Effective Content Formats for Learning Online


In the field of education and content delivery, finding the most effective ways to engage and educate online learners is an ongoing challenge. With a wide range of options and rapidly evolving technology, there’s much debate, yet research does provide some clarity. Given these dynamics, it’s crucial for educators to stay flexible, informed, and proactive. Of course, no matter the choice of content format, adapting to changes, staying updated with the latest advancements, and thinking ahead are key practices that ensure teaching methods remain relevant and impactful. This message emphasizes the importance of agility and continuous learning in the ever-changing landscape of education. That said… here are my thoughts.

Content Formats

When it comes to content formats for online learning, there are numerous options. From classic discussions, slide decks, and PDFs to more modern options such as podcasts, animations, videos, and virtual reality systems. The good news is that there are plenty of options. The bad news is that it can feel overwhelming trying to choose which ones might be best. Of course, which content format is the most effective seems to be debatable and perhaps even relative to the situation.

While some formats seem to be universally more effective than others, the research indicates that perhaps the best format largely depends on the needs and general capabilities of the audience (Cook & Dupras, 2004). That said, the key to remember here is that it’s not about the teacher; it’s about the student. Assuming that these needs have been assessed and addressed, I can provide several universals, or common themes, that I have discovered in my research over the years. However, in each of the themes reviewed, there were also some universally accepted considerations that must be taken into account.

Technical skills, reading and writing levels, and time allotted are a few examples of common considerations that must be made (Minnesota State, n.d.). For example, you could have the best course in the world, with the best formats available, but if your students cannot make the time for it, it’s all for nothing. Similarly, if they cannot afford the time but try to cram it anyway, there is a good chance that they will be less engaged or miss the lesson altogether. Moreover, if the format is unfamiliar, they will likely spend more time getting comfortable with the format than engaging in the lesson.

Therefore, the chosen format should be easy to use and largely understood by most. Keeping the content logical, consistent, concise, and visual were a few other necessary considerations (CITL, n.d.). With these in mind, it would seem only logical that an interactive class or video presentation might be best in most situations. Of course, science backs this recommendation due to the fact that the brain processes images better than written words and because video typically helps learners retain more information (Trafton, 2014).

However, video alone may not be enough. Rebecca Alber of the George Lucas Educational Foundation suggests including and stating a clear purpose or mission for the video being utilized, along with ample time for students to critically reflect upon what has been viewed or learned (Alber, 2019). In other words, don’t just show a video to show to video, and don’t inundate your students with mind-numbing homework. To clarify, while video should be a large component of the courses we construct, these videos should be accompanied by a clearly defined desired outcome (what success looks like), as well as a critical reflection assignment that focuses on how the learner can actually use the information provided.

Additional Considerations

The ability to adapt, make informed decisions, and pursue ongoing professional growth stands as the foundation for creating impactful learning experiences. Holistically, there are three critical areas that can universally empower educators: Adaptability and Flexibility, Data-Driven Decision Making, and Professional Development and Continuous Learning. Let’s discuss those.

Adaptability and Flexibility

The need for adaptability in education has never been more pronounced. With technological advancements and changing student needs, educators must remain flexible in their teaching methods and content delivery. This means being open to new ideas, technologies, and pedagogical (and sometimes andragogical) strategies that can enhance student engagement and learning outcomes. Educators who embrace change and adapt their approaches can better meet the diverse needs of their students, creating a more effective learning environment. Of course, this makes the educator more valuable.

Data-Driven Decision Making

Educators now have access to an unprecedented amount of data that can inform their teaching practices. They should probably use them. However, they should also be cautious of the revisionist and agenda-driven components. Indulging in these is a fast track to destroying your credibility. Regardless, from student performance metrics to engagement analytics, data-driven decision-making allows educators to tailor their instruction to the specific needs of their learners. By analyzing data, educators can identify trends and patterns that help them understand what works best for their students, leading to more targeted and effective teaching strategies. If you are not familiar with this approach, then you need to learn about it. This brings us to the next point.

Professional Development and Continuous Learning

Education is continually evolving, and it will continue to evolve rapidly in the coming years. To remain competitive or viable, educators must make professional development and continuous learning a priority. By engaging in ongoing professional growth opportunities, educators can stay abreast of the latest educational technologies, instructional strategies, and research. Remember that expertise was not achieved upon graduation, nor will it be maintained by adhering to the status quo. Of course, this commitment to learning not only enhances an educator’s skill set but also inspires innovation in the classroom, ultimately benefiting students. Arguably, the most important aspect of continuous learning is that you’re leading by example.

Closing Thoughts

The journey toward creating engaging and effective educational experiences is ongoing and multifaceted. However, it doesn’t have it be hard, but it does have to be strategic. The strategies outlined herein form a robust foundation for educators looking to navigate the complexities of modern teaching and learning. As we look toward the future of education, it is clear that those who embrace change, leverage data, and invest in their growth will be best positioned to inspire and educate the next generation of learners. The others will simply be left behind.


Alber, R. (2019, March 18). Using Video Content to Amplify Learning. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/using-video-content-amplify-learning

CITL. (n.d.). Online Course-in-a-Box. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://citl.illinois.edu/citl-101/online-strategy-development/develop-or-revise-an-online-course/online-course-in-a-box/building-your-course/delivering-content/delivering-content-online

Cook, D. A., & Dupras, D. M. (2004). A practical guide to developing effective web-based learning. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 19(6), 698-707. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1497.2004.30029.x

Minnesota State. (n.d.). What Makes a Successful Online Learner? Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://careerwise.minnstate.edu/education/successonline.html

Trafton, A. (2014, January 16). In the blink of an eye. Retrieved September 23, 2020, from https://news.mit.edu/2014/in-the-blink-of-an-eye-0116