When it comes to online courses, trust me. It’s nothing personal.

Online courses that claim to offer personalized learning experiences are ineffective unless you add a little common sense.  

Students cannot meet course goals unless relationships are established between the student and the online instructor. Online courses should provide flexible interaction with the instructor. Another essential is purposeful and immediate feedback. It is vital for the student, to know how they are progressing. Good feedback keeps students motivated to move forward.  Much like traditional schools, nothing is more discouraging than waiting a few weeks to see how you are doing in class.  

Students also need to have the necessary prerequisite skills to guide their own learning.  Scrolling through an online course with information you don’t quite understand is difficult without added support. It also assumes that all students are starting at the same point. When developing personalized learning platforms, teachers need to foster relationships by connecting with the student and giving timely and purposeful feedback. Of course students must be self-motivated and have the skills needed to move through the course.    

Online courses do not equal personalized learning

To prove my point, I decided to challenge myself and take an online course to improve in an area I struggle—writing. For various reasons, I’ve always struggled with my writing. I’m not sure if it stems from my dyslexia, being a second language learner, or just gaps in my education. As a kid in school, teachers would tell me I had a good voice in my writing, but that my mechanics needed work.  Therefore, this summer, I decided to practice what I preach by driving my own learning and signing up for an online course.  After a short Google search, I let ratings guide me to the best course I could find. The course description was exactly what I was looking for. I read the outcomes, and I was sold. After I completed the course, it was guaranteed that I would be a better writer. I contacted the company, gave them my credit card, and signed up. My momentum was high, but quickly stalled when I realized that I had to wait two weeks for it to begin.

When the course finally started, I received an email from the online instructor.  I could complete as many lessons as I wished, but each lesson would take me 1-2 hours. Anxious to get started, I reviewed the first lesson, and read pages of rules, which were different from others resources I reviewed in the past. I completed my first assignment within two hours and hit the submit button.  I then waited for two days to get a response. The instructor emailed me a few words of encouragement with some specific feedback for my next steps. That was the end of the relationship. I am not sure what I was looking for, but I did not have much motivation to continue taking the course. Nonetheless, I charged forward onto the next assignment.

Feedback is vital for all learning exchanges, even for a principal

We seek feedback from friends, teachers, students, and colleagues. After submitting the second assignment, I waited anxiously for a few days for my feedback. I was proud of my work and was eager to hear encouragement and next steps. As usual, I got positive feedback for my content and input on a few specific skills. It was just enough to keep me going. Unfortunately, after the 3rd lesson, I started losing interest. I was not getting the immediate, personalized feedback that I needed as a learner. Although I knew I would lose the money I paid, I was not motivated enough to continue the course.

Reflecting on the process, it was obvious that the instructor’s approach did not match my style. I read through the course expectations, but I didn’t know what to do on a Sunday morning when I would get stuck. The initial assignment asked what I wanted to get from the course, but when I read through the pages of content, there were areas I still didn’t understand. I had the skills to signup for the class, but my specific learning skills were not identified and tailored to personalized next steps.

It wasn’t that the online course did not deliver what it promised—it did. It provided an online course with clear outcomes.  It never claimed to provide relationships, feedback, and review my skills. However, as a learner, I needed to connect with the instructor and receive immediate feedback, and I just didn’t get that. I would have liked for the instructor to know my goals and my specific skillset.  Because of this experience, I now know exactly what I need from an online course as an active student.

As an executive principal of a personalized learning school,  I need to continue to remind our teachers that in order for our kids to move forward, they need to build relationships with someone they trust, receive ongoing, purposeful feedback and teachers need to know their learning skills.  It’s just common sense.  


An original version of this post first appeared at Alex Magaña’s blog, Courageous Principals, as “Online courses don’t mean personalized learning.”

Alex Magaña is the executive principal of Beacon Network Schools, within Denver Public Schools (DPS). He has a proven track record of increasing academic achievement in DPS, serving high poverty/high minority populations. Magaña graduated from Florida State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting and Finance. While quite successful in the accounting field, Magaña always felt a strong desire to give back to education what education has given him: success. After teaching in Florida he moved to Denver, where he worked as a math teacher. Shortly thereafter, he obtained his Masters Degree from the University of Denver and continued to advance professionally becoming a math coach, an assistant principal, and ultimately, a principal at Grant Beacon Middle School. While there, he led the school toward achieving one of the highest academic growth rates of all Denver middle schools. These achievements inspired Magaña to replicate the school’s success, which led to the network’s second innovation school, Kepner Beacon Middle School.

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