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4 tips for creating successful online content

By Julie Randles
October 12, 2020
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Michele Eaton knows what it’s like to move lessons online. She started out as a classroom teacher, but before she became her district’s director of virtual and blended learning, she had to learn instructional design. 

It’s a challenging leap, but one all teachers are now making in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Eaton, author of The Perfect Blend, A Practical Guide to Designing Student-Centered Learning Experiences. It’s just a matter of thinking – then creating – differently.

To explain the shift, Eaton points to a quote by William Horton in the book E-Learning by Design. “Unless you get instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure,” Horton wrote.

Eaton couldn’t agree more, and has a saying of her own. “I have a strong belief that if all we ever do is replicate what we do face to face, then it (online learning) will just be a cheap imitation of the classroom experience.”

In other words, good in-person teaching doesn’t equate with good online teaching.

To avoid that trap, Eaton has some tips for good practices when creating online learning experiences:

1. Pay attention to cognitive load 

When you create online content, you have to think about cognitive load, which is essentially the effort being used by the working memory. Some effort is good and necessary for learning to occur. However, if we max out our cognitive load, we can see dramatic drops in comprehension and retention of information. When we design our digital lessons, we need to work intentionally to reduce unnecessary cognitive load. 

There are a few strategies we can employ to do this and help our students successfully move information from their working memory to their long-term memory. 

Design with consistency in mind. Keeping navigation simple, intuitive and consistent, along with using common fonts and colors can help reduce the amount of effort students must use to adjust to each new digital lesson.

Chunk information. According to the research of Nelson Cowan (2010), young adults can process about 3-5 items at once. Putting too much information on one page makes it very difficult for our students to successfully process all of it.
Remove unessential information. If a piece of content on a page (text, multimedia, an image, etc.) is not driving learning forward, get rid of it. 

Leave some negative space on each page. Negative space is the empty space between elements. Creating negative space increases legibility of the information on the screen and minimizes distractions for the students.

Create multiple opportunities for reflection. When we have our students reflect about the content and instruction they receive, it helps them process that information and move it into long-term memory. Quick writing activities, short summaries, and reflecting on challenging ideas or content are all ways to have students practice some metacognition that will allow them to better comprehend the material.

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2. Leverage interactive capabilities

Don’t just move your worksheets online, Eaton warns. Take it a step further and provide interactive options.
When creating opportunities for interaction, look for three different types in each online lesson:

  • Student-to-student interaction
  • Student-to-teacher interaction
  • Student-to-content interaction

Actively find opportunities for students to engage with each other. Learning is social. We must be intentional about creating learning activities where students can collaborate and connect. 

Additionally, your role as the teacher in the online environment is very important. Your active participation in class discussions and activities and your timely feedback on formative assessment is critical to drive learning forward. 

“Any piece of content we want students to use online needs to have them interact in some way,” Eaton says. Even if it’s static content, like an article to read, ask students to provide a quick reflection or provide collaborative notes. It helps make thinking visible.

If these three types of interaction are present in an online lesson, you can feel confident that you have created an active learning experience for students that fosters engagement and is not isolating for students.

3. Experience high-quality online learning yourself

The fastest way to become a good online content creator is to experience good online learning. Enroll in free MOOCs (massive open online courses) or look for online opportunities within your school or district. ISTE U is another great resource that allows you to experience online learning from a learner’s perspective. There are several short offerings designed specifically for teachers who are new to remote and online learning. 

Then give online learning a try and see what works for you. Reflect on how it impacted you, what caught your attention, what would bring you back. Think about what you discover and incorporate those ideas when you create online lessons, always formatting things in a way that is easy for students to take in.

4. Don’t forget to build in formative assessments

When creating online content for the first time, teachers often tend to build lessons like they would for face-to-face learning. In the classroom, that might look like covering content, taking a quiz, doing a project, testing, moving on. In the online environment, it’s hard to tell how a student is doing – until they bomb a quiz, for example – but by then they’ve already moved on to the next lesson.

To avoid this pitfall, provide short, quick opportunities for students to make their thinking visible throughout the lesson so you know how every student is doing.

Looking for more strategies to help students with online learning? Don't miss Michele Eaton's session's at ISTE20 Live: DIY Digital Design: What Teachers Need to Know About Online Learning Design and also The Perfect Blend: Shifting from Remote to Blended.

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Julie Phillips Randles is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience writing about edtech, education policy, leadership and curriculum. This is an updated version of a post that originally published in 2017. Links to the 2020 ISTELive have since been removed from this article.