The 5 must-do steps for developing successful elearning
Having outlined some of the processes out there, it’s time to get practical. What steps can you actually take to produce successful elearning?
Pulling together the successes and failures of our customers who are collectively delivering elearning to over 10 million learners, here is our recommended foolproof guide to elearning production. It can be combined easily with Agile and other approaches.
Step 1: Set out clear goals for your elearning project
“Before rushing to pick that shiny new collaboration platform focus on developing a strategy which will help you understand the ‘why’ before the ‘how.’ You don’t want to be in a position where you have deployed a technology without understanding why.” Forbes.
Learners decide in just 7 seconds whether online content has got their attention or not. With the competition presented by Google and online materials, your elearning needs to hit home and fast. “Home” usually means learning content that’s engaging, relevant and useful. You can find out more about what modern learners want and need from this useful infographic.
But how will it hit home if you don’t get your goals and user understanding straight in the first place?
“You have to analyze the problem. Stop recommending a solution, full stop. Only 55% of us do that.” Laura Overton, Founder of Towards Maturity.
Learning Needs Analysis
The most successful elearning projects take time upfront to research users and ensure the project is working toward the right goals for impact.
“If you don’t know what the business objectives are, you’re going to do a nice project, but it won’t make any difference.” David Perring, Director of research at Fosway Group
Instead of taking a business leader’s word that a course is needed to fix a perceived problem, get asking why, why, why! Have a set of questions to ask as part of learning needs analysis to help you truly identify what the real challenges are, why the performance isn’t as expected and what kind of problem it really is. After all, you can’t be sure that “learning” is the right fix to the problem. It might be that there’s a motivation issue, lack of awareness or a problem with the on-the-job tools or process.
If you need to do a really in-depth learning needs analysis (i.e., for a large or strategic program), the guidance offered by CIPD here is really helpful.
Create user profiles
When we do talk about learning, we’re really talking about changing people’s behaviors and habits. To be successful, you need to get under the skin of who your audience is. Who are they? What would really help them? What are their go-to places for help currently? What would motivate them to take action? To do this, it’s important to have conversations, run surveys, observe them, use learning analytics from previous projects and more.
Off the back of what you find out, set up some user profiles.
Create profiles for your audience
What do you need to do better/more of?
What is blocking them from doing so right now?
What will be genuinely useful to them to help them get there?
What would motivate them to use your product?
When are they likely to learn? Dedicated time slots, in between tasks, at home…
What do they need to learn and what can they look up at the moment?
Set measurable goals
Be super clear how your elearning project is going to add value, and to whom. Work with stakeholders upfront to decide on the goals you are going to measure for your learning project. Think outside the box, and beyond mere completions and scores. For example:
- User engagement stats
- User feedback
- Impact on Sales/Safety/Customers/Staff retention, or whatever the business goal is
- Manager/Peer feedback on another person’s performance
The idea is to set out the data you’ll track and look for correlations with your elearning.
Step 2: Create a clear design vision
With the elearning project goals clear in mind, set about generating some ideas for how they can be met. This is a great step to do collaboratively, using brainstorming techniques. Nothing is off limits here in terms of techniques, and everyone does this differently. See here for ways to design elearning concepts.
Crucially, we would say don’t look at the course content to do this. Think about what types of activities, experiences, tools and tips are most likely to work for the audience and goals.
Here are some techniques to try:
Exploring ideas freely and sometimes collaboratively, primarily through text.
Setting out a sequence of potential pages or videos, like a comic strip. More elearning storyboarding tips can be found here.
A great way to build out solutions based on building competency and change.
Sets out layouts and sample content, without getting caught up in styling.
Visual styling and interactive walkthroughs of an idea to test reactions.
Prototyping is a crucial step. Even if you’ve worked up ideas on paper, always look to build out something interactive for stakeholders to play around with and review. This could be 5 minutes of your 20-minute topic.
Elearning coach Connie Malamed sets out some great tips and tricks to make elearning prototyping work for you.
Don’t make prototyping a big deal – do it early, do it regularly, do it collaboratively. This is where the thinking behind Agile development makes a lot of sense. Embrace that feedback to make the process count. If you don’t seek or choose to ignore it, you’re probably creating your own art project than a user-centered design project!
Get inspiration from elearning examples
Of course, you don’t have to start from a blank canvas. Pull together moodboards or Pinterest pages of inspiring visuals, websites or other digital learning projects you can use to test the water with stakeholders. Equally, these could form a base for your own design.
