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The Design Document: Your Blueprint for e-Learning Standards and Consistency

Instructional methods

Most e-Learning courses use a combination of instructional methods to provide information to the user. The design document should list the agreed-upon methods for the current course. Common instructional methods and their uses may include:

  • Presentation — short chunks of material presented to the learner to read.
  • Demonstrations and/or behavior modeling — video and/or animations to demonstrate tasks and procedures.
  • Case studies and/or problem-based learning — detailed explanation of a situation or problem that users must analyze and offer findings, recommendations, or solutions.
  • Graphical illustrations — still or animated graphics, photos, charts, and diagrams to reinforce content or illustrate processes.
  • Audio — voiceover narration to reinforce onscreen text.
  • Interactions — integrated opportunities throughout the instruction that allow users to explore content, apply knowledge, and check understanding through questions, games, and activities.
  • Simulations — interactive environments that simulate real work experiences and conditions.
  • Blended learning — combination of the e-Learning approach with more traditional teaching methods, including classroom instruction and on-the-job training.



The best e-Learning programs are rich in simulations and interactive experiences that engage learners and increase retention. However, as with many design decisions, there is a trade-off and compromises may be required. Your available resources, time, and budget must factor into any planning. You can develop meaningful interactivities with limited time and money, but be wise about the activities you create. Focus on the content and developing an instructionally sound program, not on creating flashy elements just because you can. Some questions to ask yourself include: What types of interactions are appropriate for the course? How and why will they be used? How frequently will they be used?

Table 1 shows an abbreviated version of typical guidelines for interactivity used in our course development. The table lists the team’s and client’s agreed-upon reasons for choosing to apply an interactive element, and strategies for making the interaction relevant to the content.


Table 1 Interactivity guidelines
Reason for interaction Strategy
Explain and support concepts
  • Use to emphasize key concepts or highlight key points
  • Use to provide structure to detailed or complex content
  • Use to allow learner control over content/sequencing
  • Use to challenge learners prior to introducing new concepts
Practice and apply learning
  • Make practice opportunities meaningful and interesting
  • Use after presenting key concepts
  • Use when knowledge/skills need to be internalized
  • Use to help learners differentiate between good and poor performance
Check learner understanding to determine if course objectives are being met
  • Directly relate questions to at least one module objective
  • Provide positive reinforcement that the user is making progress
  • Provide positive intrinsic feedback that demonstrates the ineffectiveness or risks of poor responses and the value of good responses


Testing and evaluation strategy

Among the most important components of any course are the measurements you put in place to assess the course’s success. Your documented testing strategy should outline the following:

  • The levels at which you will be evaluating course results (reaction, learning, transfer and application, and/or business results)
  • The format of the assessment(s), and how they will be administered
  • The number of questions, if a traditional test
  • The passing score
  • The retake options for those who don’t pass
  • The remediation plan for incorrect performance or responses
  • The proctoring requirements, if any


Often, there are limiting factors to course development that are outside your ability to control. In some cases, you may have already identified these constraints, particularly technical considerations, in other parts of your design document. Whether constraints are scattered throughout your document in the relevant locations or compiled in a single section of known issues, you should always document those things that are likely to require compromises or affect any aspect of design, development, or delivery of your course.

For example, in a recent development effort we repurposed content from a series of eight-hour workshops to a comparable series of online courses. Feedback from potential clients strongly discouraged online courses that exceed three hours, so we identified a constraint stating that we may scale back or de-emphasize extraneous or non-critical information, with input from subject matter experts, in order to meet the targeted course length. Similarly, because the program was a precursor to certification, we had to take care not to eliminate information that is tested on the certification exam.

Preliminary course plan

The course plan is where we begin to structure the format, sequence, and presentation of specific content. It is essentially a high-level outline that breaks course objectives and content into modules, makes preliminary recommendations for interactivities to support various content points, and estimates the length for each module. The course plan may also include a flow chart to visualize complex interactions or branching, if needed. Depending on the needs of the project or client, a more detailed course plan may follow the preliminary or sample course plan included here, as a separate deliverable, after approval of the design document.

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The images are not showing for this article and they seem to be an integral part. Anyway this can be remedied? I'm very interested in this article.
Ditto! Not being able to see the images takes away from the value this article was meant to provide. Correct?
Best article on this topic I've ever read. I'll be linking the learners in my instructional design class to this.
Almost 10 years since this article posted and it seems a lifetime. The question we face now is whether our organizations afford the agency cost of design artifacts. Is this a cost the client is willing to pay? Our challenges today seem to be moving the industry to increase collaboration and simplicity to reduce resources.
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