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Four e-Learning Design Practices to Leave Behind

by , vice president - training & marketing | @rhillsites

Richard Sites, vice president - training and marketingThe red, gold, and orange leaves are beginning to fill trees and landscapes. Pumpkins, hay bales, ghosts, and other scary decorations are showing up in front yards. It’s the time of year when the seasons change from the warm, sunlit days of summer to the short, cooler days of fall.

Many of us look forward to the changing of the seasons, particularly autumn. Behind us are the long, hot days of summer and in front of us are the ever-cooling days of fall and winter. The changing of seasons means we have to change how we dress, the sports we watch, and the events we plan.


(Since I live in Florida, seasonal change really has more to do with changing our clocks than anything else, but who’s asking!)

Like the leaves shedding from the trees, perhaps it’s time we also think about letting go of some of the ways we approach our work. The design and development of e-learning has been changing over the years. Today, we have an opportunity to do so much more, and to offer such wonderful and engaging learning experiences to learners. Therefore, I’d like to offer four key aspects of “last season’s” e-learning design we should leave behind.

1. e-Learning design starts with content.

Ok, I can hear a lot of people scoffing when they read that one. “Of course I don’t start designing with content!” But I also know it is highly likely many e-learning projects began with the receipt of a set of three-ring binders, followed promptly by a request to, ”create some training on this.”

Many e-learning projects begin with the organizing and sorting of corporate documentation, PowerPoint files, and instructor or facilitator guides. And, why not? These types of materials have been used for years to train people. Plus, organizations have already invested time and money in the creation of these documents. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of reusing this material? To start with, engaging, context-based learning challenges are not about conveying content. They are about providing learners the opportunity to perform the tasks which need improvement. They are about giving learners realistic situations to learn and practice. Most of these situations (if not all of them) are not in your corporate policy documents or even content-based instructor-led courses.

Engaging e-learning starts with performance—not content. Content is helpful for reference. So leave behind the three-ring binders and start designing performance-based learning events.

2. Storyboards are useful for communicating design.

Storyboards are so last season! With the creation of rapid development tools and the countless design tools available, the thought that we, as designers, can only describe our designs in a written form is worth challenging. Storyboards harken back to a time when designers had to give very clear specifications to a team of developers in order to build e-learning. Presentations were made to senior management on overhead transparencies. Instructional scripts were written for instructors to present to learners in a classroom environment.

These things are no longer limitations for us. Neither is the idea that design teams should attempt to communicate engaging learning events in written documents. More importantly, storyboards neglect the opportunity for us to elicit the insight which comes from reviewing a working e-learning event or interaction. Most of us have realized the best and most insightful comments come during the review of the final product, not the reading of a storyboard.

Leave behind the notion that storyboards are a good, or even appropriate, method for communicating the power of interactive learning events. (Prototyping is a much better strategy, in case you were wondering.)

3. Prototypes are draft versions of the final course.

Prototypes are used to discuss and debate design, rather than for taking steps toward the development of an instructional product. However, prototypes are often seen as the initial steps of development. This approach to prototyping likely will increase the reluctance to dispose of a design that is ineffective, thereby limiting the power of a prototype.

Prototypes are quick representations of the interaction or learning event for design teams to use to discuss what could be done better or differently. Iterations of a prototype are used to demonstrate the changes that can increase the accuracy of the learning event, not the revisions needed to become a more complete product.

As mentioned earlier, storyboards are an ineffective strategy to communicate the action in an interactive learning event. But if prototypes are only used as initial steps to development, they too can limit opportunities to adjust and iterate towards a more effective design which best represents the performance required of learners.

4. Templates are helpful in the design of e-learning.

Templates are helpful in the development of e-learning, not the design. Design should be based on what the learner needs to do in order to perform the task better. While there are countless template-based e-learning options out there today, it is not an effective strategy to direct the design of a learning event toward an existing template.

Templates are pre-designed activities. There are countless numbers of templates available because there are basic information needs that we all come across. If your design works within a supporting template, then certainly make use of it. But designing with a template in mind means the focus is on reducing the effort of the designer/developer and not improving the learning event for the learner.

Make use of templates when you can, but be very hesitant to focus specifically on a template during the design process.

So what do you think? Are these worth leaving behind this season? Since this is a very brief list of the many things that we should consider leaving behind us this season, maybe you can think of some e-learning design and development practices that would be better left behind. Let me know your ideas in the comment section below. And have a happy autumn!

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Richard Sites
Richard Sites

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