Gain a Competitive Edge: The Essential Elements of an Engaging Online Learning Experience

Do you and your team spend more time on in-person education or online education? If in-person has taken priority again, you’re doing your association and your members a disservice.

Yes, of course we’re biased, but research shows how consumption patterns have changed, especially among younger generations. A LinkedIn survey found that over 86% of Generation Z have enrolled in online courses to build hard and soft skills. Online is more convenient, affordable, and familiar for many professionals, not just younger ones.

Online learning is a big business. LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Coursera, and EdX have been joined by FutureLearn and IDEO U plus many others. I keep running across specialized for-profit learning companies, like this outfit who’s competing with SHRM and all their chapters. I’m sure they’re not the only competition for SHRM in the HR industry and I know the HR industry isn’t the only one feeling the heat from for-profit competitors.

You may think your association has the advantage since you have a captive member audience and a reputable brand. Besides, you have the best content.

But guess what? Content is everywhere. Content is a commodity. People who want to learn have lots of options and many of them are cheaper, more convenient, and more enjoyable than yours.

You must differentiate your online learning programs from the competition. The best way is to design engaging online learning programs that deliver community too. People will pay extra for social learning, which is why cohort programs are so popular. Social learning is the best way to win the hearts and minds of your market.

woman with a laptop enjoying an engaging online learning experience

Essential elements of an effective and engaging online learning experience

It’s challenging enough to design captivating synchronous (live) online learning programs. For asynchronous programs, think beyond the content and intentionally build engagement elements into the experience.

Learning at the right pace

Learners disengage when they’re in an online class full of people who are taking much longer to get the hang of something than they are. Or vice versa: the learner feels like they’re the only one who’s falling behind as the class moves on. When the pace isn’t right, learners tune out.

People like asynchronous programs because they can work at their own pace. In live instruction, flipped learning helps solve the pacing problem. Learners study new information on their own before class. If they need help, the instructor or classmates are available via messaging, email, or the discussion forum. Because everyone is up to speed, they can dive deeper and apply new information during class.

Learning in the right quantity

Deliver text, video, and audio content in small chunks that are easier for brains to digest and retain. An asynchronous program with bite-sized microlearning content is easier for a learner to fit into their busy life.

Learning from a mix of formats

Even dedicated readers tire of reading, especially after a day in front of the screen. Mix up content formats. Make some videos interactive so learners have to recall what they’re taking in. Always intersperse instruction with interactive pair or small group exercises and discussions. Have learners actively apply what they’re learning by assessing, diagnosing, interacting, solving, or role-playing.

Retrieval practice

Applying what you learn is an example of retrieval practice: retrieving and producing new content from memory. The more you retrieve and produce new information from memory, the more likely it will stick with you for the long-term.

Real-life examples

Stories are a hundred times more interesting than concepts and theories. Share examples and case studies, even if you have to make them up. Emulate Law & Order by using stories from the news.

Job takeaways

Recalling and applying new knowledge in the “classroom” is essential. But learning becomes even stickier—and the program more valuable—when learners immediately apply what they learn on the job. Discuss how learners can try out new skills or use new knowledge at work before the next class or module.

woman with a laptop enjoying an engaging online learning experience

The #1 engagement factor: social learning

Social learning is the key to enjoyable and effective online learning programs. It takes a superhuman level of discipline and willpower to stay focused on purely passive content, which is why MOOCs have horrible retention rates between 5% and 15%.

But cohort-based online learning programs have an 85% retention rate because social learning results in a deeper understanding of the content, better retention, and stronger commitment to completing the program.

Asynchronous programs present a challenge for social learning, but it’s not completely impossible if you build some of these elements into the program.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is necessary for building trust among learners. They must feel included, valued, and respected. A sense of safety makes learners more willing to ask a question, risk giving the wrong answer, and propose an idea.

During onboarding, require learners to agree to a code of conduct or rules of engagement. Quiz them on it.

Shared sense of purpose

Learners enter a program as strangers to each other, but they share similar professional goals, challenges, and aspirations. Remind learners about these commonalities. They’re all making the effort to better themselves—that puts them into an elite group, even the ones who are learning on their own.  


Don’t allow learners to remain strangers. You want them to relax around each other so they can be vulnerable, empathetic, and helpful. You want them to trust each other and raise each other up.

The number one reason people join associations is to network, which means meeting and developing relationships with others. They can achieve this goal during online learning programs, as classmates become acquaintances and, perhaps, friends.

In live instruction, encourage learners to turn on their video. Always split into small groups or pairs in breakout rooms for interactive exercises and discussions.

Require participation in the course’s online discussion forum between classes—a place to go when they’re stuck, having an aha moment, or need help.

Let asynchronous learners know they’re not alone in their learning journey. Others are going through the same program or a similar experience. Give them access to discussion forums set up for their program and similar programs. You could see cross-pollination for your courses: “Do you like that course? I was thinking I might do that next.”

Schedule virtual monthly meetups for asynchronous learners. Ask a guest instructor, author, or industry expert to speak for a bit. Then moderate a discussion or split into breakouts for structured networking. Invite program alumni so you can keep them in the fold.


People prefer learning alongside and from their peers—think “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage.” In live instruction, have them work in pairs and small groups during class and as homework. Require discussion forum participation. Other collaboration options are peer reviews or group capstone projects.


Learners are responsible for showing up and doing the work. They must also be a good cohort citizen by contributing to discussions, sharing what they know, and helping others.

This group ethos helps everyone succeed. They hold each other accountable for making their best effort. After a long day, it’s tempting to blow off class, but not if you’re going to get the third degree from your cohort.

Don’t fall into the dangerous trap of assuming stellar content is enough to attract and engage learners. You can’t just sell content. Sell a transformative learning experience. Learners want to walk away with new skills and knowledge, but also new connections, or at least the opportunity to make those connections if they’re learning on their own.

learner engagement
online learning
Social Learning
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