Creating educational content to be consumed online is no easy task. Despite the wide adoption of e-learning by organisations, schools, and standalone businesspeople around the world, few know what it takes to create an effective online course that engages its students.
There are a wide range of strategies instructional designers, subject matter experts, and course developers employ when creating an e-learning course. Depending on the course content and objective, some are more specialised than others. There are, however, a few important guidelines one should consider when designing and creating any e-learning course.
We’ve listed those below.
Define your goal and learning objectives beforehand
The first thing to note is that learning objectives are not the same thing as learning goals. A learning goal describes, in broad terms, what the learners will be able to do upon completion of the course – whereas a learning objective describes, in specific and measurable terms, elements that learners will have mastered upon completion of the online course.
And so, when you have learning objectives that are unclear or generic, the purpose of your course follows suit – which is not only incredibly ineffective, but also very frustrating for your audience.
This is also why it is so important to first understand who your audience is, and then define learning objectives and goals before you start developing the course itself. Your intended learners should dictate and steer course layout, design, interactivity, and most importantly, content. You don’t want to end up with a course that feels like a PowerPoint presentation with an unrelated quiz at the end.
As the popular American educator and author, Stephen Covey, taught: Begin with the end in mind.
Beat the forgetting curve
It is commonly known, especially in the e-learning space, that repetition is the key to knowledge retention. For instance, trying to teach a workforce new, complex software in one long lesson, simply won’t work. Because the forgetting curve suggests memory retention declines over time, without an attempt to retain it, course content needs to be broken down into smaller, repetitive units that are offered incrementally. Essentially, courses should offer learners the opportunity to repeat learning in varying and engaging forms.
When it comes to the course content itself, as well as quizzes and tests, using a variety of different delivery methods and question types can also help beat the forgetting curve. Supply learners with knowledge and questions through a mixed use of media, like text, visuals, video, software simulations, and interactive scenarios, among other things, to best encourage retention.
Use of language
This guideline also ties into your knowing your audience and having clear learning objectives and goals.
Your audience will greatly influence – if not entirely drive – how course content is written or narrated. Aside from the obvious factors like regional languages, one needs to take into account the level at which their learners can understand content. For example, you should use a basic level of English, and simplify concepts (as much as possible, while still retaining all valuable learning) for students that have lower levels of education and who don’t have English as as their home language.
A general rule you should follow when using text in e-learning for all learner levels is keep it short and to the point, noting the important information first and the less important information last. Some learners have short attention spans and so key ideas need to be portrayed as quickly as possible.
Make content easily navigable and available
Course structure is incredibly important. It dictates the flow of information and learning, and if done incorrectly, can leave learners confused and frustrated. That being said, not all courses are structured the same (some more freeform than others) and it is up to the instructional designer and course developer to best decide what layout will best for the content and learners.
In some cases it might be the first time a student is doing an online course, or using a specific LMS platform, and as a result might be stuck navigating the lessons. Right at the start, clearly show them how best to move around the course, how to jump back to previous lessons – or forward, if your course is non-linear – and how to mark lessons and quizzes as complete.
Lessons should also have clear and understandable titles to help with navigation. A learner should be able to revisit the course and find what they’re looking for simply through clearly defined lesson names.
Lastly, the course itself and content should be easily accessible as well. Don’t have the course hidden in some obscure corner of the platform, or have important content not listed in navigation and only referenced in a topic of a sub-lesson of a poorly labelled lesson.
Videos and images
Making efficient use of videos and images in an e-learning course is of the utmost important. Videos, more notably, are increasingly becoming the preferred way to learn, which isn’t surprising considering their visual and demonstrative qualities. Video can deliver short, intensive bursts of information that can be consumed in less time than it would take to read, and with richer information than can be contained in a graphic alone. For example, if you want to learn how to put up a shelf, the first place most people go is YouTube.
There are a wealth of dos and don’ts when it comes to including images and videos in e-learning content – far too much to cover in this article. However, below we’ve included a few of the most important things to keep in mind when using multimedia content.
- Length: Learners tend to lose focus when viewing videos that are over five minutes. If the video isn’t interactive (longer videos should be), keep it short and focused on one concept at a time.
- Keep it visually simple: Keep text readable and limited to how much you display at a time, and don’t over use flashy graphics or distracting visuals.
- Include a transcript: Don’t assume that every student has headphones or even working sound cards (when it comes to desktop). Have a written transcript, usually in the form of captions, they can reference during the video. This also enables your content to be more friendly to learners with hearing disabilities.
- Use videos to demonstrate something: One of the best advantages of a video is that it allows learners to observe and copy. Use videos to show them how to do something, like navigating through your content or how to use different woodworking tools in the case of a carpentry course. Videos are the best way to simulate ‘real-life’ scenarios and situations.
- Follow copyright laws: You don’t want to have your course taken down over a copyright strike or have to pay a heavy fine (or worse) just for one picture. If in doubt, leave it out.
- Make the intent clear: Is the image relevant to the topic at hand? What is its purpose? That needs to be front and center, and easily recognisable. Your goal is not to fill up the empty spaces with images in your courses. Rather, select images that demonstrate the text.
- Like videos, tone it down visually: Keep text readable and succinct, and the image pleasant to look at that. This may require some knowledge in design.
- Image size and quality: Images with higher resolutions are of a better quality. They look and resize better for mobile and desktop. However, there is a balance to strike, as images with higher resolutions are generally larger and take longer to download for the learner.
- Consistency: Keeping your image styling consistent. For example, avoid mixing together clip art, vector images and photos in order to keep a uniform look and feel throughout your course, as well to keep it more professional. This also relates to sizing; having images in similar positions on the page that vary wildly in size looks messy.
In the end, there really is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach you can apply to developing e-learning courses. There are a great deal of variables that influence content, design, and functionality. However, developing e-learning content with your end user in mind, will greatly improve the experience and make it more personable – undoubtedly leading to more people taking the course.
Check out our other blog post on what influences learning, which focuses on how our brains work.