Best Practices: Five tips for better online course development

Best Practices: Five tips for better online course development

We’ve found that a number of simple design principles can improve the effectiveness of online courses for adult learners. Here are five tips for better online course development:

  1. Keep course structure and graphic design clean and simple. Online learners have a clear purpose—to master specific skills and/or knowledge—and courses should be designed with that in mind. Highlight the learning objectives and key tasks at the start. Visuals should support and enhance learning. Courses should be visually interesting, but clutter should be avoided. Remember that design for online learning is different from web design: many web pages are deliberately jam-packed with points of entry that are meant to entice casual browsers, but if the content calls for a more linear presentation, a multiple-entry design approach will be counterproductive.
  2. Modularize content to support the “start-and-stop” pattern of learning that many adult learners find fits their schedule best. Breaking the learning down into smaller units allows time-pressed students to work though a course incrementally and minimizes time spent navigating through material. Smart learning management systems further accommodate incremental learning by allowing the user to resume the course where he or she left off.
  3. Employ variety and contrast to improve engagement. Varying the type of learning encouraged in a course is crucial: research suggests that learners of any age are best served when course developers balance guided discovery and routinized learning. So when developing courses, remember to mix in presentations, video segments, narrative learning (for example, case studies), reading, asynchronous discussion, Web chats, and other learning devices. (See “Variety key to effective online learning,” to review an example lesson and commentary on variation in online learning.)
  4. Embed comprehension checkpoints throughout. Reflective prompts or brief self-assessments are a great way to help learners pause to apply what they have absorbed and assess their own progress. And don’t underestimate the value of the testing effect (sometimes referred to as retrieval practice): testing or assessments can help enhance memory retention.
  5. Build in learner feedback about the effectiveness of the course, and make adjustments whenever possible. The ability to easily gather feedback from online learners is a significant strength and should be leveraged to continuously improve and enhance a course. (“Best Practice: Five Steps for Continuous Improvement Learning” provides some tips for integrating feedback throughout the course development process.)

Skillful online course design and development can make learning more accessible and compelling. Try these five tips and you’ll find that your e-learning will be more engaging—and more effective.


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