Best Practices: Creating Successful Online Modules

From Learning Solutions Magazine
By Michael Towse

March 2, 2009

The development of e-Learning content benefits from a well-defined and streamlined process. Beginning the process before the actual content development starts will ensure that the learning objectives are achieved, that the e-Learning is usable across numerous platforms, and, most of all, that the content is accepted and completed by the desired audience.

E-Learning products should be built on a solid process of events, each one, on completion, triggering the next, with parallel processes where possible and logical. Currently, Omnicare Clinical Research routinely uses a process that proceeds from storyboarding, on through storyboard review, module production, module review and testing, and finishes with a final review. This production cycle provides consistency throughout the design and delivery of the e-Learning, a quality that the audience greatly appreciates when they are completing their online modules.

In this article, I will describe some of the best practices that we have found to support this cycle. These are elements that seem to give many practitioners difficulty, beginning with partnering with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

Partnering with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

The concept of e-Learning is extremely simple: use a device capable of delivering online training to anyone, at any place, at any time. While this is a broad general statement, the fundamentals of e-Learning are clear and concise.

When producing e-Learning modules, it is very unlikely that the developer is actually the SME. Usually, SMEs assist the developer and, in a perfect world, they work in tandem until the project is completed. Most likely though, the SMEs have underestimated the amount of work that the developer requires from them. Even when using a tested process, SMEs will not be able to devote all their time to the e-Learning module.

As a result, it’s very useful to provide your SME with as much upfront information about the development process as possible. For example, showing a SME a sample of similar training, accompanied by the storyboarding elements, will help illustrate the entire e-Learning concept. It also provides an opportunity for you and the SME to agree on the objectives, timelines, and the expectations each has for the other throughout the process.

The most successful training pieces are, in my experience, constructed by a developer and SME working closely together with a thorough understanding of the project objectives, deliverables, process, and timelines.

Recently, our team developed a scenario-based module that included a simulation of the learners’ work surroundings. Learners received instructions to interact with normal office objects; this added another dimension to their training.

Users had to check and answer phone messages, read and respond to emails, and check faxes. The module was job- and role-specific, so the end users could align themselves to the questions and react accordingly. In fact, this piece of e-Learning played a significant part in Omnicare Clinical Research winning the 2008 Good Clinical Practice Journal Award for Most Successful Company or Programme of the Year in Raising GCP Standards. We feel that this achievement is the direct result of the collaboration time between SME and developer.

Formulating the right learning objective

The most important aspect of e-Learning development (or any training intervention for that matter) is defining the right learning objective. An ineffective learning objective will result in an unsuccessful training module, despite all the subsequent hard work, time, and effort. A developer’s key strength is “translating” technical choices and issues into understandable terms and timelines. Rather than say, “No, we can’t do that,” instead, outline the pros and cons, and how long different approaches would take, equivalent to how much it would cost. With that information now available, the SME can make the assessment of value added versus cost to implement.

It’s critical to discuss the learning objectives with SMEs prior to any development work. They will have all the knowledge and information regarding the subject matter, but it is the developer’s job to distill those ideas into online working theory. Question the SME about specific key message points. What is the desired outcome of the online training module? What should users learn or be able to do differently as a result? Work with the SME to outline how you both can achieve these targets most effectively.

Determining the most appropriate media

There are a variety of challenges associated with e-Learning, from the “Death by PowerPoint” scenarios, to an overload of on-screen animation and effects that ultimately overwhelms and dilutes the core messages. The key to producing effective and successful e-Learning materials is creating focused core messages. The fact that the delivery vehicle is electronic shouldn’t take away from the training fundamentals of teaching and educating the participant.

Keep it simple. Users must digest every element of your training, and they must understand the relevance of each element to the overall subject matter. Adding an image, or a sound effect, or even a small movie clip can sometimes do more harm than good. You have achieved your purpose if a few paragraphs, and maybe a graphic or diagram to reinforce specifics, communicates your message simply but effectively. Resist the urge to use your favorite “transition” to bring text on screen. It may look good on the first button, but ten slides through and it’s likely to become tedious.

