Developing online learning needs a framework that is based on the technology-based tasks you will need to complete. This framework uses an iterative and prototyping approach to the development process. It also highlights a production phase, which can become complex when video and audio are part of the requirements.
The Learning Journey
If you want the learning experience to be as effective as possible, you will need to create a learning journey that occurs over time. Consider a blended learning approach that will give participants opportunities for practice and additional support.
If you are new to the field, know that professionals rely on an instructional design process 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. There’s nothing wrong or incorrect about the ADDIE model, but it seems best suited for designing and developing instructor-led training. For technology-based training, I’ve modified the model a bit to add more iteration and prototyping.
Development Process for eLearning
I see this model as a mix of ADDIE and SAM (Successive Approximation). There is a strong analysis element, but it has the prototyping and iteration of a more Agile approach. I find this is more aligned to developing technology-based learning experiences. It consists of the five phases that you see below. By iterative, I mean that you will go through cycles of testing, getting feedback and revising. This model is just a framework. It can only work if you understand your learners and how they learn. You may need to modify it to fit your situation.
During the Analysis Phase, you research and identify the:
- Performance problem and the needs of the organization and target audience
- Audience characteristics–user experience methods, such as personas and empathy maps, are valuable for developing empathy
- Content (how its organized, what it means, how much there is)
- Learning environment (where and when users will take the course)
- 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. See Types of Analysis for eLearning.
Design and Prototyping
During the Design and Prototyping Phase, you design and document a big-picture view of the course by writing performance-based learning objectives derived from the content. These are measurable, 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.
You might base the learning objectives on existing materials, interviews with subject matter experts and audience members, 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? Scenario-based practices? Games? Knowledge checks to review the material?
Prototyping. As you generate ideas for effective instructional strategies, you can prototype these interactions to share with the course sponsor. Also, prototypes are a good way to get input from sample audience members. See more on different kinds of prototypes.
Evaluation. Identify how you will evaluate if the learning is effective. In addition to knowledge checks, if applicable, consider discussions with supervisors who can observe if employees have changed behaviors and improved skills as a result of a training program.
It’s important to identify metrics that will measure long-term changes. These may be industry-specific. In a retail store it could be reduced employee turnover and increased engagement. In a healthcare setting it could be reduced hospital-acquired infections and increased well-baby visits to a clinic.
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 the need for future revisions. 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 test questions. Base all test questions on the performance-based learning objectives. This ensures learners will be tested on knowledge and skills taught in the course. 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 you create and assemble all of the media elements into a course. It involves:
- Creating final graphics and animations
- Recording audio
- Shooting video
- Using an authoring tool or programming language to assemble the media assets into an interactive course
How you achieve this more technical aspect, depends on the authoring tool you choose to use. Here is an interview with Joe Ganci about authoring tools.
Quality Assurance and Evaluation
Quality Assurance (QA). This involves testing your online course. When a course doesn’t work correctly, it becomes a frustrating experience. 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 you correct the errors. If the course will run on a Learning Management System (LMS), perform two levels of testing: 1) test the course as a stand-alone product and 2) test again when it is running in the LMS.
Evaluation. Course evaluation should be ongoing. Assess if learners have reached the performance goal. If not, identify and fix issues with the learning design. Over time, keep an eye on the metrics you identified to see if there is improvement. See Will Thalheimer’s LTEM method for more on this.
Take the Course: You can find a self-paced course on this process and many other instructional design topics in my private community, Mastering Instructional Design. The next live class starts in September.