A Framework for Developing Online Learning

frameworkWhen you develop an online course, your goal is to close a gap. This is the gap between your audience’s current knowledge and skills and what the audience needs to learn and do. Become obsessed with closing the gap so distractions don’t obscure your vision.

Rapid Approach or Systematic Approach?

There are rapid approaches to course development and steady and sure systematic approaches. Both approaches are useful, depending on the type of project you are developing and your situation. The rapid approach works for smaller courses, for situations when time is short, for small audiences, etc. The systematic approach is better for large courses, when developing an entire curriculum and when you are targeting large and diverse audiences. This article focuses on the systematic approach to self-paced eLearning development. As a model, it is up to the developer to add the creativity and excitement that will motivate learners.

Instructional Design

Professionals in the field of eLearning typically use a framework known as Instructional Design (ID) for developing all types of instructional materials. Instructional Design is based on cognitive psychology, the study of how people think and learn.

A common development model you may come across for creating instructional products is ADDIE, which stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. I think the ADDIE model works best for instructor-led training, where Implementation occurs in a classroom and Evaluation involves getting feedback from participants.

Another Development Model

Instead of using ADDIE , I work with a model that is more aligned to developing self-paced eLearning. It consists of the phases that are described below. Although the model is actually iterative, meaning you will often have cause to go back to a previous phase—the overall direction of the process is shown here. This model is just a framework. It can only work if you understand your learners and how they learn.


Analysis: During the Analysis Phase, you research and identify the audience characteristics, the content (how its organized, what it means, how much there is), the learning environment (where and when users will take the course), and the technical requirements (web-based or CD-ROM, speed of the user’s internet connection, audio capability of computers, etc.). Your client, whether internal or external, may want the findings of your analysis to be documented. If so, you may want to include a content outline

Design: During the Design Phase, you design and document a big-picture view of the course by writing learning objectives derived from the content. Learning objectives are statements of what the learner should achieve from the course. Write your learning objectives in a way that they can be measured. You might base the learning objectives on existing materials, interviews with subject matter experts, original research, etc. If the content already exists, such as when you convert classroom materials into an online course, look for opportunities to improve the material. For example, you may need to reorganize the content, fill in missing content or confirm that learners have the prerequisite knowledge required to take the course. Then organize related learning objectives into small small units or lessons.

This is also the time to consider the creative treatment of the course. Now that you understand the audience, find ways to motivate them. Will there be an overall theme? Interactive exercises? Games? Knowledge checks to review the material? If you have a good sense of what the course will require, you can begin to design the course user interface (how users will interact with the course). This lets all the stakeholders weigh in on the look and feel. Don’t panic. Many eLearning authoring tools come with a standard user interface.

Writing Storyboards. At this phase, you are ready to take the learning objectives for each lesson and write storyboards, which document everything that will appear on the screen and everything that will be heard. For each screen, a storyboard shows the text, a description of the graphic, the audio script (if using audio) and the video script (if using video). Storyboards should also include a visual and text description of the interactions or games that will occur on each screen and the branching (if any) that occurs as a result of a user action.

Ideally, the storyboards will be reviewed by an editor or at least one other competent writer. Storyboards typically need approval by stakeholders or subject matter experts and I wouldn’t continue further in the process until storyboards are approved.

Formative Evaluation. This is an excellent time to have a few sample audience members review the storyboard and provide feedback. Known as formative evaluation, this process can save a lot of revisions later on. As each storyboard is agreed upon or approved, move into the next phase—Production.

Writing Test Questions. If an assessment will be included, this is the time to write your test questions. Test questions should be based on the learning objectives. This ensures learners will be tested on information they were taught and that everything of importance is tested. Some designers write test questions before writing the storyboards. By doing this, you can make sure the course content covers all the important test questions. On the other hand, some designers prefer to write the test questions after storyboard approval, because they are more familiar with the content at the end of writing and because content often changes during the development and revision process.

Production: During the Production Phase the synergy of your own or your group’s vision comes to fruition. This is when all of the media elements are created and assembled into a course. Graphics are produced, audio is recorded, video is shot, text is edited and interactions are produced. Using an authoring system, assemble the media assets into the course to create a a running, published or programmed version. How this more technical aspect is achieved depends on the authoring tool you are choose to use. Examples are: Captivate, Flash, Articulate Presenter, Lectora, Toolbook, Authorware, etc.

Quality Assurance: Quality Assurance (QA) involves testing your online course. When a course doesn’t work correctly, users get frustrated. Also, if the goal of the course is to close knowledge and information gaps, it is important that the course works so well, it is transparent to the learning process.

To begin the QA process, determine all the possible paths a user might take and run though the course along each path, ensuring that each one works correctly. A professional QA tester will write a test plan of all possible paths. Log any errors and provide an error report to the appropriate person to correct them. Retest the course again after the errors are corrected. If the course will be integrated into a Learning Management System (LMS) then perform two levels of testing: 1) test the course as a stand-alone product and 2) test again when it is integrated into the LMS.

Other topics, such as how to motivate learners and how to continuously evaluate your courses will be discussed in future articles.

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  1. Lorraine says

    Hello. please can you help me? I am new to e-learning and need some advice please. I want to put together a bite size training session for the team that I work with. It starts with a pile of papers sitting on a desk, the trainee, hovers mouse over stack, and the first document becomes clear and readable. The trainee then picks the correct bin to drag and drop the document into. There are several bins, with different headings ie, top secret, interal use, etc.

    I would like the bins to rattle when the document is dropped in, then still rattling either accepts in which case a big smile is displayed and the lid closes, or if it is the wrong bin, then it burbs and spits it out.

    Please can you show me a nice and easy way to do this

    Thank you


  2. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Lorraine. Creative idea, but it sounds like your project might be done best in Captivate or Flash and there’s no way to explain how to do it quickly. Your best bet is to learn one of these tools or to hire someone to do it for you. For other tools that might work, check out this mindmap of authoring tools – http://www.mindmeister.com/12257499.

  3. Camille Dickson-Deane says

    Connie, have you looked at the 3PD model by Rod Sims? He is an Australian academic and I had the privilege of studying under him at Capella University. The model incorporates most steps that are already existing in current models, is iterative, includes rapid development and blatantly includes all the aspects of development that most models imply i.e. constant feedback and continuous user/customer involvement.

  4. Arokia Diana Gene says

    This is a very good article on how to design a online learning community. I think analysis part of the entire cycle play an important role in success factor for the community. Because there are many online learning communities in the market and a thorough analysis on audience, content, deciding on apt technology for usability etc will make the other phases to be implemented effectively.

    I am enrolled in a course called ‘Technologies for online learning communities’. It discusses various factors to consider for designing a online learning community like student, instructor, content interaction, ways to implement productive interactions etc. Thus analysing research papers before implementation phase will make the community more effective

  5. Satyanand Kale says

    I feel that the Intelligent Tutoring Systems are also one aspect to be integrated in the framework for developing online Learning courses. This would make online learning more interesting and fun.
    With the rapid development in the technology aided learning, the ITS(Intelligent Tutor Systems) would enhance the interactions between students and the instructors and improves learning efficiency [1].
    There are lot of modules like the Quiz System, Video Conferencing, Emotions Recognition System that could be embedded in the Online Learning System’s framework to enhance the learning. Some of the implementations of ITS modules are discussed in the paper [1] for more details.

    [1]. James N.K Liu, Yuan Wang, Liwei Jia, Simon Shiu, Zunchao Li
    , Yuan Rao.
    Poly-X: An Online Intelligent Tutoring System for E-Learning.

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