Success stories of top online courses

May 18, 2020Blog, e-learning, eLearning tips0 comments

If you’re an instructional designer agonizing over your first or next online course, this article is for you. Today we will be analyzing 2 of the most popular courses on Coursera in 20 to find out what makes them so successful and let’s see if we can learn from them. 


So without further ado, an introduction of our contestants!

An introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Part 1)

This prequel of a 2-part course from Rice University is designed to teach students with little to no computing background learn the basics of building simple interactive apps with Python. This online course introduces the basic elements of programming and uses them to create simple applications.

This course offers a step-by-step tutorial format, which is popular among online courses focused on computing, designing, or those that require a certain tool.

More than 150,000 people have enrolled in this course and the average rating of it is 4.8/5 ☆. It’s listed in the all-time top 100 on Class Central. The course promises to equip learners with 4 skills: Programming Principles, Python Syntax and Semantics, Computer Programming and Python Programming.

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

This course from McMaster University & University of California San Diego gives you access to the priceless learning techniques used by virtuosos and experts in many fields, be it art, music, literature, science, or sports. It covers a wide range of topics like illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination and best practices to pull through tough subjects.

The online course deploys a great number of visual aids as they incorporate both tutorials and lectures. Courses with a great amount of theory usually use this strategy.

A staggering number of more than 2,2 million people have enrolled in this course and gave it an average rating of 4.8/5. Needless to say, the online course is also listed in the All-time 100 on Class Central. It delivers the 4 main skills: Test preparation, Learning to learn, Pomodoro Technique and Meta learning.


So what elements of success do they possess?

Their ideas have very high market demand

The 2 courses teach about skills highly sought after in this day and age. For example, Python is a really versatile programming language. It is considered one of the top 10 popular programming languages by TIOBE Programming Community Index. Many coders recommend using Python in writing applications because it is easily maintainable, allowing you to express concepts without writing additional codes; it also supports several programming paradigms while featuring a dynamic type system and automatic memory management. And since it’s one of the 10 most popular programming languages, it is apparently compatible with major platforms and systems. The list goes on and on.
Meanwhile, the skill of learning is extremely valuable in the age of digital data. Knowledge is now extremely accessible and whoever has more knowledge has more power. This is extremely applicable for those in higher education. They are bombarded with a vast amount of new information everyday and can easily be overloaded. Thus, learning effectively has never been more urgent.

This is the very first step of devising an online course and it determines whether your course will be sought after and getting high traffic or not.
Ask yourself these 3 questions about the topic you have in mind: 

    1. Are people talking about it? 
    2. Are people asking questions about it? 
    3. Is there a gap in what the competition is offering? 

That said, sticking to what you love doing is still the best!

They are very skills-oriented

The topics of these online courses are practical and can be easily applied in your life and career. Both of them are pretty much “hands-on” and let learners get straight to applying the knowledge they’ve learned. The digital revolution puts people in a new situation where being low-tech is a huge disadvantage. The power paradigm has shifted towards Internet-based companies and programmers are in high demand. If you want to pursue a career in computer science, this might be your best bet, or if you just want to acquire a new skill for the sake of learning, coding is a very viable option.

Meanwhile, having the right skills of processing information is very complementary, especially if you’re in higher education and have to deal with a heavy load of knowledge.

Most present and future undergraduates will be Gen Z, which is a notoriously “woke” and practical generation. Unlike Millennials, they grew up witnessing the economic recession and were bombarded with news of how the world is changing, too often for the worst.

So your best bet is to provide them with practical skills that they can apply into their lives. Mere knowledge isn’t going to satisfy them.

This strategy also applies to older people that either want to brush up their skills or are just looking for a new one to practice. With a lot of practice exercises and pre-recorded videos, students can learn at their own pace and even choose to filter out the unnecessary sessions. 

Provide access to a variety of different materials

Not only do these courses provide pre-recorded videos of professors teaching the topic, but also reading materials for each week in the syllabus. Every week, students are given 3-4 pieces of optional reading material.

Although you shouldn’t be abusing articles and books in your lectures, you should definitely give your students access to extra research articles and book excerpts. This is a splendid way to promote proactive learning and can accelerate the learning process. 

Speaking of proactiveness, they give students self-directed assignments

Quizzes are out of the question, they are an indispensable part of every course and program whether it is online or offline. The real selling point here is the assignments. The Learning How to Learn course provides practice exercises at the end of every week and the Python introduction course even goes as far as enabling peers to grade each other’s assignments.

Another tip for online courses with a small number of attendants: customize your assignments. Since handing out and collecting (and even grading) homework can be automated, why not take the time to carefully customize exercises to meet your students’ capacity and needs? Not only does this increase their engagement with the online course, leaving no one bored or discouraged but also targets the right weaknesses and strengths, helping your students learn and grow faster.  

Stories are told!

Right off the bat, you can see in McMaster University’s course is that they use a lot of analogies to demonstrate their points. For example, to help us understand the 2 thinking modes of the brain, the lecturer compares the brain to a pinball game and visualize the learning process by showing how the pinball interacts with elements in the machine.

Stories have always been a great device in teaching. A classroom is clearly not the same as an open-mic bar, but clearly you and the comedian are striving for the same goals at times you don’t care to admit – gaining the attention of your audience.

Don’t just ramble on about whatever complicated topic you are trying to convey, have your students learn about it through anecdotes, through allegories, etc. This will stimulate their senses and help retain information for longer.

Demonstration with animation

When using the pinball analogy, this is the visual aid they used. How cool is this? This is top-notch animation, simple, yet captivating. Incorporating animation with real humans talking gives us the familiar feeling of watching a weather forecast. This technique really brings out the best of both worlds!

Meanwhile, the programming course from Rice University deploys a different tactic. Since what they’re teaching is codes, which consist of a lot of numbers and brackets, they need to write them out. They also provide real time demonstration of coding, giving students the feeling of watching a game streamer. In other words, their technique resembles whiteboard animation – an incredibly versatile media format.

In case you don’t possess the charisma to bedazzle your students, animation is your loyal sidekick. We all know how boring a lecture without visual aids can get, so why tread the path into the dark woods? Get animated! Breathe a new life into your online lectures!

Animation is an incredibly powerful tool in education and trumps all other media formats in terms of functionality and usability. Animation in education stimulates the senses and thus makes information processing much easier for students. It also makes learning more fun, making way for better problem solving and creativity. Frankly, there are just way too many advantages that animations can bring and this article would be too long should anyone try to list all of them.

For how to properly use animation in teaching and explaining complex concepts, do check out this article. This is your chance to think outside the box and make your online course the most original ever. 

They create a sense of community

Remember how the Programming in Python course hands out assignments and lets peers grade each other? That’s a super trick of enabling interaction between learners.

The only downside of studying online is the lack of face-to-face communication. But that doesn’t mean everyone is studying alone. One of your priorities is to encourage interaction between students.

One small “game” you can have them play is “Think-Pair-Share”. The name says it all: you tell your students to think about a problem, then pair them up and have them talk about it with their partner. Of course, you can alter the rules and tailor the game to the number of students in your online course.



The 2 online courses prove to be worthy of their titles as all time top 100 with their carefully crafted content and the strategies they deploy. You can see many courses succeeding at doing the same thing. Check out any course on EdX, Coursera, Khan Academy, Udemy or Lynda, etc. and you will find the same success stories of online courses. Again, if you are an instructional designer, you should be able to learn a lot from how they achieve their successes and apply to your online course in progress. 

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