A few months ago, I attended an AGCAS Technology, e-Learning and the Web course hosted by the careers service I work for. It ran over two days, and covered a range of topics that should be considered when designing and running an e-learning course. I learnt so much from the course that I thought I would share some of my main takeaways in this post.
1. Know your audience
Before designing an online course it’s essential to know all about the intended audience, and what their expectations, needs and motivations are. This will not only help create a course that learners want to participate in, but also helps when it comes to marketing it effectively. A few questions to think about at this stage are:
- Is the course addressing a specific problem or need?
- How familiar and/or experienced is the target audience with e-learning?
- When and where will learners take the course? What device(s) will they use?
- How much time will the target audience have to take a course on this subject?
Another thing to consider is how to mitigate some of the more common difficulties of getting learners to engage with e-learning. Research has shown online learners can feel more socially disconnected from their instructor and peers than those learning in face-to-face environments. Some potential ways to reduce the impact of this might be to include a shared task or project activity requiring learners to collaborate with each other, or help them get to know each other in a more informal space, such as a discussion board.
It’s also important to acknowledge the difference in the learner-teacher relationships between online and face-to-face settings. Research shows a strong educator presence is essential to facilitate online student engagement and learning. This shows the importance of posting regular announcements for the course, posting in its discussions forums, and using both asynchronous and synchronous contact with learners such as instant messaging, phone conversations and email. Course tutors could also consider filming and posting videos of themselves on the course; it’s been shown to cultivate students’ interest in the topic they are studying.
2. Pay attention to learning types
When choosing which activities to include in a course, it is useful to consider how they align with Professor Diana Laurillard’s six learning types. This is based on the notion that the best learning experiences combine six different learning types of activity, regardless of whether the learning is conventional, online or blended. The six types are: acquisition, investigation, collaboration, discussion, practice and production. Here’s a video featuring Professor Laurillard explaining each type in detail:
I found the six learning types a helpful way to consider how best to incorporate a range of activities in an online course. There are various ways technology can be used to design engaging activities for each learning type. Here are a few examples:
Acquisition – reading multimedia, websites, digital documents and resources, listening to podcasts and watching videos.
Investigation – using online advice and guidance, analysing ideas and information in digital resources, using digital tools to collect and analyse data, comparing digital texts and using digital tools for searching and evaluating information and ideas. Useful tools to aid investigation are Scoop.it, Pearl Trees and Pinterest.
Collaboration – small group projects using online forums, wikis, chat rooms for discussing others’ outputs or a task involving learners building a joint digital output. Padlet is a great tool for encouraging collaboration.
Practice – using models, simulations, microworlds, virtual labs and field trips and online role play activities.
Production – producing and storing digital documents, performances, resources, slideshows, photos, videos, blog and e-portfolios.
3. Design feedback to assess the course’s learning impact
When it comes to collecting feedback from learners, it can be all too easy to focus on gathering information about what they liked or enjoyed about a course. Although this is always good to know, we must assess the actual learning impact of the course too. The Kirkpatrick Model is useful when considering how best to do this.
This model proposes that teachers measure learning on four different levels. The first is the reaction of the learner (what they thought and felt about the training – this can be understood as their satisfaction with the experience). The next level is their learning (did they increase their knowledge or capability?), followed by their behaviour (the extent to which the desired behaviour improved or was applied). The final level corresponds with the results of the learning (the extent to which the learning outcomes were achieved).
Here are a few ways you could collect feedback from learners for each of the levels covered in the Kirkpatrick Model:
- Reaction: satisfaction surveys, data, distance travelled assessments, focus groups, suggestion boxes.
- Learning: quizzes, confidence scales, statement choices, scored reaction tests.
- Behaviour: summaries, quizzes, 1-minute assignment (e.g. something they are still confused about), exit statement.
- Results: graded quiz or test, practical challenge, reflective write up of performance, a critique.
4. Ensure your course is accessible
When designing e-learning, accessibility can sometimes get overlooked, especially if the person designing the course lacks experience in this area. Here are a few simple guidelines that can be followed to make courses more accessible for all learners:
- Accompany audio and video files with a text equivalent – include closed captioning/subtitles or provide learners with a downloadable transcript. You can perform basic tests with a free screen reader such as NVDA.
- Use descriptive text or ‘alt text’ when using images or tables – this will ensure learners using a screen reader can understand the message conveyed by the use of images on the page. Learn how to add alt text to images and objects.
- Use a sans-serif font for onscreen text – this will suit the majority of learners, especially those with dyslexia.
- Ensure bulleted lists have a full stop at the end of each list item – this will indicate to screen readers to pause briefly after each item.
- Ensure course navigation is clear – avoid using phrases like ‘click here’ as learners using a screen reader will have no way of knowing where the link is leading to. The link needs to be meaningful, so instead of having ‘To read more about working abroad click here’ use ‘Read more about working abroad.’ You can easily test screen reader accessibility on your page by installing Chromevox.
- Avoid using colour alone to convey meaning – e.g. to provide a response to a multiple-choice question, instead of simply using a green or red dot, which may be indistinguishable to someone with colour-blindness, display a green tick or red cross
To learn more about how to make online courses accessible, visit Accessibility of eLearning, a really useful (and free!) online course.
5. Use data to your advantage
Before starting to design a course consider how its effectiveness will be evaluated. A popular approach to this is assessing learners’ skills, knowledge and/or confidence before, during and after the course. Not only does this help measure the impact or difference the e-learning course has made, it also provides a useful reference point halfway through the course which can be used to identify possible issues or topics to return to if needed.
Engagement data is incredibly helpful to course tutors. E-learning platforms vary in how much detail they provide, but certain features can be built into courses to help track engagement. For example, splitting a course into modules shows the rate and/or proportion of learners’ who progress between each part of the course. A quiz is also a really effective way to measure engagement, both in terms of how many learners complete it and also their average scores or the pass rate. This also shows what learners might be struggling with, which can inform changes or the need to offer further support.
Tracking learner progression might also mean identifying the page(s) with the highest number of users dropping-off, and this could be down to errors on the page itself, navigation issues or that the page content is too challenging or not engaging enough.
I hope you found this post useful. I’m about to start teaching a new blended learning course which I designed with a colleague – I’ll share details of this in a later post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear if you use technology or e-learning platforms in your work and what websites/tools you find most helpful – let me know in the comments below.