Developing online learning content: Ask these questions first
This is a guest post by Sinead Murphy, Instructional Designer and Lecturer at Dublin City University. Sinead is an expert in the development of eLearning strategies and course materials.
Creating eLearning courses is like everything else, easy when you know how! Many training professionals find creating effective eLearning content to be one of the most challenging parts of developing online courses. With so much to do at the beginning, it can be tempting to dive straight in and start executing as quickly as possible. But this can also be a risky approach. Spending some time defining the ‘Wheres, Whos and Whats’ of your course helps create a more efficient process that minimizes time wasted on unnecessary work and changes in direction. Take 20 minutes to answer the big questions you need to consider to develop effective SCORM or Tin Can (xAPI) compliant eLearning courses that deliver your learning objectives.
Where to start?
The most efficient starting point is a schedule that allows sufficient time to map out your content needs and align them with overall learning objectives and learner expectations. It’s a mistake to underestimate the work you need to do before you actually start commissioning or creating learning content. A comprehensive planning session early in the process will help ensure all of the learning content you create is goal-driven and developed in formats appropriate to both your learning objectives and learner needs. Thinking about the questions in this section will help develop a clear brief that you can use when you move on to working with course developers and authoring software tools.
Key question: How much learning content do you already have? What type of content is it?
The amount of content you require will be informed both by the length of your course and the volume of existing content you can repurpose. Courses generally shouldn’t be more than one hour long. You should also break learning content into manageable ‘chunks’. ‘Chunking’ content into bite-sized microlearning avoids inducing learner fatigue.
Other questions to start with
- Who are you building the course for?
- What are the learning objectives etc?
- What is your budget?
The answers to these questions will guide your course design. Developing a course for an online audience is little different to preparing a course for a face-to-face audience. While the design process and how the course is accessed may differ significantly, the need for clear learning objectives and high-quality content is the same. Understanding who you are creating learning content for, and how learners will use it, will help guide decisions about design and content types. The size of your budget will also determine the volume and types of content you can afford to create.
Who are you creating eLearning content for?
This second round of questions will help define the first ‘Who’ of your online learning program – your learners. Thinking about these questions will help ensure your course is aligned to the needs of all learners who undertake it.
Questions about your learners
- Who are your learners?
- How tech savvy are they?
- How much prior knowledge of the subject matter do they have?
Thinking about these questions in the early stages of course development will allow the answers to inform many aspects of your course design. Who your learners are, and their familiarity with technology, should impact most course design decisions – from which navigational features to choose, to how content should be visually presented. For example, If you are designing a course for children, you will use more color and imagery than in a course developed for adult learners.
Corporate online training will clearly differ from courses for children, most obviously in terms of objectives and learner needs. That is not to say that corporate or business courses should be rigid in design. You will often hear people say that corporate training courses need to be very polished, clean and professional looking. All courses should be professional looking but that doesn’t mean they should lack imagination and fun. Business professionals are not without imagination and a sense of fun. Online courses created for them should be designed accordingly.
What type of course are you designing?
There are a number of guidelines that apply to all courses, regardless of type. Every course should be learner-centric, for example. And you should always aim to be as clear as possible in your understanding of your course rationale.
Key question: What is your course rationale? Are you simply trying to pass on information? Or change behavior? Or motivate learners?
The answers to these questions will also influence how your course should be designed. If you are simply passing on information, you may just need to develop a straightforward information transference type of course. In that case, a simple, neat linear course structure will suffice. Learners will not thank you for asking them to press extra buttons to access simple information, so keep your course design straightforward wherever possible.
If you are trying to motivate learners and change behavior, you may need to assess the degree of learning gained at the end of the course. In that case, planning, development time and costs will increase accordingly. Effective methods for motivating learners to change behavior include the use of storytelling or carefully scripted scenarios in which learners choose an outcome based on the content they have read, watched or listened to. Each outcome must include a degree of feedback that can then branch to another scenario, and so on. While these methods can be very effective ways to learn, they require considerable planning, and the help of a subject matter expert who can relate to the learner’s needs.
If you plan to assess learning, you will need to consider what form the assessment should take. Options range from the use of Multiple Choice Questions, to qualitative feedback, or the outcomes returned from scenario choices. You can review some of the assessment options LearnUpon’s LMS offers here. Above all, you must be very clear about what your course needs to achieve and then design accordingly.
Who will design your course?
Once you understand who your learners are and what kind of course you need, it’s time to decide who will create it. With so many rapid eLearning authoring software tools available, it’s becoming easier and more cost-effective for organizations to develop courses internally rather than outsource to external developers. If you are new to delivering online learning, it’s crucial to ensure that your chosen course developer has experience using relevant software tools before you proceed.
Key question: Is your content creator familiar with the ADDIE or AGILE Instructional Design Models? Which model best suits your organizational culture?
