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Developing Online Learning

You’ll need the right experts.

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We’ve all been there, you sit down to do a project, a piece of furniture to assemble, a fixture to hang, a toy to build. You have the instructions, the kit, and are starting to get to work when you realize you’re missing a part or worse yet, you don’t have the right tools. Several trips to the hardware store later and that simple assembly job has turned into a long and tiresome ordeal. You have your finished project, but it took a lot more effort than you expected to get there.

This is a pain when you’re building a bookshelf, the equivalent scenario when you‘re building online learning, is much, much worse. The last thing you want to find out when it’s time to build your online courses is that you don’t have the right people with the right skills to complete the job.

“For the development stage where a program has been approved and needs to then be built, the worst-case scenario is not providing the right resources.”

Dr. Kristin Palmer is the director or online learning at the University of Virginia, she prides herself as being a connector who “brings the right people to the table working together and to produce great results.”

Dr. Kristin Palmer – “At UVA, we have found that resources need to include staff that supports the resources and faculty. For example, with filming, you can’t just buy a green screen, a camera, and reconfigure an office into a studio space and assume you are done. You need to have staff such as media experts or instructional technologists that can work with faculty to fully utilize the tools.”

The Right Resources – Functional Experts

It’s the same with developing the online programs themselves. Without the right expertise involved at the right times, it’s like starting a home improvement project without the right tools to do the job.

Kelly Gump – “No one person can do it all or know it all. Teams with functional experts ensure that each step along the way is done with care and in the best interest of learners.”

Kelly Gump is a learning designer and educator who has built over 50 courses in her 18 years in education. She has worked in a variety of roles over the years including teacher, faculty coach, tutor, and learning designer and is passionate about ensuring all students have a pathway to success.

“When functional experts are not used, you risk inaccurate content, poor quality or both. You could end up with a course that is not clearly organized or a course that leaves out key elements. Either way, you end up with learners who have a poor experience.”

So who do you need at the table when it comes to online learning development? And how do you make sure you don’t miss a part or a piece when it comes time to build? Taking a page from the learning design instruction manual, starting with a little backward design is a great way to find out.

Learning Design – The Through Line

Kelly Gump – “The role of a learning designer can vary greatly. There is no one definition that encompasses all learning designers do. What does not change is their importance. Learning designers are folks who understand education and how people learn. They have knowledge that others on a project would not have.”

One of the key functions of the learning designer is to identify the learning outcome a course is trying to achieve, then using backward design, to come up with a combination of content and practice to teach the concept or skill. While this is similar to what skilled faculty guide students to do in person, the learning designer understands how to capture a similar experience online.

Kelly Gump – “The faculty is the content Subject Matter Expert (SME) and the learning designer is there to help make sure the content being delivered is done in an engaging way that is meaningful to the learners. Many faculty members have years of experience teaching in a traditional model, but that does not always translate to the online environment. The learning designer is the online learning SME who can help guide and explain how to best deliver that same content and expertise in new ways that make the most sense.”

What Experts Are Needed

Clear and succinct learning outcomes should be part of any educational program. Those same outcomes can then also serve as one of the most helpful roadmaps for deciding who should be on the team when you get to development. While it won’t be the learning designer who has the final say on staffing or hiring, they are a good judge of their own skillset and expertise. And by being frank about what they can and can’t do, they can recommend the right experts to bring aboard to build each component needed to develop the online course.

Kelly Gump – “As I said earlier, all learning designers do not do the same work…there is no one definition. If you want one who can serve as a Subject Matter Expert (SME), make sure they know that and are able to. If you want one who can do some HTML coding, make that clear as well. A more sophisticated or larger team may include specialists like coders, graphic designers, writers, video producers, and more. And of course, there is always at least one project manager involved. In a case like this, the learning designer may be focused on content alignment or the “flow” of a learning object.

Bringing the Team Together to Build

Once you decide on the experts you need to build your learning product there are a couple of key elements to keep in mind to make the work run smoothly: role definition and standards.

Kelly Gump – “The risk of team design is “too many cooks in the kitchen.” It is important that everyone knows their role and does not over-step. That said, there is a delicate balance. It is key to provide feedback to each member of the team and have conversations about best practices and ideas. The process and plan for this sort of teamwork needs to be outlined clearly. This is where the project manager is more important than ever. If the project manager does not “manage” feedback loops and conversations about best and final choices…things can become messy.”

On top of having roles well defined, documenting and communicating your institutional best practices – universal design standards is another good way to keep the whole team moving forward in harmony as you build.

Dr. Kristin Palmer recommends these steps for an efficient development process:

  1. Staff the process (=people),
  2. Leverage best practices from (Sources like Online Learning Consortium and Quality Matters),
  3. Incorporate institutional standards (such as ADA),
  4. Collaborate with all stakeholders (= including students!), and
  5. Iterate

Steps 4 and 5, collaborating and iterating at the conclusion of the development process acts as a form of quality control, making sure you build-out high fidelity courses and ensure everything continues to work as it should. The most important voice about if something is truly working as it should, are your students, aka users. While standards can help ensure a certain level of quality and consistency they should not be so rigid that they inhibit creativity or serving the learner in the best way.

Kelly Gump – “When there is no wiggle room to go beyond the standards or look at revising them, you risk leaving out important information or creating learning that is missing some key scaffolding.”

Latest Developments in Development

There is no doubt the digital learning landscape is changing quickly as more and more universities and startups move into the online learning space. In turn, every step of online learning creation is being affected, including development.

Dr. Kristin Palmer – “The speed of the development process is accelerating due to increased competition and the rapid pace of technology development. New technologies are constantly being introduced and universities are piloting these to see the effect on the student experience and learning outcomes.”

Kelly Gump – “Learners today have a lot of online learning choices. They will go with those that are engaging, accurate, and meaningful.”

Bringing in the right experts, at the right time, with clear guidelines and support, but with the flexibility to iterate based on user feedback is what will help programs run development effectively. Leveraging the expertise of qualified and experienced learning designers early in the process is a great place to start.

Dr. Kristin Palmer – “Fortunately, good learning design helps ALL courses! Having a strong learning and instructional design team that collaborates with faculty leads to the creation of learning environments that tend to be more engaging and lead to better learning outcomes whether face to face or online.”

Kelly Gump – “I love knowing that the experiences I help create, help people learn. I also feel very accomplished when working on projects as part of a team. There is something magical about working with others, who are experts in their fields and creating something brand new that never existed before.”

It’s all about having the right tools for the job, or in this case the right people on the team.

Coming Up Next

In our next article in this series, we will look at scaling practices and processes to make online learning design and development more efficient and cost-effective.

About the Authors

Sarah Hutt is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and author. Her writing has made the NY Times Best Seller list and she is a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Reviewed author of nonfiction works for children and young adults.  She has brought storytelling to the online courseroom and classroom for educational clients like Girls Who Code, McGraw-Hill, Focus Curriculum, and is a founding team member of SEI Studios, Strategic Education Inc’s in-house production studio and story lab. Sarah is the owner of Cave Productions, offering design thinking workshops, content strategy, creation, and story consulting services.

Ashley Lonie is the Founder of Teamed, a staffing agency and talent marketplace for the online learning and development industry. She is an experienced educator, learning designer, and leader in online learning design and development.

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