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Online learning experiences range from extensive, such as an entire career devoted to lifelong learning and professional development, to the beginner.
Wherever you land on the spectrum of online learning, you will benefit from insights and assumptions questioned by others, in your same shoes.
It was 1999, when professional development specialists and many individual learners in training settings created by corporations, associations, colleges and internet entrepreneurs approached me seeking help to create new kinds of learning experiences.
Across many years, miles, and time zones, we’ve seen a thing or two—or 500, to help you become a smarter learner, teacher, education collaborator and volunteer, and help you avoid harmful mistakes and bad situations.
What started as a list of 10 things to ask before you step into any online learning adventure grew into many possible answers.
Parents of today’s children, recently thrown into virtual classrooms, can remember when there was no email, no browsers, no texting, no mobile devices—just classrooms, teachers, books and lots of paper. This online stampede involving millions was barely a walk in the park for two, nearly 20 years ago.
Along the way, many people took our list of 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Stepping Into Online Learning and turned them into Warning Labels. That’s the magic of working with humans instead of robots—creativity and whimsy.
Who Did We Have In Mind When Writing Down the 10 Wishes?
Learning is growing and living. That makes it a total human experience. This article is a little slice of heaven that speaks directly to people in these roles:
- The association staff person starting the online course business unit as well as the association staff already decades into the deep end of online courses and wondering if there’s something you are missing.
- An educator, instruction designer or other professional who has invested years of experience in the evolution of online course enterprises.
- The lifelong learner, often a professional with a certification from any of more than 700,000 sources and you need continuing education credits to renew a national certification or a state license.
- Any high school graduate wondering what to look for—what to learn, in creating their path to explore one or many sets of career knowledge and skills.
- The professional with extra money and time to pour into an online course, just for entertainment or exploration. You might learn something but your career doesn’t depend on it. Almost everyone wants a job at the end of their education journey. I know I did.
- Anyone over 18 who wants to become a smarter shopper when it comes to free courses, fee-charge courses and finding a match to your talents and aspirations.
- Any entrepreneur or individual who is wondering if the world is waiting for them to create an online course and would like to see the warning labels first.
Before Stepping Into Online Learning, Get Answers First
- Who is my teacher and when do we work together? All learning involves socialization. That means a student, a teacher, a relationship based on conversations, and accountability for good instruction and complete assignments. No teacher involvement? No learning.
- What proof do you have this can work for me? Tell me a story about your other students and how they are using what they learned. If this is a course about some knowledge or system that works for the course creator and no other evidence, it won’t help you. You have to succeed in your life, not theirs.
- Can I learn the same thing from a book, for free at my library or some portal for ebooks? Is there any instructional strategy to this or did someone just take content and throw it into web pages? Worse yet, are they trying to charge money, too?
- Who are my accountability partners? Who is looking at the assignments completed and either grading them or getting with me to provide constructive comments? You know, teaching. No accountability person means you are left on your own to create all value or learning.
- Are you confusing internet marketing with professional development? Is the person presenting you an online course asking you to pay them to answer questions, which is really their research project to create another product to pitch to you? The only value to you is a life lesson in the cost of not asking questions first.
- Are we in a high-trust zone, just between student and teacher? Can I make mistakes and depend on skilled instruction, in a safe place, to help me learn and accomplish? Or is this some kind of social media platform where there’s barely any adult supervision and other students run wild, some are bullies, and many are not trained teachers.
- Has this coach ever played the game? Is this course just one of hundreds of offerings and whoever created the playbook has never suited up or done what they are asking us to do? What is the foundation of expertise and accomplishment that is behind this course?
- Danger: Entrepreneur Brain Child. Are you telling me the person creating this course has no training or experience in instructional design, teaching, mentoring or introducing me to people in their network? Are you saying this was created in their head and then in isolation with a computer and never beta tested with learners to make sure it delivers learning outcomes?
- All Hat and No Cattle. What are the credentials of the course creator? Who taught the course creator how to teach professionals? Is any of this course directly connected to strategy for advancement in my field? Is this one of millions of ways I can waste my life and money online?
- Who Says This is Any Good? What’s the name of the accrediting body that reviewed this course and verifies it meets criteria for online courses done right? Do you care if this course has continuing education credits, approved in advance, by any of hundreds of accreditation agencies who examine these courses against a set of standards, necessary to say the credits awarded for this course are not “funny money.” More specifically, can you show proof of an agreement in place between the credentialing entity that must recognize or honor the completion of this course and the individual who creates the course and employs instructors?
What If This Is Just For Fun?
Continuing education credits matter only if the course has something to do with your work now or career, eventually. Many of these 10 questions are not important if you want to spend your life and money on entertainment or personal adventures.
Even then, another question seems worthwhile. Would your non-working, non-family, non-productive, discretionary time be better spent working on something new to serve others? Is there someone out there already committed to wanting you to have this new skill or knowledge?
Life Enriching for Both the Teacher and Learner
One good reason for taking an online course with no professional credits is the relationship building and mutual benefit for teacher and learner. Last year I purchased and committed to a course created by a professional colleague. This is someone who knows me, I admire their accomplishments, and we’ve both taught at the college level. I wanted to have some dedicated hang time with this professional. I wanted to see if their lessons were unique to their practice or if it was something I’ve seen elsewhere in my 25 years as practitioner for online learning for professionals.
The teacher was equally interested in the conversations we would have and what he would learn from me. The teacher was passionate about student success. Real teachers care deeply about what happens to the student AFTER completing their courses.
That takes us to the final warning label. If you don’t know them and they don’t know you, their course is probably a side hustle. This is not how they feed their family. Many, in fact, when you ask for credentials, are employees of someone else. They want to experiment, on you, with creating an online business. Your life is worth much more than that.