What’s the ideal duration for your online course? Is there a way to extend attention spans, and should you even do so? There is a whole spectrum of opinions on the subject. The rule of thumb is to keep it short and simple, yet the notions of both short and simple vary widely across disciplines and instructional approaches. You most definitely don’t want your audience to start yawning or checking their social accounts in the background. On the other hand, your message should be complete and comprehensive so the learners can sum up the key take-aways right after the class is through. To see what fellow trainers think, I gleaned some expert opinions and recommendations regarding course time management on the web and from personal conversations. Let’s hear what the community has to say.
Knowledge retention is a tricky thing. You are supposed to bring home to your students a complete, integral vision of a subject, yet the material is always better digested in small bits. Most experts confirm that a good length for a web-based course is somewhere between fifteen and thirty minutes. This traditional opinion builds on psychological research, specific content patterns and, more often than not, gut feeling.
Others think of bigger chunks and advise that a course must not exceed 1.5 hours, more like a standard lecture. This timing suits adult audiences better and ensures comprehensive insight into a subject. From another angle, 90 minutes might be easier to place on the learner’s calendar as a priority task, not a spontaneous activity they may end up dropping.
Some radicals suggest the shorter the better. 5 minutes tops. Indeed, the latest research reveals that engagement fades dramatically after the first 6 or 7 minutes. With a longer course, you’d probably be in the introduction phase on minute 7. The approach might, in fact, work as a short video covering particular issues, but then again you’re facing quite a series of recordings to make. Will they coalesce into a consistent course after all?
Before you waltz into the pitfalls of self-limitation, try to define your goals and presets.
Is your course interactive?
Engaging your audience as active participants is a great move. Interactivity requires more time, though. Are triggers, quizzes, surveys, Q&A, feedback forms, games and other bells and whistles going to be part of your lecture ‘body’? Or do you have to reserve extra time for that purpose? That’s some food for thought as well.
Do you need to make cuts?
Can you contain or manage your passion about cherished field of studies? When you’ve got a lot to say, filtering and ‘sacrificing’ content becomes a painful experience. How can you squeeze hours and days of offline class exercises into a half-hour slideshow? The truth is, you just can’t. The chosen format and communication channel dictate their rules. Try condensing the discourse and focusing on what really matters, split lectures into multiple tailored topics. Plus, make sure you provide reference material and extra reading pointers.
Forgive my comparison, but I often make forays into the world of mass culture, TV and advertising, to see how these segments match the e-Learning environment. Think of an average sitcom that lasts about 20 to 40 minutes. Everyone can spare that time unless we are talking some monstrously overbooked agendas. One hour, and an hour and a half are somewhat different – sounds like a lot of time.
How long can you keep on talking?
This one is really personal. Some might need a break after 10 minutes of speech, others could carry on chatting for hours without the slightest sign of fatigue. What’s your comfortable timespan?
Are there any budgetary considerations?
What are your production costs? Do you need external resources to help you with technical stuff or contribute third-party content? Don’t forget this point when you are deciding on the appropriate course length.
Apparently, attention spans are shrinking, and there is nothing you can do about it. As a rule, people want information fast and easy. However, your learner segment might stand out from the crowd. Do a little research of your own, listen to your students and collect feedback whenever possible. If you are on the same page with the learners, then you just can’t go wrong!
The bottom line is, how long should your course be? The frank answer is: long enough – or short enough – to make your audience happy.