Notes on... creating engaging learning experiences

Open question: what are some of your favorite online learning experiences? Experiences that kept you engaged and coming back (think in the world of masterclass, udemy, coursera, etc.) - thanks!

This question popped up in a group chat last week. It was posed by the founder of an excellent design and creative studio working with some of the best brands around.

Yup, this one grabbed my attention. And I couldn’t resist a riff.

Here’s what I shared with the group (mainly senior advertising/brand/strategy/creative folk). People seemed to dig it. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting too.

What keeps people engaged and coming back?

Here are 7 elements to bear in mind:

  • Pedagogy: a boring answer but well designed learning will keep people engaged. Badly designed learning will not. One approach is to design like an Obstacle Course (i.e. with mixed modalities, different types of stretch, new challenges, etc). I'd include not just the 'curriculum' here but all the other experiential design elements, from auto emails to Office Hours.
  • Community: preferably Fellow Travelers, or at least some kind of accountability / connection. Not essential, but most people lack willpower to stay the course (especially when other elements in this list are lacking). Fellow Travelers matter because it implicitly suggests some kind of shared experience outside of the thing we are building for them - this helps build connection and remove barriers.
  • Surprise & Delight: this can show up in many ways - at both a macro and micro level. Two common ways of doing this are through gamification (Duolingo being a well-known example), or behind the scenes content (MasterClass’s value proposition is largely built on this).
  • Storytelling: by the teacher(s), within the materials, and/or at a meta narrative/course level. This last one sounds weird, but it works - and is often overlooked. I believe every learning experience should have a narrative.
  • Utility: boring but important. If you can’t apply this stuff, you may as well watch Netflix, or if you’re more nihilistic go and burn your money.
  • Convenience: People expect convenience in the products and services they use day to day, so why not learning too? If it’s not convenient and easy to use, why bother coming back? This is why design and UX are what can set the great offerings apart.
  • Scarcity: closely connected to Surprise & Delight, but can also be used in the wider design of the experience (use this with care, though - unexpected consequences may occur…)

But what about the ‘experience’ part?

When you say ‘experiences’, I’m not sure the ‘experience’ of Udemy, Coursera, even Masterclass is what sets them apart. Udemy and Coursera are high on Utility, i.e. there’s a promise around a set of learning outcomes and then some content to help achieve those. But there’s very little of the other elements (perhaps unless you get an exceptional teacher). The platforms just aren’t designed to accommodate them.

With MasterClass you are typically buying Surprise & Delight, plus Scarcity, Convenience and Utility (although tbh the utility is questionable in some of the courses)

Cohort Based Courses

The trendy thing right now is what’s often called a ‘Cohort Based Course’ (Maven - as someone else in the thread mentioned - is a platform that specializes in them). These orbit around live sessions, usually with some self-paced/async materials.

They’re high on Community and Scarcity, but can fall down on Utility and Convenience as the courses tend to ‘disappear’ after the set duration.

When they're aimed at busy professionals it can be challenging to keep people in the game due to scheduling issues, so while I love the concept, in reality they aren't always that effective.

A hybrid approach

An interesting middle ground to remedy this challenge are a growing number of self paced courses that include cascading ‘drip’ style content to keep you on an (optional) cadence, plus deadlines for additional accountability, and bolt-on live sessions (typically Office Hours) to add that Community element. We’ve deliberately built our Client Magic course in this way.

This set up is why we’re seeing platforms like Circle come along with course offerings - they’re able to bring their existing community features to the party, and potentially eat the lunch of platforms like Teachable.

Keep exploring

Richie Hawtin’s next musical frontier? High school science class
How a DIY noise machine became a portal for learning & creativity - courtesy of a legendary electronic music artist
Future of Learning
Notes on... creating engaging learning experiences
7 elements that keep people coming back... and a view to what's next
Future of Learning
Learning is invisible ink
People don't really want to learn. So what can we do instead?
Future of Learning
Spinning Knowledge: What educators and creators can learn from one of the world’s best DJs
Why the space between Warm Up and Prime Time can be magical
Future of Learning
The Educator in Residence
Why a different type of EIR could be your firm’s new secret weapon
Future of Learning
Fitness and Education: from IRL to URL
8 lessons for the future of learning from the connected fitness boom
Future of Learning
The new Edutainment
Education as business development (and beyond), teachers becoming more than just the new DJs, and the foundations of a big shift that’s here to stay.
Future of Learning
The rise of the residency