Why Most Online Courses Fail, And How Yours Can Stand Out From The Crowd

Breaking down the process of teaching and learning


With the current epidemic compelling the need for remote learning, we are now seeing a massive scale of disruptive innovation in education.

EdTech has been a fast-growing space, with venture capital investments reaching $7 billion in 2019. EdTech investments are expected to reach over $87 billion in the next 10 years, almost triple the prior decade.

Yet, while the education and learning marketplace seems to be crowded with groundbreaking products, many of us still struggle to learn a new language, topic, or skill.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Problem — and the opportunity

The problem lies in the fact that most innovation in education focuses on features. Not many products focus on achieving desired learning outcomes. It is no wonder Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOCs”) suffer a dropout rate of about 96% on average.

This means there is still a massive opportunity to stand out from the competition in this seemingly overcrowded space.

Audience, Outcomes, Obstacles, and Achievement

A simple process flow outlines the steps to developing a learning platform that helps your intended users achieve their desired learning objectives.

A clear breakdown and understanding of your audience’s psychographics allows you to understand their desired learning objectives

Take the two scenarios as an example:

  1. Liz is a corporate lawyer who works in an international law firm in London. She wants to be able to converse with her French colleagues in their native tongue
  2. Amy is a mother of two sons, aged 12 and eight. She and her husband, Frank, are planning to take the entire family on a trip to Paris this coming December. Amy wants to take this opportunity to learn French and be able to interact with the locals

Defining your target audience helps you to establish clear learning outcomes — in the first scenario, Liz will benefit more from a curriculum tailored towards learning to converse in a formal setting.

In the second scenario, Amy would have instead benefited more if there was a lesson plan that taught her how to navigate through the main attractions in Paris as efficiently as possible.

The success of your learning platform largely hinges on its ability to tackle your user’s obstacles to learning

Once you place your focus on helping your learners tackle the obstacles to learning, a subtle but significant paradigm shift occurs — instead of focusing on “what” to learn, a greater emphasis is placed on “how” to learn.

For Liz — a significant challenge lies in being able to understand the nuances between formal and informal word choices. This will allow her to intelligently apply the correct tone when speaking with colleagues in a work setting

For Amy — the challenge would be the lack of an environment to practice and apply the French language prior to her trip. Her family and friends do not speak French.

Learning platforms can be broken down into 2 distinct features — content and delivery

Think of content as a knowledge database, focusing on what knowledge to impart to the learner. A database is useless if the information stored cannot be processed to deliver output. Delivery is the feature that turns knowledge into skill, by allowing the learner to apply his/her relevant knowledge to solve practical problems and applications.

A good curriculum has content that is clear and succinct

When was the last time you finished a 60-hour online lecture? Plenty of online courses boast a large, comprehensive library of lesson material. Yet with less than 5% completion rates on most MOOCs, is quantity a good measure for product excellence?

Clear content is constructed such that there is a logical flow to get the learner to their intended proficiency.

Clear content ensures that the lesson material presents no gaps in logic, allowing the learner to understand the material provided.

Focus on precision over volume in content

Sometimes less is more. An overload of information has the potential to discourage learners. As such, an ideal scenario would be to have minimal redundancy, focusing only on content that is relevant

Less is more, but what is enough?

How then, do we know if the content we have is sufficient for our intended audience? How do we find the sweet spot between excessive, and too little?

Finding the correct balance in the amount of content to provide learners

In his TEDx talk, “How to learn anything”, Josh Kaufman spoke about how 20-hours of practice is sufficient to get “decently good enough”. After which, learners would have the basic proficiency to self-correct, and improve on their own.

Kaufman notes that most subjects follow the 80/20 rule, where 20% of the inputs account for 80% of the subject matter. Using the ukulele as an example, he demonstrated how 4 chords are sufficient to play almost every pop-song

Focus on the most relevant information required, using the 80/20 rule. By doing so, this empowers you to efficiently enable your learners to achieve the proficiency to self correct.

Your ability in delivering content in an engaging manner is your biggest opportunity to stand out

A large part of learning still relies heavily on the traditional “lecture” model — which focuses on a “transmission” of knowledge, often involving a lot of memorization.

This traditional method of learning is one-directional and allows little room for engagement and participation

Learning does not occur simply because the information is presented to us.

In his research paper on meta-cognitive strategies, Jeffrey D. Karpicke explores the illusions of competence:

  • Seeing information in front of you — such as reading a book — doesn’t mean you know it
  • Seeing or hearing someone come to a conclusion doesn’t mean you know how to get to that conclusion or explain their argument

How does the learning process occur?

When information is presented to us, information first gets stored in your working memory. The working memory is a cognitive system that holds information temporarily.

Information gets filtered into long-term memory only when the information is revisited over an extended period of time.

How we process and store information

Learning occurs by building schemas. This involves organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge. Our understanding and mastery of the subject are then derived from the schemas we acquire over extended periods of time.

In order to expand our user’s depth in their understanding of the subject, it is important to provide learners with a safe space to apply the knowledge acquired. This involves a two-way engagement.

How do we effectively engage our students/learners?

Most courses are built with the mentality that their responsibility ends the moment they laid out the entire knowledge base for the learner. There is a disregard for whether the learner has the chance to apply this knowledge in a practical setting.

In comparison to MOOCs, hiring a tutor holds the learner responsible for their consistency in practicing the subject. A tutor serves as an accountability system, but what happens when the learner no longer engages the tutor? The impetus to revisit the topic would no longer be available to the learner.

Is there a way to get learners to be intrinsically motivated to apply and revisit their knowledge?

This involves creating a setting that engages learners, encouraging them to apply the knowledge learnt to tackle challenges and solve problems. This is where Gamification concepts come into play.

Including game design principles in learning is not a novel topic, yet most platforms merely scratch the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to implementing effective game elements to engage their users in learning.

Gabe Zichermann, an expert on Gamification, speaks of the 3 “F”s that make game elements so appealing to users

  • Feedback
  • Friends
  • Fun

Gamification Pioneer, Yu-kai Chou, mentions that game elements create an immersive experience because they appeal to the 8 core drivers of human behavior.

Focusing a platform that engages learners to actively apply their knowledge — Being able to make learning engaging and immersive, if done correctly, presents a huge opportunity to stand out from the sea of education and learning products currently in the marketplace.


I have been on both ends of the learning process — as a teacher, and as a student.

As a self-taught guitarist, I found myself teaching guitar in college. I am also an avid user of multiple learning platforms. Being on both sides allowed me to appreciate the learning process deeply, and I subsequently developed an obsession towards optimizing learning for myself, and others.

I aspire to create my own platform someday, and help learners achieve their learning objectives. In the meantime, I wanted to share the insights I’ve acquired in this space, to hopefully contribute to the improvement of the overall learning processes available to us.

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