Getting it Online (Part 2): Now with coherent structure!

June 4, 2013

What this post is about: A continuation from yesterday’s “On Putting it Online…“, but with a bit more structure in terms of when you might do what.

What this post is not about: As with yesterday’s post, this is not a project map or detailed instructions on developing online content. This provides general principles.

Here is a summary: After some flattering and some not so flattering emails with regard to yesterday’s post, I want to provide a more coherent structure by outlining the steps you take to put learning content online. While I agree yesterday’s post was certainly not my finest moment in written content, I still believe the thrust of my argument. This post merely reflects that I had not truly considered my audience (those seeking advice on creating online content). Which is something I believe strongly that one should do. Won’t somebody think of the shoemaker’s children?

Here begins the post

So, as I was saying, you need to develop content that is assessable, applicable and appropriate. But what steps do you take to achieve this?

First Steps…

Identify the boss. Someone will need to manage the whole project, lest it spin out of control and you end up with hours and hours of unnecessary or incoherent content. You will also need to mind your budget (this may be preset, or you may have some time to determine what it will be in discussion with your instructional designer and SMEs)

Assemble your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). These may be paid or volunteer (depending on your set up. Perhaps if they are employed or contract trainers, SME activities can come under an existing contract). When considering people for this role, consider also your subject matter. You want to ensure you have expertise to cover all areas of your course. This may be as few as 1, or as many as the number of subjects you want to cover. I often advocate more is better (as it reduces the load on each individual SME), however, one must be careful not to employ too many chefs, lest your broth become a lumpy stew of expert opinion.

Get an instructional designer. I really do believe the outlay for a learning professional will provide best results. Seek out references, portfolio of work or at the very least ask them to describe projects they have worked on, problems they faced and how they overcame these. Prize specific information from them. I hate to say this, but there are some charlatans out there. However, sites like LinkedIn can be useful for identifying people they have worked with in the past that you may know. If you are starting from scratch, I also advocate going for experience over energy. If systems are in place, energy is your friend – but where you are trying to get something off the ground, experience will really come into its own. You need someone who can identify solutions and deal with the problems that may arise, either by avoiding them or dealing with them efficiently.

Next steps…

Get your instructional designer and your SMEs together. If you are managing this project, you may need to be there too, because this is the first point when things may get a bit hairy.  Your instructional designer will know nothing or little of the content to be covered. Your SMEs know everything. However, your instructional designer should be able to interview your SMEs to determine an overall goal for the course and perhaps a structure (although this is not always the first thing to happen). They should also be walking away with contact details, an overall goal, perhaps objectives and – preferably – source material.

(Next- this rarely happens, but I like to add this: next, work on a learner survey to determine their learning need, how they feel they might use an online service for learning and what it is they might like to see covered. If you have a mature audience, you could even seek out learner advocates to help you design the survey and better understand their needs and demands. This could be a group project between the instructional designer and the SMEs, but again needs to be managed, lest you inadvertently offer the sun, moon and stars (raising expectations unreasonably), or, the answers to your questions come back contradicting themselves. Take the results of this survey, maybe break out some learner profiles (in case broad differences arise from your learners), and figure out how much time they can spend online and how they might effectively work with the content.)

Depending on your situation, you may also need to consider your assessment principles. While your SMEs and instructional designer will have their own ideas in this regard, you need to also consider whether certification or accreditation of any kind will be sought for your course – and what these mean for your assessment. Assessment may be Multiple Choice questions, more varied questions, portfolio work (if your SMEs have time to grade this), you may use peer-assessment (if your learners can be trusted with this), the list goes on…

More steps…

Your instructional designer will then go away for a week or so (depending on how much content is there).

