Managing successful online courses: 2. Materials

In the last 10 years there has been an exponential growth in the number and type of online courses and materials available for use by language organisations wanting to set up their own online courses. Offers range from highly prescribed, ready-to-go courses which involve relatively little set-up time, to loosely structured courses, banks of material or platforms where material can be created from scratch and consequently take longer to set up.

There are a number of considerations to take into account when selecting which online materials to use as part of an online course.  So, how do you decide what material to use? What criteria should you use to select the material or course which will best work for you?

Post 1 in this section covers your clients’ needs and expectations and how they should play an important part in your decision of what material to use.

Other important considerations are budget restraints, time restraints and issues of continuity. Budget restraints will inevitably restrict your choice of online materials, some materials are relatively cheap to license while others are expensive (usually there is a correlation between cost and quality). However, when costing the price of online courses and materials available on the market, it is important to remember that a more expensive, ready-to-use, quality online course could save you a lot of money when compared with of the cost of paying somebody to create materials and or put together a more tailored online course out of banks of online materials.

In terms of time, off-the-peg courses have the advantage that they are ready to go immediately. So, if you have a client who wants to start in a short time scale, these types of courses will allow you to do this.

It is also important to have a mid and even long-term perspective when selecting material. Ideally, your client will be so satisfied with your online course that they will want more after the course has finished. It is therefore interesting to consider how much continuity can be provided by the materials provider you select. Many course providers which supply ready to go courses will offer a series of consecutive levels e.g. from A1 to C2 which will allow a satisfied client to continue up through the levels with the same guarantee of satisfaction.

The offset of ready-to-go courses is the lack of or limited customisation. If a client is looking for a course which will satisfy specific requirements beyond those catered for by general courses, it might be difficult to find ready-to-go courses which fit these needs and therefore be necessary to go with a course provider which provides banks of materials which can be used to build customised courses and additionally allows you to create your own materials. The advantage of this option is a more flexible and tailor-made course. The downside is that in order for this option to be successful it requires a high level of expertise on the part of the language institution or course designer to construct a coherent and effective course which will satisfy the client (see post 3 for the relevance of the teacher/tutor in the choice of course material).

Although now rather dated, Robin Mason’s (1998) observations are still pertinent if we apply them loosely to current practices. She grouped online courses into three categories: content + support model (prescribed course content and tutorial support), wrap around model (more tutor flexibility to adapt and support content), and integrated model (student and tutor negotiated content). She argues that the content + support model can be more cost-effective with large numbers of students. However, “for small courses in niche subjects the [wrap around model] can be a very cost-effective model”.

The third option of student and tutor negotiated content, while fascinating, is the least adopted option and is beyond the logistical constraints of most commercial language organisations and therefore is not discussed here.

While focusing on the content of the materials or course to be selected is of prime importance, other more peripheral issues related to the choice of material should not be ignored.  When selecting material, language organisations should also ask themselves the following questions: Is the learner management system easy to use? Is it intuitive and clear for learners, tutors and course administrators? Does the information recorded on the platform satisfy the needs of the client? Is it easy to track student progress and if the course is subsidised by a government body, does it fulfil the funding body’s requirements?

The choice of what materials to use is not an easy one. However, if course organisers analyse the client’s expectations (post 1),  budget restrictions, possibilities of continuity, time restrictions, practical considerations related to the platform use and teacher expertise (see post 3), the chances are that the material selected will be successful.


Mason, R 1998 Open University