Recently, we have delivered audio and graphical messages to our entire company on a weekly basis. The timeline presented a real challenge. However, we developed a simple and effective method in order to meet our goal. We created a template file that enabled us to import the audio recording. Then we complemented the audio with a series of graphics that we pasted in at the appropriate times to coordinate with the audio track. The pre-defined template made it simple. There were many opportunities to create something different, something more graphical or interactive; however, we met our objective and the timelines week-on-week.

E-Learning development tools

In previous years, the domain of e-Learning development was purely for the select few with intricate knowledge of specific tools and technologies (Authorware, Director, Javascript, DHTML). But with the rise of Rapid Development Tools (RDTs) that are now widely available, such as Captivate, Presenter, and Lectora, creation of e-Learning material can be a streamlined and effective process. These tools have numerous advantages including the ability, in many cases, for the trainers themselves to start assembling e-Learning modules. Captivate and Articulate, for example, allow users the ability to produce online material via a series of menus and simple instructions. With full assessment and tracking capabilities, these RDTs have created a new avenue of training development.

Production of media

There are a number of simple things you can do to ensure that your media choices provide good support for learning. These include testing your download times, matching content and method to your learners and to the objectives, and reviewing the modules while they are still in “draft” condition.

Test your download times

First, check your download times. While you can access the media files from your office in a few seconds, that may not be the case for your entire audience — particularly with the increase in the telecommuting population. Home-based staff may not have a high-speed internet connection. In the few minutes it takes learners to download the training from their homes or a hotel room, you may have already lost their attention. Not all offices are created equal either. Ask colleagues in other offices to download the training and give you feedback on how long it takes.

Alternatively, there are online resources (such as http://www.t1shopper.com/tools/calculate/downloadcalculator.php) which will calculate how long specific files will take to download. Take a few moments to investigate these times and know how long your audience will be waiting.

Recently, we released an entire training curriculum for a key functional role in the company. These training pieces, which are a mixture of on-screen material including text, graphics, and diagrams, reinforce our key messages and are also accompanied by narrative. Utilizing those elements, we developed specific ways of ensuring downloadable files, even for the most remote audience members. We achieved this by ensuring that each user only downloads enough material to start the training, while in the background the rest of the material continually downloads. It’s a simple tactic, but one which should be used as often as possible.

Remember your audience

While this may not sound particularly difficult, it can be tricky. When you develop your training, remember that you are not taking the training — your audience is. Ensure that any topic included in the training, whether onscreen text or narrative, aligns with your audience and is relevant to your subject matter. It’s also effective to initiate a consistent review cycle. Ask the SME to check the module at specified intervals. This helps to keep the project from going off track and confusing the audience.

Roxana Moreno and Richard E. Mayer have discussed four primary styles by which people learn:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Reading/Writing
  • Kinesthetic or Tactile

E-Learning courses should strive to include content that targets all of these different learning styles. The SME should be able to provide good insights into your audience, and help ensure a collective production of ideas and onscreen elements that will best target your key audience.

Omnicare Clinical Research routinely includes narration in its e-Learning modules. Using narration alongside onscreen text provides a powerful method of promoting specific learning objectives and messages to the user. Using narration in your modules helps avoid the cognitive overload that occurs as a result of excessive demands placed on the thinking processes. Asking users to simultaneously process audio narration, on-screen graphics, and on-screen text can push a user into a state of confusion where the messages begin to get lost. Everything on the screen should add a focused element to the learning objective.

Review the draft module

A review of the draft module is an essential part of the development process. It’s usually unwise to leave the review until the final “sign-off.” At Omnicare Clinical Research, we use a rolling review cycle, with the production of the module interspersed with reviews and checks, to ensure that the work is proceeding as required. This not only means that timelines are more likely to be met, but also helps to keep the project ion track.

Using a template and a storyboard can help to make the review process more effective. Outlining to the SME what the pages will look like on screen, and requesting approval before development, makes the review process concentrate on the material on screen. We do not want to review the look and feel of a design halfway through. 

