning perform poorly in their courses, which reduces their motivation and their likelihood of completing future lessons.

In fact, empirical evidence based on the experiences of renowned learning centers suggests over 35% of adult online learners drop out of their courses as a result of their initial reaction to and experiences with eLearning. This is more than just a UX problem; it’s a barrier to continuing education and career advancement for millions of potential students.

The good news is, by spending more time understanding the needs of these students, this trend can be reversed.

Here are 8 tips for designing online courses that help first-time eLearners get comfortable with the distance education process so they can learn with confidence.

Develop Extensive “How-To” Content

Imagine being told that you have to take a class… but it’s only available in a language that you barely understand. You’d want all the help you could get, right? This same unease worries first-time eLearners who not only have to learn a new lesson, but they also have to learn how to learn all over again.

When it comes to navigating online courses, first-time eLearners will often feel challenged right at the outset because the entire interface and experience is new to them. To assist with this transition, instructional designers should create optional Help or Tutorial content that’s easy to access and understand. These modules should walk a fist-timer through routine tasks such as:

  • How to locate and navigate through course materials
  • How to bookmark or annotate course content
  • How to download or print course materials
  • How to move from one section to the next
  • How to attach and/or submit assignments
  • How to answer questions, play video, or perform any other required tasks

While some instructions may seem too obvious to include, it is important to remember that not all learners are equally technologically savvy. This is especially true when your target audiences are Baby Boomers or traditionalists, for whom even simple computer commands may feel foreign. When in doubt, offer more help than less. Your tutorials can always be skipped by more seasoned online learning participants or those who are already familiar with the structure of the course.

Re-Use Tutorials (and Interfaces) to Save Time and Reduce Onboarding Friction

Although creating a How-to guide for each course may seem time-consuming at first, once this media has been created, it can be re-used as often as necessary across multiple courses. Seeing the same help assets across multiple courses will also help recurring students feel more at ease with the interface over time. (You can learn more about designing Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs) here.)

Provide Content That Introduces the Learning Environment

If you really want new eLearners to feel comfortable, create simulation modules that mimic a real-life learning environment, so the students will have visual context that helps guide their instincts.

You may also consider developing a simple help aid PDF with screenshots and thorough instructions, and emailing this guide to your course’s registered students as an attachment that they can print and refer to even outside the course itself.

Address Multiple Learning Styles

youtubeclosedcaption_jillwright_400Some learners prefer reading, some prefer audio and video, and some prefer hands-on learning. To help bridge these gaps — especially for older learners — you should balance the delivery of your material across multiple media types. For example, don’t list vital information ONLY in a video; make sure that information is also searchable in a text format.

You should also include captions and other onscreen audio or visual prompts, to ensure that students with hearing or visual challenges won’t miss a thing.

Introduce Your Content Gradually

Do not dive directly into core learning modules, or you may scare off your least-experienced eLearners. Instead, start by introducing your Help content and making sure all first-time eLearners can demonstrate mandatory completion of your Tutorials. These first few onboarding sessions will also help relieve the tension that comes from a student feeling like s/he has to immediately deal with “serious” learning on their very first day.

Provide Multiple Options for Communication

First-time online learners may not be as adept at online communications as some of their more experienced peers. In addition to your Help content, Tutorials, etc., you may also consider designing courses that accept questions, comments, and assignment submissions via multiple means – email, social media channels, forums, etc. This approach ensures that students who are new to eLearning can gradually embrace “the online way” of doing things. Once they’re more comfortable with digital interactions, you can narrow your field of interaction options.

Include Introductory ‘Face-Time’ Sessions

One of the biggest adjustments for first-time eLearners is getting used to learning in environments that are devoid of direct personal interaction. To help ease their apprehensions, you can design specific pre-course intro sessions where instructors and learners meet online (via audio or video chat sessions) and get to know each other. This will break the ice and help any first-timers get more comfortable with their online experience. (Keep in mind that this suggestion works best in a blended learning approach.)

Keep It Short and Structured

Just as companies and organizations have onboarding or orientation sessions for new employees, instructional designers should consider this step a transitional necessity for first-time eLearners. It will also be helpful to design courses for new eLearners that keep initial modules and tasks relatively short and easy, which will help ensure your students see early success. This will build their confidence and momentum, inspiring them to learn more and tackle increasingly difficult challenges.

YouTube caption example by Jil Wright via Flickr’s Creative Commons License.