When 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 to improve performance. Stay focused on closing the gap because in learning, less is more.
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.
Professionals in the field of eLearning relay on instructional design to design and develop all types of learning experiences. Instructional Design is based on cognitive psychology, the study of how people think and learn, and on best practices from the field.
A common development model you may come across for creating instructional products is ADDIE, which stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. The ADDIE model may work, but it seems best suited for designing and developing instructor-led training.
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.
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 (speed of the user’s internet connection, audio capability of computers, etc.). From this, you should be able to write a performance goal—a statement of the high-level learning outcome.
Design and Prototyping
During the Design Phase, you design and document a big-picture view of the course by writing performance-based learning objectives derived from the content. These are action-oriented statements of what the learner should demonstrate after the learning experience. If it isn’t possible to demonstrate, you can observe the results. 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.
During Design, identify the best instructional strategies that will help learners gain competence in the skills being taught. Also identify ways to support learning before and after the course. Research shows that performance improvement takes practice and time. It does not happen from one learning intervention.
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?
Prototyping. As you generate ideas for effective instructional strategies, such as simulating real-world scenarios, you can prototype these interactions to share with the course sponsor and to get input from sample audience members. See more on different kinds of prototypes.
Writing Storyboards. During 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. See Storyboard Depot for free storyboard templates you can download.
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. Not all courses require an assessment. But if one will be included, this is the time to write your test questions. Test questions should be based on the performance-based 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.
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. Here is an interview with Joe Ganci, who knows a lot about authoring tools.
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, the user interface, navigation and instructions are nearly 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.