Online courses are becoming a more and more popular training tools. E-learning platforms are flourishing, students are sky-rocketing and there’s plenty of offering from a wide range of tools to an even wider spectrum of topics.

If you are wondering how good they are for learning I am happy to share my experience, I have been a student and instructor of those for a couple of years now plus I have been in training for 20 years. My public speaking coursers are selling on the major websites like Udemy, Skillfeed, Fedora, On-Ed, Coursmos and Learnquiq too. I am enrolling and attending courses on the same platforms and on Coursera which is something a little different. I have completed more than 50 courses and learned a lot from the vast majority of them (well, I don’t want to spoil the ending).

The questions I am going to answer are: what are the different options available? Can you really learn from a video course? Are they good only for some topics? What are the pros and cons versus a classical classroom based?

So let’s have a very quick overview of the panorama.

What are online courses? And a MOOC?

A video course is an online learning program where video lectures play the main part in the process. I consider separately sites like Udemy and the like, from Coursera and similar ones. The formers are a business companies that offers courses built by topic’s experts (like me) some for free and some for a fee. The latters are also a for-profit companies where the content is sourced from universities in what is referenced as Massive Open Online Courses. For ease of reading I will call them business and MOOC although the Courseras are also in business and they want to make money (right now their model is based on certification fees). There are several differences between them starting from the range of topic covered. Business platform will accept and offer everything, at worst it won’t sell, unless they are vertical sites (i.e. courses only for web development). On the contrary MOOC tend to reflect university curricula so most of the topics are related to sciences, business or arts. To me the most distinguish feature of MOOC is that they really breath academic learning and thus, compared to business courses, they are generally more theoretical, they promote group study, student discussions, field exercises, grading and peer review systems. On the other sides business courses are more practical, they focus more on how to apply skills (rather than the theory behind) and offer less interaction with other students. Your mileage may vary and some specific courses may differ but a basic simplification would be: MOOC are great for learning something while business courses are great for learning to do something. Again I took on MOOC on Content Management that was very practical and there are some business courses that focus on theory, so it’s just a rule of a thumb.

Can you really learn from a video course?

Yes, indeed. Of course I sell video courses, online learning, and thus I am supposed to praise it. Actually before producing my course I attended some to understand if and how they work. My first one was on Coursera on Public Speaking. A very good one, albeit very focused on rhetoric and less business oriented. Nonetheless I enjoyed it, I learned from it and got the enthusiasm to start thinking about mine.

A well designed MOOC works because you get good video lectures where you are exposed to new informations, followed by exercise and assignments that not only test your understanding but also give you a chance to play the concept to better assimilate. The peer review system it’s a great thing, one which I am envy of, but sometimes feedback from fellow students could be not well articulated. There normally are forums or discussion corners where you can interact with other students and seldom with teachers. The more you are active there the more qualitative feedback you can get.

A well designed business course works because most of the expected outcome is to learn practical skills (from PHP programming, to soft-skills, from yoga postures to writing a business plan) and a good video lecture can do it effectively. A technical course will guide you through creating something while a soft-skills one can benefit from downloadable references, samples and cleverly thought assignments.

What are the pros and cons versus a classical classroom based?

There are only major downsides I can think of for online vs class-based.

The first is not being able to do group exercises or activities. In my public speaking courses participants deliver presentations in class and there is a de-briefing sessions where everyone in the audience provides valuable feedback. That is one of the best parts in my class and the pinnacle of learning. When I took my online public speaking course (on Coursera) I went through the peer review system where you deliver a presentation in front of a camera, record it, upload it and then other students will give you feedback. It’s not bad, and I would love to have something similar for my course, but it’s not nearly effective  as  the one live in the classroom. Also for public speaking there is a substantial difference between recording a presentation alone in your office or home or delivering it in front of a real audience (even if it’s just in a seminar). The former is not practice for what it will happen in real life.

The second one is not being able to have a face to face relation with your instructor and the other attendees. Feedback is crucial, think about doing some physical exercise and the benefit of the instructor correcting your movement or posture. You get better feedback and there is more interaction with the other promoting a more effective learning.

On the other side there are some pros you can get out of online learning not to mention that is generally cheaper (or more cost-effective) since you share the time (and cost) of the instructor. In no particular order I can mention the following:

  • You can follow the course/lecture when you want and as many times you want. In our busy schedules it’s more and more difficult to find free days to allocate to classroom training alas.
  • You can follow the course at your own pace and split in small size chunks. A good business course will split topics and lectures in bite-size chapters to help students.
  • You can selective cherry pick the bits that you need and leave the others (or go through them later in time)
  • In many cases you can attend lectures and apply them in real time, like learn about writing a business plan while jotting down yours. Or going through my slide design lecture and apply the principles to your own deck.

Are online courses good only for some topics?

I believe that some topics are more suited for online learning than others, like programming or some technical skills. Nevertheless I attended video courses on disparate subjects (from Chemistry in Gastronomy to Content Management, including Art for teaching to kids and Hollywood and marriages!) and the only true discriminant of effectiveness was the quality of the course and not the topic.

In the end

So in the end I am confident in suggesting them as a viable training media, they should not be seen as a complete alternative to classroom based but more as a powerful tool to increase learning opportunities.

If you would like to try and first hand experience I encourage you to take up one course now (MOOC or business, you choose). At the time I am writing this, I am offering a course for free (it will have a fee soon) on 5 principles for persuasive presentations*. This could be a great opportunity for you to see for yourself what do you get out of it (it’s around 30 minutes video lectures). Whatever you do I believe it’s an exciting time ripe with learning opportunities and the online is giving us more chances to develop ourselves and our skills. It’s up to us to put the effort and the passion to benefit from them.

*the course is now for a fee, like my other online courses, but if you follow that link it should be free thanks to a coupon