Designing online courses: what do learners value?

It's tempting to get carried away with online course design, creating multimedia content for every page, multiple choice to accompany each learning objective... but what do learners actually value?

A US study asked 1500 online learners about their preferences and expectations of online courses. We’ve reviewed the findings, alongside several smaller-scale academic articles and a number of surveys delivered by UK HEIs around their learners’ experience of online courses (which are not fully cited in the article below for reasons of commercial sensitivity).

We’ve summarised emergent themes from the research and then showed how these learner expectations could be met by implementing specific learning design principles in an online course.

Key theme 1: Learners value instructor presence and expertise

A strong level of instructor presence and expertise in online delivery is important. Learners respond favourably when instructors are active within courses, contributing to discussion boards and responding to queries quickly. They are frustrated when responses are delayed. Hare-Bork and Rucks-Ahidiana [1] state that not meeting learner expectations in terms of responding to queries is one of the main causes of tension between learners and instructors.

What could this tangibly look like in online course design?

Ensure modules are personalised by the tutor. Including written, audio or video introduction on the module homepage is a helpful way to start the course with a personal tone. This can continue through formative and summative feedback, which should be a balance of instant consistent generic responses (such as quiz results, self-assessment marking rubrics and model answers) and personalised developed responses (such as live seminars/tutorials and written individual feedback).

Key theme 2: Learners value self-paced learning

Self-paced learning is favoured over a traditional, rigorously scheduled approach. The Aslanian report identifies 3 types of instruction [2]:

  • Tutorial – learners complete a series of learning activities at their own pace with an instructor available to answer questions and then complete assignments and/or assessments
  • Independent study – learners study independently at their own pace with resources provided by the university and then complete assignments and/or assessments
  • Instructor-led – learners complete a series of instructor-led learning activities and discussion forums with a class of other learners and then complete assignments and/or assessments as scheduled.

The report showed no clear preference for any one of these instruction types, with a fairly even split among all three: tutorial (37% - up from 32% in 2013), independent study (34% - up from 33% in 2013), and instructor led (29% - down from 35% in 2013). The first two relate to self-paced learning whereas the third most closely resembles traditional teaching approaches.

This report would therefore suggest that there is a larger and growing preference for self-paced learning approaches among online learners.

What could this tangibly look like in online course design?

It's best practice to organise content into weekly sessions to limit cognitive overload, fit learners’ lives and avoid the possibility of learners becoming overwhelmed with content [3]. Since most learners want to control their own pace throughout that week, ensure all learning activities have approximate timing recommendations next to them to allow learners to plan their time. Providing learners with an inbuilt tool to ‘mark as complete’ activities as they finish them helps learners manage their time and track their progress more efficiently [4].

Key theme 3: Learners value interactivity

Interactivity is important to keep learners engaged. It extends beyond course content (though this is important) into interactivity between peers, instructors and platforms. Research points to the conclusion that it is not so much the quantity, but the quality and purpose of the content that is important. It's important not to overwhelm the learner with content without purpose.

In terms of video content, specifically, Hare Bork and Rucks-Ahidiana [5] found that learners respond favourably to most types of video including YouTube and other outside sources, but were most responsive to rich media produced by the instructor.

What could this tangibly look like in online course design?

Gagne’s levels [6] provide an excellent checkpoint to use when designing, but they should not dominate the design or control the course. Instead, the learning goals and objectives should come first. By combining careful instructional design (instructional alignment, range of interactive activities, chunked content and so on) with technological capabilities (utilising the VLE, identifying useful plugins, social media integration, collaboration tools and online/offline content), learners can be presented with a course that does not just mirror the experience of an on campus student, but that also improves upon it.

For example, content should be chunked and a clear learning path should be laid out, ideally one that allows for the course to be personalised for each learner, while still retaining consistency between learners’ experiences.

If you've found this useful and would like to read more, you'll find a selection of learning design reports - including reports on Effective Feedback and Active Learning - on our learning design page.



[1] Hare-Bork & Rucks-Ahidiana (2013), 'Role Ambiguity in Online Courses: An Analysis of Learner & Instructor Expectations', CCRC Working Paper No. 64

[2] Aslanian Market Research with The Learning House, 'Online College Students 2015'

[3] Bull, B (2013), 'Eight roles of an effective online teacher', available at: (Accessed: 11.12.15).

[4] Pearson Learning Design principles (2016), available online on our learning design page.

[5] Hare-Bork & Rucks-Ahidiana (2013), 'Role Ambiguity in Online Courses: An Analysis of Learner & Instructor Expectations', CCRC Working Paper No. 64

[6] Gagné, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. (1992). 'Principles of instructional design' (4th ed.). Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.