Knowledge of the ADDIE or AGILE Instructional Design Models is crucial if you want to develop educationally sound courses. Almost anyone can present information and pictures to develop a ‘course’, but achieving learning outcomes through the delivery of carefully constructed content is a skill. Once you have selected a model your course developer is familiar with, there are many ways your content can be presented.
Which content types should you create?
Learning content usually takes the form of text, audio, video and images. The selection of content types should be deliberate and thoughtful. You will also need to consider the range of course content types your chosen LMS can support. The following questions will help you decide which content types are better suited to your learning objectives and learner needs.
Questions for content creation
- Is your course developer skilled in the creation of content of this type?
- Is the content of good quality?
- Does the content type actually enhance learning?
- Is the content format supported by your LMS?
Audio, visual or video content should only ever be used to enhance learning. Consider these best practice guidelines before selecting which content types to create.
When used correctly, video is a powerful learning medium. Video is particularly effective for demonstrating complex tasks, allowing the learner to pause or re-watch particular sections as needed. The creation of video content shouldn’t be undertaken without good reason, however. Producing video content can be costly and there are user experience factors to consider. The use of video increases file size, for example, increasing the time it takes a course to download for learners. It’s also worth remembering that video makes your audience passive. Apart from starting, stopping, pausing, rewinding or fast-forwarding the video, the learner has little opportunity to interact with the content. If content can be presented in another format that the learner can interact with, opt for that instead. Other forms of content can be more cost-effective and actually increase learner engagement.
Like video, audio content has a rightful place within course design. The skill is knowing when to use audio content to really maximize learning. There are conflicting views on the use of audio to narrate content on every slide. Consider the value the use of narrated audio adds if identical content can be read on the slide by the learner. If the learner needs to use both the sense of hearing and vision to consume the content, you risk overloading the senses and undermining learning. Audio can certainly be a great way to introduce a course. But once you consider the cost of producing high-quality audio, you must have a compelling educational argument for its inclusion on every course slide. As with the use of video, over-reliance on audio risks making your learner passive, especially if the audio content dictates the pace at which they progress through the course.
Pictures or images can act as powerful learning tools but, as with video and audio content, only if used correctly. All images should be clearly and logically related to the rest of the onscreen learning content, for example. If you have an image on your screen that does not relate to the content for the purpose of learning, it is best to remove it. Decorative imagery can actually detract from learning, as the learner (often subconsciously) works to create a meaningful link between an image and the rest of the slide’s content, such as a paragraph of text. If there is no such link, you have detracted from their learning. Where imagery does logically link with the rest of the slide’s content and add to learning, make sure the quality is good. A poorly pixelated image screams design indifference and risks undermining the authority of your course.
Choose your font and color scheme carefully as the overall look of your course will have a massive impact on learning. Font should be easy to read, both in terms of the font design and the color selected. Bold, loud colors can be harsh on the eyes and induce fatigue. Don’t be afraid to leave empty white spaces on slides. Clean, uncluttered slides are far more conducive to learning. You may already have a corporate color palette, which can be easily integrated into your courses. This not only save times time but also creates brand consistency between courses and other corporate assets.
Poorly designed courses create a negative first impression that will fail to win the confidence of learners. For your first few courses, working with an external expert or providing expert training for your own developer in advance may be a wise investment. This short-term investment can yield positive long-term outcomes if you are considering migrating a lot of your training materials to an online platform.
What platform are you designing for?
The accessibility of online courses has changed the way people learn. This accessibility is being further enhanced with the emergence of mobile learning or ‘mLearning’ as it is commonly called. An understanding of mLearning is crucial for course developers. Developers should make note of the range of devices a course may be accessed on, consider how the course should respond, and design accordingly. You will also need to consider the mobile responsiveness of your chosen LMS. Attention to responsiveness requires additional planning and increases production time but avoids the need to produce the same course in different formats for different devices.
The emergence of mLearning is linked to the evolution of Tin Can (also known as Experience API or xAPI). The xAPI can be viewed as a progression from SCORM, capturing learning activity in a range of mobile settings and scenarios. Deciding whether to create SCORM or xAPI compliant courses can be a very important point of consideration if your organization needs to track ‘mobile’ learner activities. You should first ensure your authoring software has xAPI publishing capabilities, and that your chosen LMS has matching capabilities. You can review LearnUpon’s SCORM and Tin Can features here.
Now you are finally ready to start creating course content! Once you have fully considered the ‘Wheres, Whos, and Whats’ of your course, you will have a clear brief you can use to collaborate with content developers. The more experienced you become at developing courses, the quicker the process will become. Clear thinking at the start of your learning development process will help deliver a better user experience and support the achievement of your learning objectives.
This is a guest post by Sinead Murphy, Instructional Designer and Lecturer. Sinead has an MSc in Education and Training Management from Dublin City University. With expertise in the development of eLearning strategies and course materials, Sinead lectures on Instructional Design.