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Eight Ways to Ensure Successful Skills-Based Training (Part 1)

Eight Ways to Ensure Successful Skills-Based Training (Part 1)
Facilitating discussion is critical to creating an environment for students to successfully learn much-needed skills.

In 2012, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) made a lot of noise in the world of higher education. Upon launching, there was shock and awe that Coursera, edX and Udacity were offering free education to the masses. While the initial buzz has worn off, people are still talking. More than four million students have enrolled in Coursera MOOCs since its launch, and now people are talking about the massive amount of data collected in the first year of MOOC operations.[1] Coursera founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller believe, with a little multivariate testing, they may be able to unlock the perfect higher education experience — and they may just do so.

However, not nearly as many people are talking about online skills-based education, which represents a smaller enrollment and more mature (and valuable; the MOOC market value is nil) marketplace. It, too, has been quietly enjoying the benefits of the fanfare around online education. Earlier this year,, the 17-year industry veteran, received $103 million in funding[2] and, just recently, a relatively new entrant, Grovo, received $5.5M in investment capital.[3] Both companies offer the skills training required for success in the “new workplace,” covering marketing, coding, web design and basic training in common software and web apps. However, there still isn’t anyone talking about how to develop the perfect skills-based learning experience.

Many online courses simply provide content for students to read or watch. However, the best skills-based courses provide two additional components: “talking” and “doing”. “Talking” simply entails a discussion or conversation around the subject, whereas “doing” comprises exercises and testing around the concepts being learned. These two components are integral for reviewing and reinforcing concepts learned and learning how to apply them. Below you will find four examples of how the “talking” components work and how course providers are using them to better prepare their students. Next week, I will share some examples of the “doing” components.


1. Comment Thread

The most basic form of conversation is the comment thread. Course providers can attach a conversation thread to just about any learning object. For instance, Learnable, a platform that offers front-end web development and design training via video tutorials and e-books, provides its users a comment thread for each video course or book. The benefit is students can have a topical discussion as they are learning.

Within the thread, users who are currently in the same course can interact with their fellow students and their instructor. The same feature is built around their e-book, creating a “book club” feel. There is also a general comment thread on the platform’s main page, where users can have a free discussion with each other and with platform managers. The downside to comment threads is sometimes students won’t get an answer right away and the threads can grow like weeds, so searching through them for useful commentary can be tedious.

2. Forums

Moving up slightly in complexity, we have forums. The forum is a tool that has been around since the dawn of the Internet and is still kicking. It’s quite similar to a comment thread except all of the threads are organized in one location, which is a nice feature for students who are in multiple courses. Team Treehouse, a platform that focuses on web development and app design, has taken an old communication tool and put a modern spin on it. They’ve abandoned the traditional “boxy look” for a smooth and aesthetically-pleasing design.

Their forum has a series of topics and tags based on their course structure that make it easy to find relevant courses. To make it more personal, one can also attach an avatar, or picture, to their profile, which gives some more personality to what could be a sterile, faceless interaction. Forums are largely depending on the community spirit. Fortunately, Treehouse has an active user base with thousands of web designers exchanging lines of code. Forums also have the issue of time delay, but the more active the forum, the quicker the response time.

3. Office Hours

The next step up, office hours, is a serious upgrade over comment threads and forums. The concept is quite similar to what most of us may have experienced in college. Once a week, once a month, or just before a major test, professors or teaching assistants invite students to come in for a free-form Q&A session. The only difference here is the medium, which is now a live webinar instead of being face-to-face in a small office. The webinar format allows the course platform to efficiently provide real-time help to the masses. is an online marketing training provider that is doing a great job in this department. Once a month, students are invited to register for the live office hours or submit questions if they cannot attend. Those who cannot make it can go back and view the call within a day or two. On the day of the call, the instructors will video dial-in to the meeting, and at the same time provide a presentation deck for some of the pre-planned content. Office hours shouldn’t be confused with a review session, so students should make sure to show up with a question. The one disadvantage of office hours is, if it’s really busy, the instructor may not get to your question. However, there is often another student who asks the same question.

4. One-on-One Instruction

Perhaps the best discussion option is one-on-one training directly from your instructor. It doesn’t get much better than having your teacher’s undivided attention and direct answers to your immediate questions. The bad news is this very hard to come by in the online learning world as it is difficult to scale at an affordable price. However, Thinkful, a programming tutor platform, is trying to implement just that with 16 programming teachers.

The student-mentor calls happen on a weekly basis via Google Hangout. This is just one part of the Thinkful offering, but the price tag is hefty at $900 for three months, whereas the solutions mentioned above are all less than $50 per month. Thinkful is also a time-sensitive platform whereas the others are self-serve.

– – – – References

[1] Tim Simonite, “As Data Floods In, Massive Open Online Courses Evolve,” MIT Technology Review, June 5, 2013. Accessible at

[2] Liz Gannes, “ Raises a Whopping $103M in First Outside Funding for Video Lessons,” All Things D, January 15, 2013. Accessible at

[3] Lauren Goode, “Grovo, a ‘How-To’ Video Company for Web Services and Apps, Raises $5.5 Million in Funding,” All Things D, July 17, 2013. Accessible at

This was the first installment of a two-part series by Brad Zomick looking into strategies to facilitate skills-based training. To read the second part of this series, please click here.

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