13 Online Learning Lessons from Skillshare

Online Education is Booming
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I recently finished a podcast on the future of online learning. David Perell sat down with Skillshare CEO Matt Cooper to discuss the online learning industry. Among the many fascinating topics, I picked out a few tips for anyone developing training material. One or two may surprise you.

Shorter courses do better in online learning

One of the things Covid-19 has shown us is that no one can sit in front of a laptop all day, as we do with traditional training.

Skillshare has data to back up the trend towards shorter courses. They find the ideal course length to be 45-60 min, broken into 5-10 min “snackable” bite-size lessons. With this curriculum structure, you can watch a few lessons and come back to it later, versus the traditional dedicated six-hour class.

These bite-sized lessons are, of course, the same building blocks that form the distinct sections of your training, as we covered in our 5 steps for learning design.

You need course outlines with clear learning paths

This one surprised me. Apparently the number one issue with poor courses on Skillshare is course creators not laying out a clear learning path and outline to their course. Many course creators on Skillshare don’t walk students through content in a sequential way that builds on prior knowledge.

We’ve explored how important prior knowledge is for learning. We’ve also discussed the role of signposting. The most successful course creators on Skillshare are the ones who apply these two principles in structuring their courses. This isn’t necessarily easy either. But sticking to the best practice principles of learning design will keep you on the right path.

There is a minimum threshold for production value

When it comes to audio and video quality your training needs to meet a certain minimum threshold for people not to dismiss your content. Think of these as table stakes. But beyond this minimum point, your content is what matters, so stay away from the bells and whistles.

Balance premium with authenticity

Once you’ve passed the minimum threshold for course quality, there comes a tradeoff between investing in more production quality and just being yourself.

Too premium, and you’re in the Masterclass realm, where the expert is not approachable. As Cooper says “it’s like watching a TED talk. It’s interesting, fascinating, but it’s different. You don’t necessarily feel like you’re walking away with a hard skill.”

Authenticity is what creates a connection between the expert and the student. And this is when students learn the most. As Cooper says, “the best classes are those where you feel that connection to the teacher and you feel like you’re looking over the shoulder of an expert watching what they do”

The best teachers are very rarely the experts

The best teachers tend to be people who learn things themselves when starting off.

Learn something by doing. Figure it out for yourself and document the steps you took and the mistakes you made. This beginner’s mindset approach to creating courses gives you instant authenticity and accessibility.

After all, doing and learning are the same things. Be hands-on, not academic. Every interesting work challenge is a learning opportunity and every learning opportunity is a chance to create something.

You need personality in your presentation

Anyone who’s fought through heavy eyelids and a drooping head in training knows that no matter how authentic an expert is, they need to have personality.

Sometimes an expert is not the right fit as a facilitator. A good facilitator needs to be animated, engaging, and approachable. But not too much. Cooper talks about a spectrum between having a lot of personality and being super-efficient.

Future of Online Education
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It’s also not something you can necessarily teach someone. People have to tap into what makes them unique and bring that to the fore. My advice to experts when filming them in training is always: be yourself.

The new value of colleges in a world of online learning

According to Cooper and Perell, we’re going from the value of a degree being based on the prestige of the institution to the value being associated with the rigor of the process.

In other words, the work put in is what generates learning. The lesson here: help learners build their portfolio. Give them projects, as we’ll see below.

The remaining value in university degrees exists in the relationships you develop and continue in later life. Look at the Harvard Club and Yale Club in New York City – these places of gathering create positive feedback loops that bring the network together.

The second lesson here: create community (offline and in-real-life) by designing learning cohorts around your courses.

The power of project-based learning

You haven’t really learned something until you’ve done it, produced it, and put it to work. Completing projects beats minutes watched as a metric for success.

Build projects into your learning experiences. Allow learners to identify the goals they want to achieve and help them design a project around this. By completing the project, they will not only have completed the course but will also a tangible outcome that impacts their work to show for it.

Measuring engagement in online learning

Skillshare has data to show that if you watch a certain amount of non-intro lessons within your first 30 days, your probability of continuing beyond month one goes up considerably. There was no such difference when going from five lessons to 15. What they found was a minimum level of engagement that resulted in students finishing more courses.

The lesson here: lead with your best stuff. Connect emotionally. Get learners building. Make it sticky from the start.

Student discovery (pull)

Another interesting observation related to a student’s discovery of topics to learn: asking people to self-identify interests doesn’t work. People appear to know what they don’t want, but not what they want.

If you’re designing a discovery engine to surface topics for your learners, it comes down to search vs browse. According to Cooper, your search must be bullet-proof. Your browse needs to balance what the user does with what the algorithm recommends.

Student behavior (push)

Looking to the future, Cooper’s dream for the Skillshare app is to push content based on user behavior patterns.

Imagine a learning app that downloads content for you overnight, pushing it to your mobile device during your morning commute, optimized for the exact length of your commute.

Social learning

A core element of the 5-step process is incorporating social elements in online learning. Cooper tells of an exciting positive outcome from learning in groups: students teaming up to work on business ideas or other projects.

Some questions to consider in designing social learning:

  1. How do you incorporate mentoring and coaching into your learning?
  2. How do you enable learners to set up their own groups? – How do you provide access to teachers?

The entire podcast was a fascinating discussion that covered a lot more ground than what I’ve covered in this article, including: 

  • how Matt Cooper got started in his career,
  • the gig economy, 
  • the impact of selling globally on pricing models, and  
  • why Plano, TX attracts so many big companies. 

I highly recommend listening to it in full here.

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