Sometimes interactivity can be done alone on a computer screen, but most of the time interactivity requires other people – who can either help you practise or give feedback on the skill you are learning. This is an “essential piece of what makes for a successful course – online or offline”.

That is one of the many takeaways from our interview on eLearning with Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera and it’s the reason behind her new eLearning start up: Engageli.

Daphne spoke of the eLearning journey she has been on since starting Coursera back in 2011.

Coursera started as a way to improve learning for her students at Stanford. Her hypothesis was that there were some things – in particular lectures – that could be better delivered online.

But what she found left her “awestruck”:

Within a matter of weeks, with effectively no marketing, hundreds of thousands of learners from all over the world were enrolled. These were people from every country, from every age group and from every walk of life.

— Daphne Koller

“It really focused our energies on how do we achieve scale? How do we achieve access to a large number of people?”

And by her own admission, “engagement and interaction got a little bit sidelined”.

Now Daphne is returning to the original mission. “We have all this amazing content out there from top universities, top companies… how does one create a truly engaging, interactive learning experience?”

And in Daphne’s view, the answer to this question for most students means “they need to engage with other people”. In other words, fully self-paced learning is something “most mortals” will struggle with.

This is why Dapnhe has set up Engageli. It’s her answer to the “Zoom High School” that so many students were subjected to during the pandemic – including her own teenage daughters.

Engageli seems aimed at allowing the virtual classroom to have the sort of interaction that is possible with an in-person classroom, such as allowing teachers to give quick feedback and allowing people to easily set up peer-to-peer groups.

How can this need for interactivity be used by others in eLearning?

I asked Daphne to share her own tips on what makes a good course, based on the many thousands of online courses at Coursera. Here are some takeaways:

  • Content delivery can be done online. “The use of class time for passive consumption of content with students just sitting there watching an instructor talk. I don’t see why that is a better experience to be doing with a live instructor versus on a video where at least you have the opportunity to pause, rewind, maybe do a little bit of a quiz and then continue.”
  • Keep videos short – Bear in mind the time constraints of the learners. 4-6 minutes is good. 10-12 minutes is ok. “If it started to get to 18 to 25 minutes, it began to be challenging for people just to fit it into their workday”
  • Keep the content focused on “learner outcome” – “Try to prune out a lot of the sort of unnecessary stuff around the content and really focus on the things that matter that matter to people”
  • Keep assignments “hands on”. Assignments such as essays, exercises or quizzes need to be practical to the skill the student is learning.
  • Focus the teacher time on interactivity. Use the time together between a live instructor and other live students on “the dialogue, the discussion, the working through problems together”.

Finally, on the pandemic and the trends in online education, Daphne thinks that some changes are here to stay.

“I think a lot of academic institutions were still under this impression that somehow online learning is not the kind of thing that good institutions engage in. What we’ve seen in the pandemic is just how readily people gravitated towards online learning. And how with appropriate course design you can really create a learning experience online that in some ways is as good as – or even in some places better – than in-class experience.”