Unique Needs of Online Learners

In designing our curriculum and class logistics for instructor-led online training, we’ve tried to consider the needs of people who want to learn technical skills today. Our program is informed by the following factors:

Curated microlearning and microcredentials

Particularly in regard to professional-level work-related training, there has been a trend away from large-scale, comprehensive curricula toward highly-focused, very short training in specific areas of knowledge or practical skills. This applies to experienced people who need to learn a specific new skill as well as to those who want to prepare for an entry-level position in the field.

For instance, an experienced Java developer might need to learn how to write microservices with Spring Boot. An experienced .NET developer might need to learn how to deploy code to Microsoft Azure. They need brief, well-targeted training that gets straight to the point.

An adult newcomer to software development has similar needs. They already have a day job and a family to support. They don’t have time or patience for an extended computer science curriculum. They need to learn enough to qualify for an entry-level position. They need to access training in a way that is practical for them, given constraints on time and money.

So, microlearning is learning in very small chunks. Curated means filtered or selected. Learners don’t have time to sift through a mountain of ore in search of one or two gold nuggets. But what are microcredentials?

Well, you know what regular credentials are. Spend four years at university, and you get a credential: A Bachelor’s degree. Spend more years in school and you can get additional credentials. Each of these credentials represents a considerable investment in time, effort, and money, and certifies the person has studied and practiced many different things.

A microcredential is an acknowledgment that a person has learned a very specific topic or skill. The aforementioned Java developer might earn a microcredential acknowledging that she has demonstrated skill in writing microservices with Spring Boot. The .NET developer might earn one because he demonstrated skill in deploying code to Azure.

And what’s the value of a microcredential if it doesn’t come from some sort of “official” body or university? As a learner, the immediate value to you is to provide positive reinforcement for your effort to learn a specific skill. A longer-term value is to serve as a reminder to be worthy of the credential; its meaning depends on how you apply the new skill on the job.

Effective ways to learn

Our instructor-led online training is meant to serve people who have certain learning needs. One of the key considerations is time. We want to use the available time as effectively as we can. To that end, we’ve considered three effective ways of learning.

Experiential Learning

This is an approach developed by David Kolb in which learners repeatedly pass through a four-stage cycle: Do, Observe, Think, Plan.

In the Do stage, learners experience an activity that is new to them, but not so far from their current knowledge as to be impossible.

In the Observe stage, the learner consciously reflects on the experience, guided by the instructor. An important point is that the experience comes before the explanation.

In the Think stage, the learner builds his/her understanding of the underlying principles that shaped the experience.

In the Plan stage, the learner looks for a way to test his/her theory about why the experience was the way it was. They are planning their next Do stage.

Collaborative learning

It seems to be the case that people learn more effectively when they help each other than when they sit quietly listening to a lecture, viewing a video, or reading text.

The lack of interaction with others is a major downside of self-directed online learning via websites, articles, podcasts, and videos. We seek to mitigate this and to bring some degree of live interaction to our classes by using videoconferencing tools and collaborative software development methods such as pair programming and mob programming.

Training From the Back of the Room

Backed by a wealth of experience and research, Sharon Bowman’s Training From the Back of the Room: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn proposes a model she calls the 4 C’s: Connect, Concepts, Concrete Practice, and Conclusions. We usually put Concrete Practice ahead of Concepts, in keeping with Experiential Learning, especially for hands-on skills; but we take many lessons from Bowman’s work.

What self-learners have wished for

The considerations above come from professional educators and trainers, and researchers in the field of education and training. But what do self-learners actually find frustrating or difficult about learning using online resources?

Fortunately, Jessica Rose posed a question on Twitter in 2019 asking people who have self-learned technical skills, or who are in the process of doing so, what their biggest challenges are. Many responded, providing a lot of useful information to help us tailor our online training to meet the needs of real people.

In a nutshell, they identified the following challenges:

  • Insider jargon
  • Assumed prior knowledge
  • Wrong level of detail
  • No correlation with industry demand
  • Uninteresting tutorials and examples
  • Lack of focus on the target skill
  • Examples given without context
  • Takes too much time
  • Can’t think of anything to work on for practice
  • Don’t ask questions because I fear looking foolish
  • Distractions; hard to stay focused
  • How can I monitor my progress?
  • Examples and tutorials are trivial; not “real world”

We’ve tried to take account of these concerns in designing our online training.


To learn more about curated microlearning, start with this article on EdSurge: As the Corporate World Moves Toward Curated Microlearning Higher Ed Must Adapt.

To learn more about Experiential Learning, start with this explanation on learning-theories.com: Experiential Learning.

For an overview of key concepts from Training From the Back of the Room, see this summary: A short overview of Training From the Back of the Room.

For a more complete description of what learners have wished for, see the article on this site, What do self-learners need?.

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