I will let you in on a little secret: building online courses is simpler than you think. It doesn't matter if the words “E-Learning" and "Course Creation” are all Greek to you or if you spent the last 10 years drilling for oil in the Northern Sea: if your boss made you responsible for creating an online course, this article will teach you everything you need to know to get started. You will learn about where to begin, about the key stages of the course creation, and also about the common mistakes amateur course builders make. Gotta keep the boss man happy, you know!
Analyse the target audience
First things first: before you begin, you need to understand who you’re making the course for. Hopefully, you know your colleagues well enough to have a general idea of their age, interests, and preferences. If you do not, well, your first job as an E-Learning professional would be to buy some snacks and go meet the target audience face to face. The better you understand the people you’re building the course for, the more useful and enjoyable taking it will be for them.
What does analysing the target audience entail? Well, knowing some common characteristics of the audience (such as the sex ratio, average age, level of educational attainment, socioeconomic status, and professional experience) can influence the way the course should be build in a big way. Do the people you’re building the course for have cross-disciplinary knowledge? Are they computer savvy? Is your goal to teach the basics to newcomers or to explain a specific topic in-depth to seasoned professionals? Answers to these questions must inform the resulting course for it to be effective.
As the saying goes, different strokes for different folks. Picking the format for the course and deciding whether to focus on interactive exercises, whether to have tests at the end of every stage, or whether to deliver the lion’s share of information in the form of videos - all of these decisions must be taken with your specific audience in mind.
Plot out the Structure
Once you’ve visualized the target audience and decided upon the format of the course, it’s time to plot out the plan of the course you’re building. In the E-Learning industry, this is usually done by means of storyboarding, which is a method for creating the “skeleton” of a course by arranging blocks representing the main parts (or pages) of the course in the order the learner will see them. It’s handy to have a specialized tool for storyboarding, but you can also use Microsoft Word or PowerPoint in a pinch.
Every frame or page on a storyboard usually includes the following:
A title (so that you don’t forget what goes on this page).
The type of content on the page (text, video, audio, interactive objects, etc).
Page number for reference.
(Optional) The page layout (usually as a text description) - how the objects are arranged on the page.
(Optional) Audio track (if, for example, the text on the page is narrated).
It is also important that the storyboard clearly indicates how all the pages or frames fit together, and the order in which the learner proceeds from one to another via linear transitions as they take the course. Interactive, non-linear transitions must also be displayed and clearly marked as such.
To better understand storyboarding, I recommend you to read Storyboarding: Key Point Of Success In Collaborative Course Authoring and Storyboarding: A Simple Way To Get Professional In Course Authoring.
Choose the Authoring Tool
To create your course, you will need a tool fit for the job. Such tools (“Authoring Tools” and “Rapid Authoring Tools”) are commonly called “Course Builders”. While the exact suite of functions and features available to the user varies significantly from authoring tool to authoring tool, there’s a number of common tasks the vast majority of them can handle. For example, most all course builders enable you to create pages and populate them with text, images, videos, as well as interactive objects. More advanced solutions may have built-in storyboarding tools, allow you to embed iframe objects, or let you add questions and tests learners must answer or pass to your courses. Advanced course builders usually allow you to create conditional, nonlinear connections between the individual course objects, which makes it possible to create courses that adapt to every learner’s individual degree of understanding.
Let's make it permanent with practice
Open new tab in your browser
Go to http://geen.io and register new account
Create new instance and go to “Courses” page
Create new course
Open the course for editing and switch to Extended mode
Open the page from which you want the transition to occur for editing
Add an object to which the transition will be anchored to the page
Connect it to the desired course element.
To learn more about building nonlinear courses, watch this video: How to create non-linear courses using click transitions.
As I said before, different Course Builders come with different functions and features. The solutions from Articulate or Adobe may be true behemoths with tons of different features, but they cost a fortune and require a lot of time (up to six months) to learn to use reasonably well. On top of that, building a single course while taking advantage of all the advanced features your coin has bought you can easily take 3-4 months. In comparison, Authoring Tools with shorter feature lists can have you up and running in a matter of days. Granted, their capabilities are more modest, but they require less training and help you push out courses much faster (using a Rapid Authoring Tool, for example, allows you to create a professionally-looking course in 1-2 weeks). Besides, they are much easier on the wallet!
Create pages and fill them with content
Now we’re getting to the good part: building the course and filling it with learning materials. Now you can put the storyboard you created during the previous stage to good use. A bit of advice - try doling out the material in small portions. There should never be more than a single idea or concept per page, and if you want to expand upon a particular idea, just add a few more pages dedicated to it. Another important rule is to avoid trying to cram as much information as possible into a single page. Humans process information best when it is delivered in bite-sized chunks.