Self-paced training modules

One of the major advantages of e-Learning is that it enables users to complete the training at their own pace. A fundamental principle of effective e-Learning is that the user should have the option to start and stop the training modules in the event of interruptions, such as phone calls, visitors, meetings, or having to respond to faxes and e-mails.

Inclusion of a start and stop button will accomplish this task, and create an effect a bit like progressing through a PowerPoint presentation at your own pace. It’s also possible to split training modules into smaller bite-size chunks for the audience to digest. Whereas not everyone can find a spare hour to complete an entire training module, ten minutes are generally easier to find here and there.

Course duration

The total length of an e-Learning course can make or break a training piece. When the audience accesses training, they will most likely be “fitting” it into a daily schedule already full of commitments. If the user sees that a course segment will take three hours to complete, they may very well choose to do something else. While there are instances when subject matter will require more time, the aim is to ensure users don’t feel pressured to complete everything in one long session.

Assessments

Assessments and user interactions to test knowledge are another important part of the learning experience. There are two basic types:

  1. Formative assessment. This is embedded at various points within the e-Learning module to confirm that learners are achieving the learning objectives and digesting key messages.
  2. Post-course, or summative assessment.

Both types of assessment can be effective, and arguments as to which one is better are widely available. Regardless, it’s vital to include an evaluation. Our organization prefers to embed assessments into the modules themselves. We have found that it helps to achieve a better baseline level of knowledge throughout the subject matter.

Pre-assessment

But what about the idea of a pre-assessment? A pre-assessment can be something as simple as a few pre-course questions to gauge your users’ baseline level of knowledge. It could also be linked directly into the training modules, allowing more knowledgeable individuals to receive more challenging online training. We all like to think that there is a level of expertise assigned to a group of individuals. However, are we confident that our material isn’t leaving a member behind, or even teaching the majority of learners things they already know? These questions and associated concerns can be addressed with a pre-assessment. Then the training modules can be developed to ensure that each skill set can be handled correctly.

The debates on the advantages of using a pre-assessment are varied. One of the key issues is the need to develop different strings of the same training for the different knowledge groups. This extra development is linked directly to time and money, and this factor is often the reason for the lack of pre-assessment.

Module assessment

There are many methods for testing individuals online. These include multiple choice, drag and drop, true and false, and location questions, as well as several others. Using these available tools can elevate a standard piece of e-Learning to the next level. Think about different ways to test your audience, and use your knowledge of these learners to create assessments that are more than just lists of multiple choice questions.

Testing of Media

Finally — and this is of utmost importance — always test your final e-Learning module prior to release. Missing graphics, unloadable pages, and frustrating error messages are not helpful to your audience and will do serious harm to your e-Learning reputation and credibility. As such, check any plug-ins your user may need, and test your product on different platforms and different browsers. There are online resources which will help you check compatibility with specific platforms and browsers, so you don’t need a PC with a suite of options in order to complete your testing.

Consider the screen resolution for training delivery. As of January 2009, an estimated 93% of users defaulted to a 1024×768 or larger display (http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_display.asp). Only 4% of them are still set at 800×600 resolution. If you have access to that extra screen size, use it.

Release of media

Even after a training module arrives in front of its audience, it is far from complete. A feedback loop provides post-delivery information to assess whether the course is meeting its original objectives. Our organization provides an e-mail option within our courses to allow people to send feedback to the team. This lets us know if there are any problems or issues with content or whether learners have experienced technical difficulties. This feedback method works well within a corporate environment. However, it is not necessarily an ideal solution if you are developing e-Learning content for an external client.

Summary

In conclusion, the development of e-Learning material can be completed in a well-defined and streamlined process. This requires a significant amount of work, even before the development begins. This effort can help to ensure that the learning objectives are achieved, that the material is usable across numerous platforms, and, most of all, that it is accepted and completed by the desired audience.

References

Moreno, R. and Mayer, R.E. (1999) Cognitive principles of multimedia learning: The role of modality and contiguity. Journal of Educational Psychology 91, 358-368.

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