The Truth About Why You Aren’t Learning Anything in Your Online Classes

The Truth About Why You Aren’t Learning Anything in Your Online Classes

Your online classes aren't working for you

I got an email this morning from Mary over at A-List Blogging (maybe you did, too?). It was titled “6 Reasons Why Blogger Trainings Fail.”

As I read through, I noticed my head nodding up and down. Yup. Yup. Yup. She’s SO right about this stuff.

Here’s just a portion of the email:

Here are the six reasons why most blogging trainings suck:

1. Traffic strategies that don’t get traffic. In other words, the stuff they teach just doesn’t work – it’s outdated information, or not effective. Sometimes, it’s just pure fiction.

2. Insider Secrets are reserved for $10,000 clients. They teach crumbs to most students, and save the real meat-and-potatoes for their high-paying, ultra-super-platinum clients.

3. Strategies that cost money instead of making money. Instead of teaching you how to make money, they just point you to dozens of other paid services.

4. Trainings designed for ex-programmers who speak in code. All of their training and instructions are written in an alphabet soup of acronyms, like HTML, CSS, PHP, PPC, CPM and more. (And here you are without your decoder ring.)

5. Blog building on a 70-hour per week schedule. They teach strategies that work great – just so long as you’re implementing them full-time (with three full-time Virtual Assistants to help you).

6. “Here’s your eBook; now best of luck, you’re on your own.” This one burns me up the most. When you buy *training*, what you need is a TEACHER, not a collection of pre-packaged blog posts!


You can read her full email here.

There’s a huge difference between taking a class in-person and participating in something online.

I started out teaching biz plan writing classes for my local women’s business center years ago. They were 12-weeks of bonding, sharing and learning in a real-life environment. And usually the folks (both women and men) who took the classes completed all (or most) of the homework, proudly displaying their completed biz plans at the end of the course.

Most students also told me the class had been life changing for them. (As a teacher, it just doesn’t get any better than that!)

That kind of stuff rarely happens in an online course. Mostly for the reasons Mary pointed out.

Here are a few more:

1. There’s no teacher/student eye contact. Even when you do get to interact with the instructor in an online environment, it’s usually via a webinar. And all you get to do is type a comment into the chat box (if you’re there when the thing is done live). People underestimate the power of eye contact in building a relationship. And online instructors especially need to think about this stuff if they want their students to engage with them and the course materials. Eye contact keeps us accountable. It’s an unspoken method of saying I’m here. I’m showing up — for you and myself. I’m committed. It’s hard to blow off your instructor once you’ve looked them in the eye.

2. There are too many distractions. Being online is a rabbit hole for most of us. The constant desire to check one’s email or see what’s new on Facebook makes it difficult at best to focus on learning. Only the most disciplined of us will shut down the other windows and concentrate just on the work in front of us. In a real classroom, most of us would be embarrassed to be seen checking our email during a class discussion. (Yes, it does happen, but not as often as it does during an online meeting.) I admit I’m just as guilty of this as the next person. But if we aren’t fully present and focused during a class meeting, nothing that’s said will stick.

3. There’s no requirement to participate. When you sign up for most online courses — whether they’re delivered on-demand or not — nobody asks you to leave if you don’t participate. In fact, nobody even notices or cares if you don’t show up for a discussion. You could be dead on the side of the road for all they know…as long as you paid your fee, you’re in. And if it’s an on-going membership type thing, they’ll happily take your money until you shut it off. Kind of like that gym membership you once had.

4. There’s no small group work or buddy system. In college courses, I always found it slightly annoying when the professor would have us work together on a project. I didn’t fully appreciate then the power of collaborative learning. It was only when I began teaching the biz plan course that I saw exactly why we’d been asked to buddy up. It did so many things in one fell swoop: added another layer of accountability; allowed stronger students to help mentor the weaker ones; pushed folks beyond their comfort zone, allowing them to develop leadership skills, and more.