You should also make a point of only using illustrations that help to explain or reinforce the material delivered on the page. Never put a picture on a page just because it looks pretty or cool, as anything that doesn’t help the learner to absorb information only serves as a distraction.
If you plan to add videos to your course, keep in mind that our attention spans are limited, and that your learners will remember progressively less information the longer your video is. It is a best practice to keep your videos under 10 minutes in length, 7-8 minutes being the ideal length. If the idea or concept you want to illustrate with the help of a video is not very complex, three minutes should be more than enough.
The most important rule to keep in mind when building a course is to keep the learner engaged at all times and to keep your course as interactive as possible. The attention of a learner that does nothing but read text and watch videos will inevitably begin to drift. Keep the learner focused on the course with interactive elements, such as:
Interactive elements that produce certain actions when clicked. Depending on the learner’s prior activity, those actions may change.
Interactive objects and charts that give additional information on mouseover.
Questions the learner must answer that give feedback and direct him or her to different parts of the course depending on his or her answer.
Check for Knowledge Retention with Questions and Tests
It is important to control how well the learners retain the information your course teaches them. There are a number of reasons for this:
It helps you understand which parts of the course are not doing a good enough job of explaining the material and could be improved.
Tests force the learner to progress from passively consuming the information to actively using it to answer the test’s questions. As a result, the learner realizes what material he or she needs to revise and goes back to the course to study some more.
In most environments the management takes an active interest in the results of training programs, and your course will likely be no exception. I recommend holding a preliminary test before the learners take your course. This way you can compare the “before” and “after” results, which will clearly demonstrate the effect your course has had.
In a nutshell, any way you slice it, tests and questions are useful both for the examiner and the examinee. For that reason, when shopping for a Course Builder, be sure to look for one that has such features. The modern E-Learning tools market offers a wide variety of options, but the most popular ones are as follows:
Standalone assessment tools.
Authoring Tools that contain some sort of test-building function.
Modules for Learning Management Systems that enable the creation of tests.
Of those three, standalone assessment tools usually offer the most features, but are also more expensive than the other options. Are they worth it? Unless you are sure you need the specific features they offer, the answer most likely is “no”. A lot of Authoring Tools and Learning Management Systems come with build-in tools for creating tests, all you need to do is to find the one that meets your requirements. By the way, unless you are an old hand at creating tests, I recommend reading 12 Guidelines for Writing Awesome Tests - it will take your test-building game to the next level.
Let's consolidate learning through practical application
Go to http://geen.io and open previously created course
Open the course for editing
Drag and drop the test element from the toolbar on the left to the pathboard
Double click on added test to open it and fill it with questions
Choose appropriate of the question type
Drag and drop the question element from the toolbar to the test panel on the right
Now you can write the question and add possible answers
Publish your Course Using a Learning Management System
Creating a course and adding a test is only half the story. You also need to host your course somewhere so that learners can access it. In the E-Learning industry, the tool of choice for this is a Learning Management System, or LMS for short.
LMS perform the following functions:
Publishing the course on the network.
Managing users and groups, and assigning courses to them.
Tracking statistics data.
Managing published courses.
Importing and exporting courses.
Integrating with other software solutions used in the company.
This list should hint at the fact that you need to take a lot into account when choosing which LMS to buy. To better understand which features are essential and which ones you can live without, read Everything You Need to Know About Choosing a Learning Management System. This article covers all key functions and features of LMSes on today’s market.
As for my personal opinion, I believe that, since we live in the Internet age, not using the benefits it grants seems like a waste. For that reason, I recommend using a Cloud LMS. This has a number of advantages, such as:
Being able to access your LMS from any Internet-enabled device.
Very short setup time (you can usually be up and running in a matter of days).
No need to involve the IT personnel in setting up and configuring the system.
The vendor maintains and services the platform, not the end user.
If someone wakes you up at three in the morning and demands to know how to create an E-Learning course, tell them to follow these steps (and then call the police, maybe):
Analyse the target audience
Plot out the structure
Choose the Authoring Tool
Create pages and fill them with content
Check for knowledge retention with questions and tests
Publish your course using a Cloud LMS
The list may look scary to you. You may think that creating a simple course will require you to master a number of tools and spend a lot of money. Don’t worry. These days, the market offers solutions that come with all necessary functions and features out of the box. You can get an LMS that includes Authoring Tools, storyboarding tools, and tools for creating tests to boot. In particular, I’d like to recommend Geenio as a solution offering a full suite of tools necessary for jumpstarting E-Larning in your organization at a price that won’t break the bank.
If this article was useful for you and you’d like to learn more about creating online courses (and doing it right the first time), I recommend reading a series of articles dedicated to ADDIE, the most widely used E-Learning methodology. They will give you an in-depth view of course creation and teach you a lot about E-Learning (and learning in general).