The 6 Elements Of A Practical Online Course Experience

Deliver Hands-On Learning For Online Courses
Summary: A practical online course with hands-on tasks is the best way for your learners to quickly gain new skills. Motivating learners to complete them is another story.

Experiential Learning In An Online Environment

Many people are taking advantage of social distancing right now to learn a new skill that’s related to their jobs or simply for the sake of taking up a new hobby. For online-only instructors, this is a great opportunity to attract learners, and yet this poses a great challenge as well. Namely, they need to motivate learners to complete practical tasks in the absence of a physical classroom and one-on-one training sessions. Online courses usually lack that element of urgency to finish tasks on time as there are no external factors that can push learners to do more. Despite this, online courses aren’t going anywhere as they are now the most convenient way to learn or develop a new skill, from the safety of our homes. As such, course creators need to think outside the box and adopt an experiential learning approach. Here’s what you need to deliver hands-on learning for online courses:

1. Realistic Tasks 

The problem with practical tasks in an online environment is that instructors give out either too easy or too difficult assignments. In this way, learners might be more tempted to simply skip them.

Creating a good task is about a balance between what they know and what they don’t. So how do you do that? Well, there are some guidelines that you can follow, such as:

  • The assignment topic should be an important part of the course.
  • At least one module should be dedicated to the particular skill that they’ll use to complete the task if the task is more difficult.
  • It should be based on a specific and tangible learning objective.
  • They’ll be able to do it on their own or with hints and tips from you.

For the sake of variety, give them a choice between two tasks, not just one. If the course is more complex, smaller tasks that are spread throughout the course make it easier for your learners to finish.

2. Clear Instructions

Learners will skip your assignment or become frustrated quickly if important information is omitted. Just assume that they’ve never taken an online course before and that there’s no room for ambiguity when they read the assignment instructions. Most importantly, people should know what they need before diving into learning. So, be sure to mention that they will be taking a practical course and that they should expect to learn by doing before they click “purchase course,” otherwise it’s seen as misleading.

Let’s say you’re teaching photography. We’re talking about equipment, which includes a camera, editing software, maybe some lights. However, you can also suggest free software, or give tips about buying a less expensive camera to make the course more inclusive.

3. Great Timing

Do you know how recipes say that it takes 30 minutes to make something and then an hour later you’re still mixing the ingredients? It’s easy to see a decrease in motivation when the task takes you much longer. Giving an accurate estimation of how much time it should take a beginner to do something is far better for motivating them to make room in their schedule for it. If the task is more complex, try breaking it down into smaller assignments so that they won’t be too intimidated to have a go at it.

Better yet, to set realistic times for completion, give them a range, such as one hour to one hour and 15 minutes, to accommodate more people. After all, especially at the beginning, learners should enjoy the process, take their time, and do things at their own pace.

4. Verifying Progress

When learning new skills and habits it’s useful for learners and for yourself to see if they can apply that knowledge in real life. This is also about holding them responsible for their learning process while offering some external motivation.

Showcasing their work through photos or videos is the most convenient way of doing it. However, if the course is about something less tangible, such as meditation, just completing a survey in your learning platform and ticking some boxes can give you an idea of how many learners are taking five minutes per day to meditate, for example. A good completion rate should be around 60-70%, taking into account that this number will be lower for more difficult tasks.

5. Feedback Group

As an instructor, you probably can’t do it all by yourself, feedback included, which means that you’ll need a little help. This is nothing new, as many face-to-face and blended courses already employ peer feedback. For this, all you have to do is set up a group in your Learning Management System and ask learners to post their work. Encourage everyone to give constructive criticism as a way of developing their skills.

Since self-paced courses are a little different in terms of interaction, you’ll need to offer a feedback template that they can use to do this. These are simple rules such as: critiquing the work, not the person; offering arguments that help the person improve their skills; staying on topic; pointing out strengths as well as weaknesses. The overall tone should be that everyone is on a learning journey and feedback supports their growth.

6. Fun Factor

If your learners need a little boost to complete a practical assignment, a fun contest will do the trick. Learners get to share pictures and videos of their work, while also getting a prize such as a discount code that they can use to take another course. The prize is of course up to you, but you can add in other perks such as highlighting their work on social media or a 1:1 coaching session with you. Even if you’re teaching a self-paced course that people can join at any time, this type of competition can be organized periodically to give more learners a chance to participate.


Learners can learn by doing, even if it’s an online course. The key to motivating learners is giving them enough incentives to complete assignments, while also making it easy for them to add these activities to their normal schedule. An online course with a practical element to it is an added value that you can use to market your courses and stand out from the competition.