There are tons of elearning examples to inspire you and your team, many of which are available for re-use.
Get feedback and iterate
Whatever technique you go for to come up with potential solutions for your learning project, make sure you work collaboratively and get input from stakeholders – especially end users. Be open to feedback to shape the best design.
And if you’re not sure you or your team have the skills to land on the best design for your elearning project, seek expert help from specialist learning designers or consultants. It’s important you get this bit right!
Step 3: Develop detailed content, smartly
It’s time to get stuck into developing the detailed content, but by this, we don’t mean opening the floodgates to the subject matter expert’s cupboard of content. Hold back on that PPT if you can! This stage is often overlooked as the “easy” step in production. You have your design pinned down, so it’s just a case of writing the content, creating the graphics and putting it all together, right? Not quite.
Don’t let your exciting, research-based design die a death with the introduction of boring content. A content copy and paste does not = learning experience!
You now need to flesh out your design ideas with realistic, useful, relevant content that engages your end user. Avoid the temptation to copy and paste dry content into an authoring tool. Instead, flip your thinking and use your design model as the blueprint, and use the subject matter to support the learning experiences you are setting out to create. Here’s how…
How to work with SMEs in elearning
What happens next depends on whether you’re producing the content yourself or are collaborating with a Subject Matter Expert (SME).
Working collaboratively with SMEs to generate content
Set up some content capture templates
Set up some templates to capture the right kind of content. You may have done this already as part of your design concept work. These could be storyboard or wireframe style templates that mimic the design approach you’ve agreed to follow. Or, they could be built-in templates in an elearning authoring tool of your choice.
Don’t just hand over the design to them to fill in. Work closely with the SME to explain the kind of content you need from them. Hopefully, they’ll have been involved in your process from the start, so will be in-the-know. This is where your content capture templates come into their own.
Example content capture template that asks SMEs for specific content to support the planned learning experience.
- Do you need a realistic case study to bring a scenario to life?
- Do you need 5 top tips about that performance area that people must know above all else?
- What are the common mistakes people make that you can form extra tips and activities around?
- What are plausible wrong options you can build into a practice test?
These kinds of questions will help you elicit meaningful content, that supports your design. You can even put these questions in your content capture template; e.g., “Tell me a story about when this has gone wrong and why in <200 words.”
The key thing is for elearning designers to ensure SMEs are clear on the purpose and word count (for text) or time limits (for video/audio) to each element.
If you are the SME
If you are the SME and are creating your own elearning, try to pull back from expert overflow. Put away the manual for now, and put yourselves in the shoes of the end user. Use your experience over your knowledge, and think about what stories and tips you can share to bring the “facts” to life. Imagine you have a learner in the room – how would you show them what to do? How could they practice that? That’s the kind of content you should aim to curate or produce into your elearning templates.
Curate – don’t always create
Not everything needs creating from scratch. Often, those performing highly in that area are drawing on useful resources and tools that others can benefit from. Pull together or ask the SME to pull together any useful existing content that fits your design model. For example, there might be some great on-the-job resources or some YouTube videos that explain the theory better than you ever could (for free?!). Perhaps there’s an existing workshop activity you can rework or an assessment that works well and you can copy?
Get building your content
Once you’re clear on what each page needs to include, you can start putting it all together. Collaborative authoring tools will enable your team to do this together or, if you’re working with a third party elearning production company, you’ll be able to see and input on progress along the way. Whatever you’re using, make sure you feel involved and in the loop at every stage!
Our top tip here is to borrow from Agile and work in sprints. For example:
- Set up your overall styling and navigation elements
- Set up any elements that will be replicated and re-used – e.g., topic structures, menus and/or pages you will re-use
- Build out one topic first – check in on feedback and make changes
- Build out the other topics in parallel or one at a time – checking in on feedback as they are completed and make changes
- Q/A as you go, but always fully at the end
Involve stakeholders along the way – especially some sample end users! And don’t be scared to invite others in to edit the content directly, if your tool makes it easy enough to do so.
Tips for creating multimedia assets
If you’re creating media assets in-house, such as audio, video, and graphics, this handy article points you toward free tools to help you create elearning.
Step 4: Use learning analytics: Learning evaluation
Research conducted with 6,500 L&D Leaders by Towards Maturity shows that leaders experiencing three-fold growth in business productivity, performance and employee productivity use data to shape and improve their elearning strategy.
