Data-driven best practices for building skills for online learning

“With eight years of data, we’ve found that, when done well, online learning can be extremely effective”

Teaching and learning online can feel daunting, especially at first. With the pandemic forcing millions of instructors and students abruptly into remote schooling, many have questioned the quality of online learning and its effectiveness.

With eight years of data, at Coursera we’ve found that, when done well, online learning can be extremely effective at helping students acquire and master new skills — including many that are in high demand in the current job market. In fact, 73% of our online learners report a positive career outcome within six months of completing a course.

Drawing on the satisfaction, skill development, and career outcomes of over 200 million course enrolments, the Drivers of Quality in Online Learning report showcases the power of online learning and provides actionable, data-driven insights for how instructors and learners can optimise their digital learning experience.

Here are four of the most effective ways we’ve found to build job-ready skills through online learning.

Define specific learning objectives to help learners connect the content with their career goals

You can drive career outcomes by defining specific and actionable objectives for each module and the whole course. For example, instead of “Learn basic Python,” a more helpful description would tell students that by the end of the course, they’ll be able to explain a “for-loop” and implement one to simplify their own code.

When you make the learning objectives clear and provide examples of how that skill is used in an industry setting, your students get excited to dive into the content. Courses with specific objectives outlined for each week have a statistically significant increase in the rate of career outcomes.

Test students’ knowledge to keep motivation and engagement high

When students take frequent assessments as part of an online course, they’re more likely to complete the course — and also more likely to achieve a career outcome. Because some universities rely heavily on end-of-term exams, students often receive very little feedback until the end of the semester.

As a result, they don’t have an accurate sense of how well they’re doing or the concepts they need to review again. Instead, help students master new skills and identify gaps in their understanding by providing multiple checkpoints throughout your course. 

Feedback could come from peer-review assignments or automated feedback on quizzes. At Coursera, we’ve developed option-level feedback: depending on how a student answers a question, the system prompts them to review a specific piece of content, or — if they answered correctly — it reinforces the concept by reminding them why their response was correct.

In this way, an online course can provide scaffolding that builds up the learner’s mastery over time.

Use hands-on projects to drive higher skill development

Instructors can help their students connect skill-based learning objectives to career goals by providing industry examples and authentic, hands-on projects.

Applied projects foster higher skill development by engaging students in the creation and evaluation forms of learning. In fact, including programming assignments in technical courses on Coursera increases average student skill development by 30%.

For example, in a data science course, instead of using a contrived dataset, you should use real data from an open-source organisation or partner with a company that can provide relevant data for the project. 

Break the content into bite-size chunks

For higher engagement and larger skill gains, our data show that the optimal course length is 4 to 6 weeks, with about 4-6 hours of total learner engagement time per week. Avoid making students wade through a 90-minute lecture to find one specific concept by instead providing small chunks of video content with clear titles.

Videos in the 3- to 9-minute range are ideal for continued engagement and satisfaction. In fact, by keeping lectures under 10 minutes in length, instructors can increase their course completion rate by 16%. 

The first module should be longer than average, to ground students in the subject matter. We recommend including the most videos in the first module and gradually transitioning into more project work.

Students are more likely to complete a course when the total amount of learner engagement time per week stays relatively stable, but how you use that time should vary from week to week.

As universities everywhere build resilient teaching models in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, you should feel confident that you can deliver a high-quality educational experience by following these best practices. Even more importantly, your students can expect a strong return on their investment, in the form of in-demand, job-ready skills.


About the author: Alexandra Urban is a senior teaching and learning specialist at Coursera.