This is the fourth and final post on the basics of creating online learning. In earlier posts I overviewed the different modes under the umbrella of “online learning”, gave some tips around facilitating learning in synchronous web conferencing sessions, and talked about creating multi-week facilitated online courses. In this post I’ll address some of the basics around designing and developing self-study e-learning courses.
I use the term “e-learning” to indicate online courses that a learner completes alone. I also tend to add the descriptor “self-study” and sometimes “self-paced” to attempt to be more clear about what this label means. You’ll hear the term e-learning being used most often in the corporate sector, whereas in post-secondary education, for example, the term “online learning” is more prevalent and it usually means that an instructor is present online with the learners. So, even though both e-learning and online learning are both held online, they are actually very different ways to learn. In self-study e-learning courses, no one is guiding the participant’s learning; there is no instructor or facilitator. All content and activities are usually provided within the e-learning course itself and the learner works through the material and activities alone.
In my experience, organizations typically want to create self-study e-learning courses because resourcing is a factor. It’s often just as difficult for many organizations to assign a facilitator to spend time teaching a multi-week online course as it is to ask employees – many of whom often work in busy front line positions – to take time out of their workday to take it. Organizations that go the e-learning route often have a more basic need or requirement to train large groups of people in discrete topics; ones that don’t need a facilitator to guide participants’ learning or that can easily be augmented by, for example, asking the employee to check in with a supervisor to discuss its on-the-job nuances. E-learning courses can fill one of the needs of an organization’s educational ecosystem for its employees.
E-learning courses are often created with what’s called content authoring software; the one I use is Articulate 360, which includes Storyline and Rise. However I’ve also created self-study e-learning courses on the Moodle Learning Management System (LMS) as well as on WordPress using the LearnDash LMS plugin. What may appear to be a simple e-learning course – for example, something created in Storyline that takes the learner only 15 or 20 minutes to complete – is usually not so simple to create. A good e-learning course is designed well according to the principles of active learning and involves participatory and often situational, scenario-based activities, or other activities through which the learner can do something active to attempt to achieve the learning outcomes we’ve written.
My goal when developing any e-learning course is to create an experience that is both meaningful and motivational to the learner. I try to steer clients away from designing and developing a “click-through” course, one in which the learner simply reads content on a page (or maybe watches a video or listens to a voiceover; God so many voiceovers!) and clicks the next button over and over again until the course is done. (You may have taken one of these less-effective e-learning courses yourself…and you might even have tried to click through the content as fast as possible to get to the inevitable quiz at the end and finish in record time! Ugh.) If we’re going to go to the trouble of creating an e-learning course, as opposed to creating a website or a handout, we sure better create something that we think is actually going to help people learn, not just give them something to read for a while.
Scenario-based e-learning courses are not only a great way to immerse the learner in an experience somewhat close to one they might experience in real life, they’re often a lot of fun! They’re kind of like those “choose your own adventure” books you may have read as a kid. You put the learner in a situation and they have to make choices about what to do. After they make a choice, they are rewarded with – or suffer – the consequences. Scenario-based e-learning courses are engaging for the learner and take a good amount of creativity to design and develop. I like to keep top of mind that learners will be just as apt to seek out the best-choice answers in the scenario as they are to seek out the really terrible ones…because they just want to see what happens if they click that choice! In scenario-based learning (well, really in any type of learning), wrong answers can also teach the learner something about the topic at hand.
Overall, e-learning courses designed and developed well can be engaging and effective for the learner if the possibilities inherent within this mode align well with the learning outcomes we’ve intended for participants. Alternatively, if not done well, e-learning courses can be a complete waste of time and money. Like anything, our goal should be to intentionally design the learning experience so that there are outcomes for the learners in place and participatory activities to help the learners meet them. It takes time, knowledge, creativity, skill, and obviously great software to create an effective e-learning experience. And our efforts to create a robust learning experience need to be excellent, especially when there is no facilitator present.
Craving more information about creating online learning in any mode? Drop me a line through my website to suggest topics for future blog posts. This series of four posts just scratched the surface – there is so much more we can explore. And if you need an experience learning designer to help you create that online course – in any mode – I’d love to hear from you.