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Start with the learning objectives and your online course will be successful 

Teacher Marja-Leena Lakkala and student Janne Siira were interviewed by Taru Kekkonen

Marja-Leena Lakkala works as a vocational school teacher at Omnia, Finland. In an interview carried out in September 2023 she shared her experience and opinions on what makes an online course successful. 

Marja-Leena has been designing and teaching online courses since 2018. She is currently teaching adult students who take the whole three-year program of vocational qualification in business and administration online. Only the on-the-job periods including competence demonstrations take place in physical environments.

Marja-Leena mentions clear learning objectives, relevant and up-to-date content, online communication and collaboration between the students, personalized learning paths for adults with prior knowledge, flexibility, teacher presence and recording the online lessons as key factors to a successful online course.

Marja-Leena emphasizes that it is worthwhile to take time to plan carefully how to spend the rare real-time meetings with the students. In her experience it pays off to spend a lot of that time on communication and collaboration using for example break-out rooms and other methods to strengthen community and teamwork among students. She also uses a lot of videos, texts, discussion forums, quizzes, H5P activities and other tools to activate the students. Lectures are always recorded, and according to the log data the students also come back to the recordings.

When asked about any challenges and pitfalls, Marja-Leena mentions the lack of time and resources to continuously develop the content of the course. Also, the heterogeneous group of students forces the teacher to look for ways to support the individuals. Some students already have a lot of experience and knowledge about the subject to be studied and for others it can be a totally new topic. Some are used to working and studying in online environments while others have more technical issues. When teaching online, it is more difficult to notice who needs support from the teacher. The students might also lack the courage to ask for help from the teacher. To overcome these challenges, Marja-Leena is constantly and actively collecting and utilizing feedback from the students to develop the course further. She is also offering one-to-one online time for students that need it most.

And what do students think of a successful online course?

Student Janne Siira wanted to share his experience and thoughts with us. Janne is an adult career changer and is studying for his second degree. He had experience with some parts of the university of applied sciences degree online, so he was not a complete novice in online studies when he started his online business and administration studies.

Janne appreciates a sufficient amount of real-time online teaching and recorded teaching sessions in his online business studies. He says they replace traditional classroom teaching. Clear learning assignments and instructions are also important. The student needs to know what to do and what is expected of him. Janne also appreciates the opportunity to ask the teacher for help by email, phone, or chat. Getting feedback along the way encourages him to move forward in his studies. Janne thanks his teachers for being easily approachable. According to Janne, they show that they want to interact with the student and they have made it easy to contact them.

When asked about the challenges of online learning, Janne has to think for a moment: “It’s hard to come up with challenges when this online degree is so well implemented.” Janne mentions the importance of the teachers’ support and presence several times, but he has not found his fellow students or the student community very important. According to his experience, working in small groups in Teams breakout rooms has not felt very natural. Independent problem solving plays therefore an important role, but “fortunately there is a phone and email to contact teachers whenever needed.”

Marja-Leena’s pro tips for colleagues who are designing online courses:

  • First, forget about the learning material, activities and assignments and start with the learning objectives instead. After having decided on the objectives, it is much easier to understand how to implement them.
  • Shift your focus to the students and their needs.
  • Try to implement teacher presence throughout the course – not only when being online with your students but also while they are studying independently.
  • Let quality criteria and a process/model of creating an online course lead your work (if such are available in your school)
  • Don’t forget to activate co-operation between the students.

Janne’s tips for other online learners:

  • Schedule your own studies! This is really important – and the skill of scheduling develops along the way.
  • Familiarize yourself with the tasks carefully! Read the learning assignment instructions carefully and to the end before you start doing anything.
  • Take advantage of real-time teaching or watch the recordings, take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions in real-time.
  • If you get stuck, ask for help in time!

And finally, Janne’s tips for online teachers:

  • Design clear learning assignments and create unambiguous instructions.
  • Be easily accessible.
  • Schedule discussion times for guidance.

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