5. There’s not enough critical thinking. Many online courses promise to teach you someone’s “blueprint” or “roadmap.” Just follow these step-by-step instructions and you, too, will create a 6-figure business in just 90 days! The instructor rarely asks you to think about their process as a starting point. To ask questions like, Will this work for my audience and my business? If we aren’t encouraged to ask questions, we don’t really learn anything. Just as a paint-by-numbers painting won’t get you very far in the art market, a paint-by-numbers marketing system will just help you look like everyone else. NOT the best way to stand out from the crowd. Which isn’t to say that a starter recipe here and there can’t be a useful learning tool. But the instructors need to help their students find their own best way.

I could go on, but you see my point here, don’t you? Learning something — whether online or off — requires the student and the instructor to show up and stay present to the process.

It’s exactly why I created The Digital Dining Room the way that I did. Because I couldn’t just put together some pre-packaged videos and call it a day. And because I was tired of seeing folks give their hard-earned money to programs that they never finished, let alone implemented. (Yep. Been there done that, too.)

My lessons are never pre-recorded. Sure, we record them so if a member can’t be there live, they can catch up later. But we meet together in a Google Hangout and the students are encouraged to participate on-air so we can see each other, put a name with a face and get to know each other as real people.

I also don’t allow students to go more than 30 days on silent mode. Extreme introverts still need to check in with me. And I put them all into study groups to facilitate discussion around each month’s topic.

And finally, we don’t use templates. Yes to guidelines. Yes to starter recipes. And an even bigger yes to asking questions.

The Digital Dining Room (DDR) is my answer to some of the biggest issues with online learning. I’m the first to admit it’s not perfect. I’m still refining and experimenting. But it’s working. 

One member recently told me she’d gotten more accomplished in the last 30 days than she had in the previous 6 months on her own.

Now that’s some powerful learning!

How about you? What’s been your experience with online classes?  Share with us in a comment below. 

  • Nikole Gipps

    I do have a problem with the “critical thinking” part … applying what is learned in a course to my own business when my own business model is outside the model used in the course, because the lessons are usually given in a very narrow way.

    • Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      Exactly, Nikole. None of us spend enough time asking questions like how can I make this work for my business (or SHOULD I even try)? Probably because we weren’t encouraged as children (at home and in school) to question authority. So when someone tells us now *this is the right way to do this,* we believe them without question. Time for ALL classes — both online and off — to turn over a new leaf!

  • Moonpoppy

    Tea, I had to giggle at your likening memberships to gym memberships *ha* – food for thought, indeedy. I prefer to work in intimate groups – even with online learning – so I love your Digital Dining Room concept :)

    • Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      Yes! Small groups can do powerful things together. Not to mention the relationships you forge are so much deeper. Glad you think the DDR is a good concept. We’d love to have you join us!

  • Kim Manley Ort

    As someone who teaches online classes, this is an eye-opener, Tea. I certainly hope my classes don’t suck!

    I don’t teach classes that impart a lot of information. They encourage people to get out and experience life and discover what they already know inside – challenging when you are not meeting face to face. It’s hard to hold people accountable to doing the work. Those that participate in the groups and share their experiences seem to get a lot out of it.

    The real power from online classes comes from intimate groups of like-minded people sharing their experiences together. And, facilitating those groups is an art in itself.

    From a business standpoint, however, it does not lead to financial windfalls because the groups need to be fairly small and it requires a lot of time on the part of the facilitator. However, it is very rewarding in many other ways.

    Building in face to face time through something like Google+ hangouts is something I have not tried yet, but would like to experiment with.

    • Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      G+ hangouts would probably be fabulous for you and your groups, Kim. You could even lead an outdoor tour if you had someone follow you along with the camera (I think there’s an app for running hangouts on your iphone).
      You’re right tho, this isn’t something that will create tons of money for the instructor, which is why you’ve got to price it just right.
      Look at your ceiling (the maximum # of hours you want to work) and figure out how many people you could realistically help that way. Then look at your costs and revenue goals and divide that by the # of people you decided is your max. That’s the simple formula, but obviously the less people you can handle, the higher the price the class will need to be. And that’s okay. Your prices can be higher if you’re giving tons of value.

  • Melanie Kissell

    I’ve been an instructor in the offline arena for many years and even THAT’S a big enough challenge … when students are right in front of me! Teaching an online course has got to amount to at least triple the challenge for all the reasons you’ve highlighted, Tea.

