The guiding principle for rapid eLearning design is to be intentional. Everything you do while developing your course should be planned and exist for a reason. But eLearning courses typically start from existing content. That content can easily dictate how the course is structured and how it looks – which may not always be best.

In a nutshell, you don’t want existing content to dictate the design of your course. This seems obvious but often isn’t the case.

Getting to intentional design

Many eLearning courses start as classroom content that needs to be converted and put online. Or subject matter experts hand you a bunch of PowerPoint slides that they want to turn into eLearning courses.

This type of content already has some instructional consideration, albeit for a classroom. And it has some visual design that usually comes from a template with specific colours, schemes, and fonts.

Instead of being intentional about the instructional and visual design of the course we allow the existing content to determine how we build it. What we should do is take a step back, think about general course design, and then map our content to the design that’s appropriate to the course objectives.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, elearning courses have three essential elements. I like to frame them as questions.

  • What will the course look like?
  • What content needs to be in the course?
  • What will the learner do with this content?

These three questions help to drive the intentionality of your course design.

Put your hands up & step away from that PowerPoint file

Here’s a typical scenario. You’re handed a PowerPoint file and some other documents. The subject matter expert has been using that content for years in a successful classroom setting and now wants that converted to eLearning.

Easy enough.

In this scenario, we typically open up the existing PowerPoint file and make decisions on a slide-by-slide basis. We start on slide one, make some adjustments, and then move on to slide 2. Make a few more adjustments, and then move on to the next slide.

The challenge with this approach is that you’re letting the existing content and instructional structure drive how you build the course. That may work on some occasions but for the most part it’s not ideal.

Be Intentional about the course design

Even if the existing content looks right, don’t start there. Take a step back and start with a blank screen. Then determine how the course needs to be built and what content you need.

If the existing content you have works, great. If not, then you’re not letting it dictate your course design. In either case, you want to be intentional in how the course is designed. This will ensure that you’re moving in the right direction.

Let’s revisit the three essential questions.

What will the course look like?

The course is going to look like something. Even if you are in a hurry and decide to do nothing but a simple conversion, the course is still going to look like something.

The look that isn’t really right for the course is most likely the one that comes from the existing content. But there is a look that is right for the course… It’s just a matter of finding it.

Be intentional about the visual design of your eLearning course.

What content needs to be in the course?

Subject matter experts tend to think everything’s important. And it probably is in the proper context. But ‘important’ content is not the same as the ‘right’ content that is appropriate to the goals of the eLearning course.

Not all of the information about a given topic needs to be in an eLearning course. I prefer a backwards design approach. At the end of the course, what change should I expect from the learner? What does it look like if I see it? Then build the course so the learner can practice and demonstrate that desired change.

Be intentional about aligning the course content to the course objectives.

What will the learner do with this content?

This question builds off of the second one. The content in the course is structured to meet specific objectives. As the learner goes through the course, what is she supposed to do? This question helps focus on the interactive component of the course.

Do you want her reading and reflecting on content? Is there a place for her to do something, to make some decisions? Once she’s exposed to the course content, what is she supposed to do?

Sometimes the course content is simple refresher material and doesn’t require a lot of interactivity. But often the content is new and is tied to some sort of performance expectation. What can you do to get the learner to practice using the information in a setting similar to what they’d do in the real world?

Be intentional about aligning the course’s interactivity to meeting the course’s objectives.

As I’ve mentioned before in my blog, the capabilities of authoring software have evolved. This has opened the doors to do more with eLearning. But easy course creation is not going to replace being intentional about how you design your courses. It just makes it easier to build what you intend to build.

The trick is to intend to build the right type of course. It requires that you answer those three essential questions: What will the course look like? What content needs to be part of it? And what is the learner supposed to do with this course?

If you can answer those questions you’re well on your way to building effective eLearning.

About Tom Kuhlmann

Tom Kuhlmann is recognised as one of the most influential people in eLearning in the world. He leads the Consortium’s popular rapid eLearning design workshop in May. He authors the popular Rapid E-Learning Blog with more than 85,000 subscribers, sharing tips and tricks to help people build better eLearning. He also manages Articulate’s E-Learning Heroes community, which has more than 100,000 members.

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