Yet on average, only 5% of L&D teams collect feedback from their audience, and even less measure performance changes. People-Centered Learning.
As part of your elearning development process, you must make room for reviewing its performance, gathering feedback, making improvements and also looking for trends you can build into your future elearning design strategy. Doing so will set your elearning project apart.
You can do this during development, after launch, after changes and later down the line when you expect to see performance improvements that you can correlate with the use of your learning program. For now, let’s focus on reviews and improvements you can make to ensure you are engaging your audience.
While user engagement isn’t the be-all and end-all of learning evaluation, if your learners aren’t engaged with your content, they aren’t onboard – and are unlikely to make those desired performance changes you’re hoping for. It’s a key part of elearning development to check and check again on this.
Are we talking Kirkpatrick method?
While the Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model has historically been held up as the “professional” evaluation technique to use in L&D, it is often so challenging to implement that many fail to get it off the ground, or leave it too late and find out months later that their project hasn’t had the intended impact it was meant to have.
Where modern learning analytics can help
Learning Analytics are gold dust for learning and development teams. You can mine them for quick or more in-depth insights into how your digital learning is performing on a continuous basis.
Many modern authoring tools and platforms come with built-in analytics dashboards that you can couple up with more qualitative feedback captured at regularly from sample users, L&D peers and other project stakeholders. If you don’t have a ready-made dashboard, consider setting one up in Excel or another dashboard tool – particularly for a large learning project. Free survey tools are plentiful for capturing feedback and, of course, don’t forget to actually talk with stakeholders!
While you’ll still have to look deeper for actual business performance improvements (read on for this), using data dashboards and user/stakeholder survey techniques helps you make sure your project is engaging its audience, working for them and working as you’d expected. It gives you the chance to make quick fixes that can make or break your project success.
Learning analytics help you spot errors and make quick fixes that can make or break your elearning success.
As part of your elearning production process, ensure you have clear roles and responsibilities around project evaluation, and that feedback loops are taken seriously.
Step 5: Measure and increase your elearning ROI
Taking evaluation up a notch, it’s also key that you make ROI measurement – and, more importantly, improvement – part and parcel of your elearning development methodology.
Measure your KPIs
If you’ve followed the goal-setting step as laid out above, you should have a set of clear performance targets for your digital learning project. A project isn’t complete until you know how are you doing AND you’ve done something about it. So, how are you doing?
- Below target?
- On target?
- Above target?
Some may be measures you can gauge from learning analytics; others may need data from the business and some take some time to come to fruition. For example, the impact on sales figures from a call center “customer care” training project.
How to measure and increase learning ROI - a worked example
The good news is, you usually only need a handful of data lines to measure success.
- Background and goal: A learning team designs an elearning solution to help increase the sales of a new product line in a manufacturing organization. The target is to increase sales by 20% by the end of Q4.
- The Analytics dashboard shows:
- Engagement: The elearning gained an audience of 263,000 in two weeks out of a potential 300,000 – a great stat to share with senior stakeholders.
- Location: The biggest take-up was in the UK, but the US is lagging – the potential audience size is bigger there, so there’s work to do to engage them.
- Popularity: Four of the ten topics gained more users and longer session times than all others. Designers look into the topics that are lagging and evaluate drop off points, just to check there’s nothing wrong.
- Measuring performance improvements. In just five weeks, sales have increased by 5%. This correlates with usage data of the elearning. The team can match peaks in performance with peaks of usage. Again, this is mostly in the UK. Peer and manager feedback on sales performance, captured in surveys, shows that those doing well with sales are asking questions about the customer upfront. It’s decided to promote the elearning topic that helps build this skill.
- Efforts to maximize the results. Noticing a lag in US take-up of the elearning and lower sales performance, the team leader works with sales managers in the various US locations. They shift the promotional emails that advertise the elearning to lunchtime on a Monday, as previous data shows this slot did well. Managers also help drive audiences to the elearning and particularly the most impactful topics.
- Increase in ROI. Sales begin to rise in the US and along with improvements in the UK, the sales target is met. The successes of the design of the popular topics are fed into future elearning development strategies.
At its heart here is the idea about thinking commercially about your elearning – even if it’s not a product that’s actually for sale. Having this kind of thinking helps boost your elearning’s return.