5 instructional design considerations to shape your eLearning project

Justine Swain | 04/21/2016

I’ve been designing and developing learning materials for the last twenty years and I have seen many changes. From classroom courses, to virtual classrooms; from the first versions of Computer Based Training (CBT) to eLearning as we know it today. After all these years, I still feel like I am being dishonest by calling myself an Instructional Designer, as I feel I am still learning my craft.  But at the end of the day, it’s what I am. But what does the job title mean?

 For me, it’s not about all of the instructional design jargon and buzzwords doing the rounds.

We work in a constantly moving and evolving landscape, where the learning we develop is rapidly changing to keep pace with the technology around us.  I think instructional design is about being able to take a subject you often know little or nothing about, digesting it and then being able to rework it into a format that the learners can understand and hopefully enjoy.

When I’m starting any project, I put myself in the learners’ shoes. I have some simple questions that I ask myself about the learning I need to develop. Finding the answers to these questions helps me design and develop my final content. I ask myself:

  1. Why should my learners take this learning – what’s in it for them?
  2. What activities can I include that give my learners the chance to practice what they are learning?
  3. Can I include real life examples and scenarios to reinforce the key concepts?
  4. How can I test my learners understanding of the content?
  1. How can I reward the learners for their achievements?

So with any new project, I typically get some content from the Subject Matter Expert (SME). A conversation with the SME gives me the context and the requirements for the learning, but the outline content is where I do my work and this is where I apply my questions:

Why should my learners’ take this learning – what’s in it for them?

We need to sell this eLearning to the end learner, so that we can motivate them to view and hopefully complete the course. The learner isn’t interested in a list of course objectives; this is an old fashioned notion, and objectives are more a design aid for us, so that we and our SME’s know what we are trying to achieve with the learning and helps to direct our assessments.

Learners want to feel engaged and excited when starting a new e-course, so take the chance to get creative with how you introduce the content; first impressions are everything.  Can I use a video? Or maybe an animation sequence? Can some stunning images get across what I want? A simple animated video could get across the purpose of the learning in a fun way, giving the learner an overview of the course and achieving the key aim all in one go; much more effective than 3-4 slides.

Learners also want to know how to use the course, but the challenge is, we are in an advancing technology age. So, by making it a discovery interaction to suit all audiences, letting the learners pull the information they need, you give them control from the start and set the right tone for the rest of the course.

In a nutshell, I let the learner know what the course is, why they are doing it and how to use it.

What activities can I include that give my learners the chance to practice what they are learning?

No one wants to just click next on a page turner; this is just an interactive book. So I have to look at how I can turn the content into purposeful interactions that engage the learner with the content in different ways. Activities and interactions keep the learners brain involved in the content, enable them to practice what they are learning and try out concepts.

I find that I have to start filtering the content to identify what I want on screen, and what I want to include in the audio first.  I can then start to see patterns emerging where an interaction would fit well.  This can be any type of interaction such as click to reveal, tabs, timeline, drag and drop, etc.  This also helps me to identify what information must be on screen, and what is nice to know and what can be more of a discovery item.  

I often find that looking at other learning I have developed, and sites such as eLearning Heroes can give me inspiration for a new interaction. Discovery interactions are a great way to break up the display of the content.

The skill here is to identify when to use an interaction, and when to keep things simple. Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done!

Can I include real life examples and scenarios to reinforce the key concepts?

Some learning lends itself to the use of real life examples. Some are perfect for storytelling to get the message across. Others are perfect for using scenarios to get across the key messages and to put the material into context to engage the learner.  Interactive videos are an excellent way of getting the learner to make a choice in order to progress the video.

As you plan out your content, you may see ways that you could use any of the above, and your storyboard is an ideal way to plan out and experiment with this interactive approach. This can help you to identify what works with your content, and more importantly what doesn’t, long before you spend the time of developing the finished eLearning module.

More complex content enables you to produce detailed branching scenarios that can include a range of branches and feedback loops, and interactions to drive the learning.

The key message here is don’t be afraid to try something new if it fits your content. You may find something that works well, and may get inspired for the rest of your course.

How can I test my learners understanding of the content?

By testing the learner using questions, they can get feedback confirming if they have understood what they have seen so far. This can be simple questions that give instant feedback on the answers given, but are not scored or tracked and are purely for use as a knowledge check. An incorrect answer could direct the learner to supplementary learning on the point, or could redirect them to the start of the section. To find out more about quizzing, particularly with Articulate Storyline 2, check out this blog.

For really important learning points, a question where the learner cannot move on until they have the correct answer can really help to reinforce the learning. But it must be a well-designed interaction with clear instructions so as not to distract from the learning. 

A more formal assessment at the end of the course with a defined pass mark gives us the opportunity to test the learning against the objectives and mark the questions accordingly.  But you need to consider what happens if the learner fails the test? Do they have to complete some remedial actions?  Or do they simply retake the test?  Or do they retake the whole course and test? 

You need to fully think about what information you want to feed through to the Learning Management System (LMS) when planning your questions and assessments, to ensure you get the LMS reporting that you need.

How can I reward the learners for their achievements?

You can’t turn around without hearing the word ‘gamification’ in the eLearning world. But what does gamification mean?  It is not about turning your eLearning into a game!  It is about taking elements of game play and building it into the learning. This includes levels, rewards, on-boarding, badges, leader boards and points.

Everyone loves rewards and something as simple as a certificate of completion is seen as a reward – the learner can print it and keep it. But how about if you could give the learner a badge for their profile?  Or put their name and score on a leader board? Would the learners have more fun doing the course if there was something in it for them? How about if the learning content had levels, and passing an assessment meant you unlocked the next level and got the next piece of the learning? These are all relatively small things that could add no end to the learning.

So that’s how I approach instructional design

It’s a method that works well for me.  I may not be quoting any of the models that are out there, but I take elements of all of them and follow a process that works for me. Over time, you will find what works best for you.  Don’t let anyone put you into an eLearning instructional design pigeonhole. Carve your own path and do what works for you.

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Justine Swain

Instructional Designer at Omniplex

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