Nuts and Bolts: Crash Course for New eLearning Designers

This month I offer a crash course for new eLearning designers; highlighting some common problems that could be encountered, and providing helpful resources and materials.

Classroom trainers are often recruited to create eLearning content that is nothing more than a regurgitation of classroom materials. There are lots of reasons why this happens: Managers who don’t understand that “training” involves more than just presenting content; purchasers who believe an authoring tool will allow any user to magically crank out gorgeous, interactive programs; well-meaning classroom trainers who perhaps lack a background in design or have trouble making the leap from face-to-face to multimedia approaches; companies that can’t invest in external products or developers; and individuals who just won’t say, “No.” Whatever the reason, it happens. Often.

The result can be online content that violates any practice we would tolerate in a traditional classroom—such as screen after screen of highly technical, text-based content read aloud. Such as slides overloaded with gimmicky art or distracting animations. Such as quizzes for the sake of quizzes, often with confusing or poorly-written questions.

Examples, examples, examples

No matter how challenging the content, I guarantee you that someone somewhere has already done a great job with it. I admit that I’m mystified when in 2018 I still see terrible versions of courses on topics like safety, workplace harassment, or requisition processing. There are plenty of good examples out there. Google around, ask for access to vendor demos, and take advantage of free offerings whenever you can. If you can’t buy existing products, at least start analyzing what you like best and figure out if there’s a way to replicate it.

Lots of design firms and consultants showcase their work on websites. For instance, William and Kit Horton offer examples of their work, grouped into categories.  Also, take a look at Allen Interactions for examples of portfolio pieces and custom work. The weekly eLearning Challenges on Articulate’s eLearning Heroes page are great for inspiration, and seeing what can be done quickly with a little imagination and some expertise with a chosen tool.  I find it energizing to see others so clearly having fun with their work. 
Software is only as good as the person using it

A common mistake is buying expensive eLearning authoring software with the expectation that it will somehow make the output better all on its own. The quality of the finished product still depends on a thoughtful approach, a useful treatment, an understanding of design and multimedia, and a grasp of what the software can really do. Most vendors offer forums, tutorials, and webinars. Take advantage of these. Get to conferences if you can. The eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions event in March is a great place for a new practitioner to start. If nothing else, it will save you endless time learning everything the hard way.

Speak up
Do not get yourself fired, but whenever possible try to advocate for better practices. Work to educate those around you about the science of learning, the rationale behind design decisions, and the reality of what can be done in-house given the specifics of your organization. The more you can articulate ideas around good design (or fight ideas about bad design) and provide evidence-based reasons for design decisions, the more likely you’ll be able to both influence and create better eLearning. You may want to consider getting some training to improve your negotiation or assertiveness skills.

Below are some helpful resources.

Basics of instructional design/eLearning design
Design for How People LearnJulie Dirksen (New Riders, 2015)

Dirksen offers understandable, applicable advice for leveraging what we know about learning, memory, and attention when crafting learning experiences.  

Better Than Bullet Points, Jane Bozarth (Wiley, 2013)

This book highlights the basics of engaging design, even when using low-end authoring tools. Essentials of the book are available as a free webinar

Instructional Design for the Real World, Jane Bozarth (2017)
Webinar recording.

Basics of working with visuals and multimedia

Connie Malamed provides lots of practical advice and tons of examples on using visuals effectively. Check out her Visual Design Solutions: Principles and Creative Inspiration for Learning Professionals (Wiley, 2015) and Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand (Rockport Publishers, 2011). 

eLearning and the Science of InstructionRuth Clark & Richard Mayer (Wiley, 2016)

This is a great research-based review of what works, and why. What do we know about narrating text on screen? What does the research tell us about animation versus illustration? The material on multimedia learning is especially useful in articulating design decisions to management and other project stakeholders.

Want more? 
Over the years I’ve written many short articles on the nuts & bolts of eLearning. See a complete list of my articles here.

How about you? 
It’s always dangerous to name specific authors and vendors when there are so many good ones out there. What would YOU recommend as part of a crash course for new eLearning designers?

Let’s meet!

I will be at Learning Solutions in Orlando, March 27-30, 2018.

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