Lots of learning experience designers say about a virtual learning experience they’ve created, “You don’t really know if it’s a success until you try it.” Yet, despite the success/failure odds, learning designers do their best to build a relatively foolproof initiative. Doing so requires thoughtful, purposeful and reflective processes to create and deliver a “good” course.

Closely Study the Learner

While analysis heads off all instructional design methods, it can be a cursory exercise that does not fully reveal learning needs, practices and preferences.

Learning experience designer and content strategist Phylise Banner believes that for authentic learning to take place, designers must view learners as people with unique qualities and motivations. She recommends two design thinking strategies toward this end: empathy mapping for insight into how people interact with learning and persona development to profile a specific range of learner attributes.

Andrew Linford, senior operations manager at NovoEd, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the skills learners have and don’t have. With that information, he says, a designer can work backward from the final assignment to strategically break down content and tasks to address gaps within clearly defined achievement parameters and create learning experiences with a compelling and engaging purpose.

Use ISD Models Wisely

There are myriad ISD models that guide the development of learning experiences. They often share common elements framed around specific principles, theories and practices. Some designers adhere to one model; others draw on more than one. The methods they select tend to correspond with the complexity of design challenges. Whatever the selection, designers should adhere to the model’s unique framework and not skip any of the steps.

Talent professional Dawn Mahoney of Learning in the White Space urges designers not to conflate ADDIE, a process, with instructional design models, which lay out unique approaches to design. ADDIE represents the steps of effective design strategies. She also reminds us that development tools are not the same as approaches to design. “If we are serious about doing this work,” she says, “we need to move past ‘lite’ decisions, like whether a course built using rapid development tools is what is needed, and make decisions based on the principles of instructional systems design.”

Kerry Crawford, curriculum designer at the City of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, gives an example of how a piecemeal application is ultimately inefficient: “The analysis part of the ADDIE model tends to get overlooked or ‘underdone’ because organizations want to jump right to the design/development/implement part of the project,” explains Crawford. “Sometimes the problem isn’t what organizations think it is, or the solution they think will fix the problem won’t really help. Without the analysis, this never becomes apparent.”

Forming a Powerful Learning Environment

Establish an optimized learning environment with a clear impetus that propels learner engagement, stresses Linford. Banner recommends three models that do this work in addition to focusing on community, collaboration, inquiry-based learning, and instructor-learner relationships:

  • The Community of Inquiry is a framework for engaging learners in purposeful and critical discourse that helps them construct meaning and confirm mutual understanding. It melds social presence, teaching presence and cognitive presence to enhance community and communication; enable the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes; and encourage sustained reflection and discourse.
  • The Learning Environment Modeling Language is a visual planning tool that shares information about the design of learning environments. It enhances understanding, decision-making, communication, and collaboration; guides course preparation; supports work with design teams; and provides a forum for testing and evaluating design ideas.
  • Appreciative andragogy heightens online instructors’ relationships with virtual learners; strengthens instructional effectiveness; and improves learner motivation, engagement, and performance.

Peer Input

Discussing and mapping out ideas with peers — who act as reviewers, editors and even coaches — can guide critical design decisions. For example, Mahoney has been discussing design and content ideas with a group of virtual peers for about eight years. They rely on each other’s input during “design jams,” helping one another in ways. Crawford runs her initial learning design by a teacher and a designer (web, graphic or even industrial). Linford notes that NovoEd designers draw on not only from a collaborative internal team but also from the course community via user feedback.

Feedback, Test, Iterate: Now Repeat

Design is a process of multiple parts that needs review, feedback and change as it unfolds. Design thinking methods are ideal for this work. After empathy mapping and persona development:

  • Define what has emerged from your findings.
  • Ideate to map out a learning strategy.
  • Prototype solutions to share with interested stakeholders (especially the client).
  • Test the chosen learning strategy sets for insights toward change.
  • Iterate to arrive at the most effective learning strategy.

Become a Reflective Practitioner

Taking the time to think deeply about design work you’ve done or that you are about to embark on is critical to the creation of quality learning experiences. Such reflective practice prompts course improvement and refinement that emerges from observation, asking questions of self and others, evaluation, analysis and interpretation, and action. Dr. Jane Bozarth, the director of research for The eLearning Guild, describes the value of reflective practice in L&D in her 2014 Learning Solutions Magazine article “Nuts and Bolts: Reflective Practice”:

Making reflection a deliberate part of our work can help break the common cycle of busily going from project to project while unwittingly making the same mistakes. Articulating, even to ourselves, why we made this choice or how we made that decision can make us better able, next time, to articulate ideas to management or other stakeholders. It can also help to intellectualize our practice, by becoming clearer about our own philosophies of teaching and learning, our views of learners and our work, and then helping us to reconcile ideal with reality and theory with practice.

The “Good” Course Is Doable.

Strategic, creative design grounded in recognized models and methods, coupled with a design process that allows for ideation, testing and change, can result in a quality, ready-to-launch course that designers are confident will succeed. It takes work and a commitment to the development process that tugs and pulls, but a focus on learners and what they can achieve should be a strong motivation to put your best design foot forward.