    These words are golden …

    “If we aren’t encouraged to ask questions, we don’t really learn
    anything. Just as a paint-by-numbers painting won’t get you very far in
    the art market, a paint-by-numbers marketing system will just help you
    look like everyone else.” I’m really fed up to the gills with online courses that tout “easy-to-follow blueprints”, “6 easy steps to 6 figures”, etc. As far as I’ve witnessed, most of those teachings are a pile of bunk. Sheer and blatant regurgitated crap.

    Sometime around mid 2011, I started to wean myself off online courses. I was in the habit of signing up for way too many “opportunities” (I’ll use the term loosely) that, for starters, I wasn’t able to attend “live” because of my offline work schedule. Trying to keep up with replays, in my opinion, is a losing battle. The rock bottom line is that I’ve honestly gotten little to nothing from the majority of online courses I’ve opted in to — whether paid or free.

    As an educator, know what I REALLY hate?! Deceitfulness. I hate deceitfulness with a purple passion. Please don’t tell me you’re going to “teach” me something when all you’re really trying to do is “sell” me something … like your high-end packages.

    • Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      It’s true – there are a LOT of blueprints out there, huh? I think that’s because there is a sort of need for them — at least in the beginning (reference my Blogwarts School of Online Marketing post in our FB group). Recipes aren’t all bad. But there needs to be a much larger emphasis placed on critical thinking about those recipes so folks can learn how to play with them and customize them for themselves. I always love to hear from you here, Mel!

      • Melanie Kissell

        The sentiments are mutual, Tea, because I love the privilege of being here.

        “Customization” … now there’s a novel idea! 😉

  • Karen McCamy

    I guess I’m in the minority, likely because i’ve been a teacher. Probably also because I enroll in online courses very “judiciously!” :-)

    I think it all comes down to motivation… So many people become “perpetual students” when it comes to launching their businesses…It’s far easier to say “I’m not quite ready yet…I’ll just take this 1 additional course…then I’ll be ready!” Of course, they are NEVER ready and are stuck in a perpetual of “learning” instead of doing.

    My big “issue” with some online courses that “force” public discussion — and it carries over into my own course design tendencies — is that I am by nature very private… I don’t like presenting each course step “answer” publicly… It’s funny, because when I take traditional “classroom” courses, I’m not shy at all. Maybe it has something to do with the competitive nature of business… (The only thing competitive about “academia” is the final grade! 😉 LOL!)

    Consequently, I have trouble desiging group interaction into my courses, even though I see the potential benefits to learners… i’d like to find a way to offer a compromise, for learners to report back to me yet not make their questions and progress public…

    Great article, though… I DO agree with your points about online courses in general. i think it’s taking responsibility as a learner to know what the pitfalls are and how to avoid them, on a person-by-person basis. Takes a lot of soul-searching, and in my experience, most people are too willing to point the finger at “others” outside of themselves…

    That old “victim mentality” will kill you and your business!

    • Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

      You’ve hit the nail on the head, Karen. So many folks start out with the best of intentions but either aren’t motivated or disciplined enough to follow through on the entire course — let alone implement what they’ve learned.
      But of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, and YOU my dear, are an exceptional student!
      Thanks for chiming in.

  • Guest

    I agree with your post! My comment will be kind of off-topic to your website and post…sorry. I go to an online school, it is called Keystone Online. The way the system works to my knowledge is where you log in, read lessons, and do the work yourself by yourself. The teacher there is there for grading the assignments and can answer questions when the students ask. The teacher doesn’t teach, the student does. I can’t seem to remember anything I learn from online school. I am learning things to pass the assignments and tests. This online approach only works on math for me. I am able to go through math somewhat quickly and efficiently. For the other subjects, they are not going so well. I find it very difficult to stay focus and do my school work at home. I have become a less motivated and more procrastinated(and lazy) student. I have an urge to watch YouTube videos and check Facebook lots of times in the day when I am suppose to be studying. I miss the classroom where the teacher is actually teaching in real life. If I couldn’t go back to school, I wish I had a private teacher/tutor. (My parents love online schooling. They think I am learning more and not just learning to past a test. And that can go at my own pace. They hope more people will do online instead of traditional.) Sorry for writing about my not so well experience with online schooling.

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