How to (Not) Make a Good First Impression in Online Learning

The path that learners take into a learning experience is an overlooked yet critical aspect of their journey.

We all know how much first impressions matter. They may matter even more in online experiences; more than half of people depart an average web page within 15 seconds. I want to take a closer look at the first steps learners take in most online learning experiences. It’s my contention that these first steps have a big impact on the outcomes (such as reach, engagement, and impact) that we’re aiming for when we offer an online learning experience in the first place. This relates directly to some of the key principles of Empiricism, particularly the principle of meeting learners where they are. It’s probably hard enough to make your target learners aware of what you are offering, so if many of them are leaving in just a few seconds or a few minutes, you may want to find out why.

There are many different elements that contribute to your learners’ first impressions. We need to use a design thinking process to understand their needs and the barriers they encounter as they transition into learning. Then, we have to make it our job to systematically break down those barriers. A better first impression sets the stage for higher engagement, more learning, and more impact: it can kick off a virtuous cycle. 

For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on asynchronous and open online learning experiences (MOOCs and their ilk), but I’m quite confident that many of these concepts are transferable to synchronous learning experiences, such as webinars, and closed learning experiences, such as online university courses.

Mobile Readiness

Most of my consulting work focuses on training health workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Mobile readiness is important in many settings, but for this learner population, it is of paramount importance. In Africa, wireless (usually 3G) internet access is more widespread than wired connections, and mobile devices are the primary means of accessing the internet in this setting. If the landing page of your learning experience isn’t easy to use on a mobile device, that’s the first strike. You want to be sure that your learners can easily find and access the learning content that interests them the most. The more content you offer, the more challenging this becomes because you also need to help learners quickly wade through all of that content.

Mobile readiness goes well beyond optimizing for small screens. You should also consider how your users will sign up for the learning experience. In some settings, many learners who own smartphones do not use email. In such a setting, a registration and enrollment process that gives users alternatives to email verification when signing up (such as SMS, WhatsApp, or Telegram), can be invaluable. To recognize what services your users are most likely to use, you need to talk to your learners and exercise empathy. This is particularly critical when your learners may have access to technologies that are different from those that you use regularly.

Count the Screens

Once I realize that I’m interested in learning something or testing out a learning experience, I want to start right away. Unfortunately, I usually need to pause to sign up for the learning experience itself. This pause can be brief – a few seconds – or it can take much longer. There’s a lot of variation between different platforms and providers. To get a sense of the range, I did a quick audit of several different organizations (listed below) that provide free COVID-19-related training for health workers. The test worked like this: 

  1. I pretended to be a new learner interested in a particular learning experience offered by that provider (usually a “course” or a “module”).
  2. I tried to sign up for the learning experience to begin learning. 
  3. I counted the number of screens between the public landing page (usually in some kind of catalog), and the learning experience itself. Note this did not include the first screen (the public page on which the course was advertised), or the last screen (usually the home page of the course itself).

The sign-up process ranged from incredibly simple to needlessly complex. There could be just a few steps to sign up, but there might also be as many as eight screens between the landing page and entering the learning experience itself. So, what’s happening in all of these steps, and how can the sign-up process be improved?

Rock and Regenroll

When I worked at HMX, I learned the term “regenroll,” a portmanteau of “registration” and “enrollment.” Registration refers to signing up for the platform that hosts the learning experience, while enrollment refers to signing up for a specific course or learning experience. These steps can be combined: when signing up for a platform, you can also be enrolled in the learning experience that brought you to that platform in the first place. Or…you might not. The provider with the most steps in my tests had separate registration and enrollment workflows. What that meant in practice is that I had to go back and register before I enrolled in a course. To combine these processes, when a learner registers because she is trying to enroll in a specific course, that course enrollment step should be done automatically. Ideally, the learner should also be brought to the home page of the course she enrolled in, so she can start learning right away.

Registration often involves verifying your email address. This is another step that can gum up a regenroll process. Some providers (including all of those I audited that had the lowest number of regenroll steps) let you proceed into a course before you’ve verified your email. You still have to verify it – eventually – but this isn’t a barrier to getting started. The provider with the most regenroll steps in my tests required email verification before proceeding with a learning experience. This creates a lot of opportunities for easily distracted learners to drop out.

Focus on Your Learners

To make a good first impression, you need to cultivate empathy for your learners. In particular, take an objective look at how much trouble they go through just to get into the learning experience you are offering. One of the best ways to do this is to run some tests with real end-users and get their feedback. Beta testing is your friend. However, running a beta test is going to require a working prototype. Even before you have a working version of your learning experience, you should be sure that it’s mobile-friendly, user-friendly, and has a simple and seamless regenroll process. Use mockups and wireframes to get a sense of exactly how it works, and always look to simplify where you can. If you don’t do this work in advance, you’re just doing your learners a great disservice and inadvertently hurting your chances of achieving the outcomes that you desire.

Regenroll Processes Tested

Here are the online learning providers I tested for the purposes of this exercise: EdX, Coursera, FutureLearn, OpenWHO, BMJ Learning, and Community Health Academy. On each of these platforms, I counted the screens I had to pass through to transition from a public area advertising a specific course to being enrolled in, and on the first page of, that specific course.