Adult Learner

The art and science of developing virtual classes for adult learners

online learning

If you identify as a Gen-Xer, Millennial or Zoomer, you’ve almost certainly participated in some sort of virtual classes or trainings in your life. By now, you’re aware that not all distance learning courses are cut from the same cloth. In fact, they can vary widely in both cost and quality.

Many students found that out the hard way when the COVID-19 pandemic forced campuses to close and courses to resume entirely online. In one survey of more than 2,000 educational institutions in 49 U.S. states, 85 percent of respondents reported moving courses to emergency remote learning in Fall 2020 because of the pandemic. It became apparent very quickly that simply taking an in-person course syllabus and “doing it online” rarely translates into an enjoyable or effective learning experience.

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into making a great online college course, you’re not alone. Keep reading for a detailed breakdown and expert insight from Dr. Laura Galloway, professor and associate dean of curriculum, instruction and academic administration at University of Massachusetts Global.

The science behind developing online college courses

Online courses have been around for decades, so there has been plenty of research collected on the different elements that make up effective online teaching pedagogy. As a leader in online learning for more than 20 years, UMass Global has been measuring the success of its programs and is constantly using research, data and industry best practices to improve them.

A lot of it boils down to the structure of the courses and the expertise of the faculty. Instructors should not only be skilled in their subject matter but also trained in leveraging effective online instruction methods.

With a traditional in-person setting, professors act a bit like trail guides, according to Dr. Galloway. “In the classroom setting, you’re on the journey together in real time and can point things out as they come. You lead the learning process through every single phase, which you can’t do online,” she explains. Dr. Galloway notes that classroom teachers also have the advantage of reading eye contact and body language to see if students are understanding the lesson.

By contrast, in an online class, students have the entire map at their fingertips. When developing online classes, most of the effort must be made before the students enter the virtual classroom. The course must be meticulously designed with detailed instructions, leaving nothing up to chance. This allows students to explore the path laid out by the instructor at their own pace, checking in regularly to stay on track.

Dr. Galloway stresses the importance of having a collaborative course design process that includes multiple perspectives, clear expectations, and ample checks and measures.


At UMass Global, our protocol is called ‘Quality matters’ and it’s one of the best things we’ve implemented.

“We all work together to ensure that every single class promotes engagement with the material, the professor and fellow students,” she adds. This attention to detail in the design phase lays the groundwork for students to achieve success when they begin the program.

The art of creating a transformative online learning experience

In the early days of distance learning — think websites with free “canned lectures” like Coursera and EdX — there was a huge appetite for the type of education they offered. While these courses were useful for some, the vast majority (97 percent) of students never actually finished a class. This shocking attrition rate was partly due to unmet expectations.

Dr. Galloway explains that the repository model, wherein a professor talks and students absorb and regurgitate the information, isn’t an effective way to learn for most. She goes on to say:


Most adult learners approach the classroom with the belief that learning will be transformative. They want something significant to change, whether it’s personally, professionally or both.

The art of developing virtual classes is all about creating opportunities for transformative learning. It’s more subjective and harder to quantify, but no less important than the more scientific components of course design.

“As professors, we must be constantly assessing quality and leaning into the possibility of improvement,” Dr. Galloway stresses.

If you’re one of many students who’ve tried and failed to complete virtual classes in college, don’t despair. You probably just haven’t found one that is designed to set you up for success. Based on her research and experience as an educator, Dr. Galloway posits that the following three-pronged engagement strategy is key to creating a transformative online experience:

1. Provocative and relevant material

First things first, the topics and case studies presented in the course must be dynamic and interesting. It’s crucial to include diverse perspectives and experiences so that learners can connect with the material and feel represented in the class.

“There are so many ways to breathe life into an online course shell. Students are often studying in a room by themselves, so we want to make it easier for them to connect with what is being taught,” Dr. Galloway shares.

She points out that because distance learning students already have the internet at their fingertips, professors should strive to include a variety of materials from vetted online sources. This could include visuals, articles, infographics, videos, presentations, case studies, etc. Students are much more likely to engage with materials that are timely and relevant to their own lives.

2. Peer-to-peer collaboration

In a traditional classroom, mingling and conversing with peers comes naturally in a shared physical space. Many students find processing information in a group to be highly useful and crave this kind of interaction even in an online setting. Instructors should intentionally build in opportunities for students to work in pairs and small groups on assignments, critiques, presentations and experiments.

“Learning to solve problems in a team is an absolutely critical soft skill. I can’t think of one job where you work totally independently,” Dr. Galloway shares. These scenarios help students build more than just the technical skills and knowledge of the topic at hand — they’re instilling invaluable transferable skills that today’s employers are looking for in candidates.

“We would be doing a disservice by not teaching students how to work with others,” Dr. Galloway adds. “It might be easier to just teach theory, but that doesn’t challenge you or help you define strengths and weaknesses.”

3. Meaningful interaction with the instructor

One mistake that online instructors often make is acting like an invisible entity in the virtual classroom. This could lead to a lack of engagement, and it robs the students of necessary expertise and guidance. Effective online educators avoid this by being extremely responsive to student queries and providing substantive feedback on assignments.

“If a student spends weeks writing a paper and then gets graded with a sentence or two of comments, that’s going to be terribly disappointing,” Dr. Galloway explains. She acknowledges that it takes a lot of time and effort to facilitate a virtual classroom, but quality online schools and professors know this is a worthwhile investment.

“When done well, it’s like providing students with their own specific and unique tutor,” she says. “If you had to duplicate this offline, it would be like a 4-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.”

Online or on-campus college: which one is better?

When it comes to the question of which format is superior, the answer is simple: it depends on the student. Adult learners are increasingly more interested in how a program meets their needs than the mode of instruction. Each student has unique circumstances and goals, so only they can decide what’s best.

If you’re an introvert, you may want to explore online education. As Dr. Galloway puts it: “The general population is nearly evenly split between introverted and extroverted tendencies, but extroverts tend to take up all the conversation space in traditional classrooms. Introverts pace themselves differently — they think long and hard before talking and have a lot of ideas bubbling under the surface. We really thrive in virtual environments.”

Set yourself up for success with an online degree from UMass Global

For decades, UMass Global has been empowering students to take control of their education and careers by providing quality online degree programs. We know our students lead busy lives, which is why we offer three distinct learning options to ensure education is accessible to all. Explore our online and competency-based education programs and find out which one is right for you.

Still not sure about earning a degree online? Read our article "6 Signs you're ready to conquer the online classroom"to find out if you have what it takes to succeed.

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