3 Elements that Make Online Courses Tick

By Dr. Ayesha Habeeb Omer May 31, 2017

Yet another massive open online course (MOOC) abandoned mid-way! Raj has recently enrolled in a 3-week MOOC that he hopes would help him in his job as a Marketing Manager. Weeks 1 and 2 have passed and he is lagging behind in completing the videos he needs to watch to move forward in the course.  Currently, in Week 3, he is disillusioned that he will never be able to catch up, as he has a job and targets to complete. 

Is Raj a bad learner? I don't think so. Does he have the motivation or interest? Of course, he does. He enrolled for the course out of his own will and interest, with all the good intentions. Yet, he just could not get himself to complete it.  There could be three reasons for this:

  • The content was generic and Raj didn't get an immediate takeaway, especially from the initial videos. As a result, he was not enthused enough to move ahead with other videos.
  • Each video had an instructor lecturing. No different from a classroom where a lecturer addresses a group of students. But, there was no personal interaction and the white board or chalkboard had not been replaced with annotations or other visuals. After a point, he just could not focus. 
  • The video did not have visuals or interactive elements. There was so much processing that he had to do within his mind that it was difficult to keep track of what the topic was about and how it was relevant to his job. The structure of the course was not really in favor of a self-paced learner whose main responsibility is not that of a student but that of an employee.

Research shows that course completion rates in MOOCs globally are low, approximately 15%.  India has its own MOOC - SWAYAM which has been launched by Ministry of Human Resources Development and All India Council for Technical Education.  It currently has about 43 courses hosted on it and many more to be added in near future.

The success of any online learning solution depends on how well the student embraces the solution and actively engages with it. Lack of interactive learning is what causes many students to drop-out of e-learning courses mid-way. In the case of SWAYAM, it appears that they have made efforts to provide a holistic learning experience with each course comprising of video lectures, reading materials, self-assessments tests and discussion forums. Will the courses generate better completion rates?  Time will tell.

In corporate learning situations, organizations cannot afford such employee disinterest in the learning material. Every corporate training intervention is created with a purpose -- to upgrade the skills and knowledge of employees so that they perform better and as a result, get better business outcomes for the company.

Organizations that are thinking of introducing e-learning, need to come up with engaging and interactive learning solutions.

What Does it Take to Create Interactive Online Learning Solutions?

For any e-course to be engaging, it is important to make it interactive. It should be a two-way process that actively involves the learner in the learning process. For this purpose, you need three key elements:

Right Content

For classroom training, the Subject Matter Expert (SME) collates the content, prepares notes, PowerPoint slides, and hand-outs and shares it directly with the learners. The SME does most of the heavy-lifting and is largely responsible for the success of the training program. This is not the case with e-learning courses.

To develop e-learning courses, SMEs provide all the relevant content to Instructional Designers (IDs). IDs analyze the content, align it with the course objectives and prior knowledge of learners and go back to the SMEs if they find content gaps. 

Sometimes, the content that IDs get is of good quality and is well-structured, has good examples, FAQs, and exercises for practice. At other times, the content may just comprise of PPTs that are used during classroom training without any speaker notes or related examples that the trainer would have shared in the classroom. Or, it could be in the form of an instructional manual that contains all essential information.

In such situations, IDs will need to chunk the content, segregate non-essential from essential based on the learning objectives, identify content gaps that need to be filled, and look for relevant information, either from the SME or relevant stakeholders. This process is extremely important and cannot be undermined.

To make sure that you are using the right content for your e-courses, you need to:

  • Have a clear understanding of the learning objectives and the learners (their current knowledge).
  • Evaluate content based on learning objectives and see if it will help achieve the set objectives.
  • Collate all content essential to prepare the instructional strategy. Select the right instructional strategy based on the training topic, intended performance objective, and learner profile.
  • Get real-life examples or job situations that are relevant to the course objectives. Ensure that assessments, puzzles or quizzes developed are aligned to the learning objectives.
  • The language has to be simple, non-academic, jargon-free, and easy to understand.  Remember that learners are taking the course to get their jobs done efficiently. They are not attempting to publish an academic paper. 

Right Storyboard

Storyboard is the term borrowed from the movie and advertising world. It indicates a document that visually represents each screen on the e-learning course. It is a blueprint, prepared by IDs, that helps courseware developers to create the actual course. If the blueprint itself is faulty, the course is bound to falter and may not attain its objectives. 

Therefore, it is important to have a good team of IDs, who understand different instructional strategies, based on planning & analysis, using appropriate multimedia tools, to enhance learning styles in accordance with the preference of adult learners.

A typical storyboard will provide a logical structure to the course, dividing the content into different modules, specifying what each screen will contain, its layout, the graphics used, voiceover practice assessments, and everything that provides conceptual understanding of how the course should be developed.

To make sure you have the right storyboard for your course, you should:

  • Have a good team of IDs who will be able to conceive the project and present it in concrete terms in a storyboard.
  • Follow a sequential and logical structure, with emphasis on learning objectives at every stage.
  • Make sure IDs have a thorough command over different techniques of presenting content (scenario-based learning, story-based learning, and case study method) and knowledge of interactive elements.
  • Avoid clutter and information overload on the screen. Graphics and multimedia elements should be creatively used to support the content and facilitate learning and not be a distraction.
  • Have good practice exercises or formative assessments and end of the course exam to evaluate knowledge

Right Courseware Development

Right content and right storyboard will need to be backed by right courseware development.  This is the stage where the content presented in the storyboard comes alive on screen. This is done by courseware developers who include multimedia experts and visual designers. While the main e-course is developed using rapid authoring tools such as Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, Lectora Inspire, or iSpring, you also need other software programs to build all the necessary elements that go into the course. For example, to create graphics, you will need tools such as Photoshop and Illustrator.

Graphics are key to an interactive e-learning module because, there are so many graphic elements such as various buttons, tabs, images, diagrams that are essential for developing a course. Today, some of the authoring tools are quite powerful and provide an all-in-one solution to develop a basic functional e-learning course. Additionally, they offer a wide range of digital assets such as images, backgrounds and templates, which can be customized to reflect the subject at hand or align with visual branding of your organization. The choice of tools will depend on the level of interactivities that you require for your course and the complexity of graphics and interactions you wish to include.

To ensure your courseware development is on track, you should:

  • Have experienced team of courseware developers and multimedia experts who have good knowledge of various tools and their functionalities. Interface design of the course should be learner-centric with easy to locate course menu and guide on where different tabs and buttons are located and their purpose.
  • Choose an authoring tool that best fits your requirement. You will need to consider how proficient your team is in using the tools before choosing any tool.
  • Test courses for their compatibility on the LMS, different browsers, internet connections, and devices.
  • Make sure they provide HTML 5 and SCORM compliant output so that they work on most LMSs and mobile devices.

Self-paced learning is not easy, especially when day-to-day tasks and demands of the job vie for the attention of the employees.  For learning to stick, online courses need to be designed carefully with the right content, right storyboard, and right courseware development. It requires a coordinated effort of SMEs, IDs, and multimedia developers, who understand the constraints in which employees learn, their learning preferences, and styles, and design courses that tick. In the absence of such an effort, you will end up having a whole library of courses on your learning management system with no takers.


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About the Author:

Dr. Ayesha Habeeb Omer is the COO & Co-Founder of Commlab India, a global online learning solutions provider.. She has 19 years of experience in financial services, university teaching, training and e-learning. She was one of the first people in India to be awarded doctorate in E-learning. She also holds an Advanced E-learning Instructional Design Certificate from ATD, USA. Her Twitter handle is @ayesha_commlab.


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