They should then return with an overall structure and approach for your content. Going back to yesterday’s post, this may be:

  • Highly engaging activities in Flash or HTML5, with assessments
  • Forum/social media-based discussion groups, with portfolios (for assessment)
  • Online web pages, with case studies or activities
  • Or a mix of all these
  • Or none of these (again, your specific content, audience and intended outcomes will dictate the solution)

Now, you need something to put all this on. Website, Learning Management System (LMS), Wiki, what? Well, your instructional designer (again) should have ideas based on their proposed solution. You may also need to consider whether you need:

  • Tracking to see that learners have covered specific content
  • Forums?
  • Social media integration?
  • Private messaging/mailing system?
  • Portfolio building as proof-of-activity?
  • Certification/completion monitoring?
  • Calendar?
  • Calendar with “locking” of activities?
  • Storage for grades and learner outcomes
  • A “dashboard” for learners (and SMEs, if acting as “teachers”) so everyone can monitor what is going on
  • Support for iOS devices? (I know this is very specific – but the iPad is so popular now, it is important to consider whether people can use it to take part in your online course. “Bring the learning to the learner” is my motto)
  • etc (also please note, this list is disparate on purpose – there really is a multitude of things to consider, and they will all depend on your content, approach and learner profile)

Even more steps…

Then, it’s time to start building. In a perfect world, you will hear nothing except for any regular reporting updates you have asked for. And all the rain drops will be gum drops and lemon drops. Your SMEs and instructional designer will enter a strange relationship, whereby they love and hate each other. In short, there is a tug-o-war: The SMEs want to put everything in, often in the same way they lecture (or learned or developed) the content for learners. Your instructional designer will want to highlight key information, dealing with ancillary information in other ways. They will both be right and wrong at some point. They will probably come to you also. Generally, the instructional designer will work alongside the SME to develop an outline for activities/quizzes/content. They will then design and build it (in cases where you work with a company, this will be an instructional designer, graphic designer and developer – however, they will usually be managed by a project manager who will be your point of contact). This will be sent back to the SME (as a script, as preliminary content, or as very close to complete content), who will provide corrections. This is not a “maybe”, this is a “definite”. There will always be edits to improve the accuracy of content, or to limit misleading information or to make information more “complete” so that it is coherent for learners. This is an iterative process, but hopefully your instructional designer will have strategies to minimise the number of iterations required.

See if you can put anadin into your budget.

It is not all bad news. They will also both respect each other (in my experience). If you have a good instructional designer, your SMEs should be happy with what comes out, despite how they felt as it was being developed.

Nearly there? Nope…

Now, you’re not finished. Not by a long way. Once you have content developed, it will need to be tested. Does it work the way it is meant to? Is it easy to use? Is it accessible (not just in terms of devices, but to accessibility software, you may have learners who live with disabilities). Does the course do what it said it would do in the script? Does everything “hang together” (keep in mind, the usual process is to develop in modules, or separate pieces, then put everything together. When it gets put together – is it coherent? Are there gaps?)

Just like end as you mean to start again…

You are still not finished. It is time to let the learners bask in the fruits of your labour. And compliment you (oh, really, you are too kind!) and complain (oh, you really are too cruel!). Get as much feedback as possible about your course. Gather it also from SMEs (a tip in this respect: a Project Manager who I worked with one kept SME feedback all the way through the project, rather than just those specifically requested at the end. This gave them a “live snapshot” of SME opinion and feeling throughout course development – not just at the end when they are generally happy with the outcome).

Then, you need to feed all this back into your course design:

  • What worked for learners and SMEs?
  • What did not work for learners and SMEs?
  • What worked in terms of project development?
  • Where did things go wrong? How did they go wrong? Can this be avoided in future?
  • How did the subject matter go down? Do you need to speed it up, or slow it down?
  • Did learners pass their assessments? How about those with less or more interaction in the course – was there a difference in how they performed?

How does this work? It depends on the instructional designer, but people will usually take this information and re-work the original design to improve it for the next cohort of learners (actually, it is becoming quite popular to update courses for current learners also, so this may happen after a defined period, or as the course runs).


I hope this post has helped to better explain the sort of process you may need to go through in order to develop some online learning for your organisation. While it was inspired based on feedback from yesterday’s post, I believe both posts are complementary: Yesterday’s looked at the issues you need to consider to ensure your learning suits your learners. Today’s looks at the kind of steps you need to take to put it all together.


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