Despite its relatively short history, online education has quickly become an acceptable platform for both formal and informal learning. That’s why instructional design matters in eLearning.

Over the past seven years, the number of students enrolled in online courses has jumped dramatically to include at least 25 percent of all those in traditional accredited college courses, according to the Online Learning Consortium, with millions more enrolled in certificate programs, audited courses, or customized workplace eLearning programs used to educate and train employees. While online learning’s popularity as a convenient way to gain skills and knowledge continues to grow, extensive research points to the necessity of certain key components to ensure effectiveness in designing educational programs that achieve specific learning goals and outcomes.

Instructional design is the systematic development of an educational program; it incorporates concepts about how people learn and how best to present instruction. Planning an educational program begins with the answers to a series of four basic questions. These questions are related to the design process and should be revisited at various stages of the development. When the answers to these questions have been incorporated into the design, the program has the content and methods of delivery for effective learning. These critical questions are:

  1. Who are the learners, and what are their specific characteristics?
  2. What knowledge or skills should the learner know or demonstrate at the conclusion of the program?
  3. What is the best method of presenting the information to achieve maximum learning?
  4. How best can the program be evaluated as meeting its goals?

Understanding the learners

Often, the learners constitute a diverse group, making it difficult to describe them easily. However, despite a difference in background knowledge, general demographics, and interests, there are generally enough general characteristics that the learners share—or at least understand—that some common ground can be identified. For instance, even if the group of new employees ranges greatly in age and gender, they all share the experience of being new to the organization. In a group of seasoned employees, they all may share an interest in the organization’s success or realize that changes in policy affect each of them, even if the individual effect is different.

The design of an educational program does not have to relate to every individual characteristic. However, it is helpful to know in advance what areas may appeal to some of the group or which concepts may be particularly difficult for others to grasp. A short, simple survey of participants in advance of planning can help pinpoint characteristics that could affect learning.

Adult learning theory describes adult preferences for learning, which can relate to appropriate methods of instruction. A seasoned instructional designer will apply relevant ideas from adult learning theory to designing programs for employees.

One reason for the rapid adoption of eLearning among adult learners is that it embodies concepts embedded in adult learning theory. Some of these concepts are part of the very nature of eLearning: it is easy to access, always available, and often self-paced.

Adults come to any program of study with a wealth of background and experiences that provide a foundation on which they expect to add new information in a way that makes sense to them. They also believe that there should be an obvious reason for them to invest time and effort in learning something new—for instance, the learning experience will be helpful in solving problems that they face in their work. Understanding these characteristics can inform the design as well as the delivery system chosen for the program.

Goals inform the instructional method

The second question, about expected outcomes, helps determine the specific content of the educational program. All design must begin with the end in mind by identifying what the learner needs to learn or be able to accomplish at various points of the educational program, including at its end. Identifying which concepts need to be learned and their order of introduction builds a logical structure that supports learning. The instructional designer can then align specific activities to these concepts to achieve desired outcomes.

The instructional designer might then build a variety of instructional methods into the program, depending on the content and goals. This relates to the third question—how best to present content. Again, eLearning can easily encompass a range of media that promote learning, including graphics, animation, interactive applications, and even options for remedial or advanced learning. That might also mean offering a variety of ways for learners to access information, assimilate the important (to them) elements, and build their knowledge and skills, a concept sometimes termed “plus-one thinking.”

Many organizations and institutions design instruction through a blended approach, which combines eLearning with face-to-face training. Some typical applications for blended learning include beginning an orientation program for new employees with personal interaction as a way of introducing key leaders and contacts as well as the organization’s culture. Online written information can augment these sessions and support the integration of eLearning for future training. This strategy of blended instruction can also work with educational sessions focused on employee benefits, including those addressing retirement plan participation. Key individuals can be introduced in person, along with options and onboarding materials; additional supplementary resources would then be available online. Referring learners to optional additional online sources, including more formal or informal courses for learning about personal money management and planning, would create a comprehensive educational experience for learners.

All pathways to learning should be easy to access with obvious markers to indicate progress. Additionally, eLearning must include frequent and varied opportunities to humanize the online experience. For instance, besides providing a variety of learning strategies, media, and supplemental resources, accessible ways to enlist instructor help or support are essential. Building a community of learners by adding forums for discussion, comment, or questions, along with opportunities for “live” interaction via webinars or online collaboration sessions, where learners can work together to solve problems or share experiences and examples, can also enhance learner engagement.

Evaluating learning

Evaluation of learning, including self-evaluation and content-skill acquisition assessment, can occur throughout more extensive eLearning programs or at the conclusion of shorter training courses.

Evaluation of learning progress needs to clearly match learning goals. One way to do this in process or procedure training is through online quizzes at the conclusion of each section. These can provide instant feedback that either assures learners that they are on the right track or provides them with suggestions to review any learning goals that they have not fully achieved. If a program’s goal is to improve employees’ customer service interaction, an online evaluation could include a scenario of specific real-world situations that learners respond to in writing to demonstrate their understanding of how to improve performance. Managers and supervisors could then review the responses and provide feedback, again all within the online platform.

Purposeful design strategies should be evident in all educational programs. That means evident to whoever has decided that learners can benefit from some type of course or program as well as evident to the adult learners who are participants.

Making educational design decisions about how best to use online programs takes time and practice, coupled with an understanding that adjustments and changes will be needed following initial implementation and evaluation. However, the opportunity to create and deliver an educational program that builds knowledge and capacity, meets the goals and objectives of the organization, and captures the interest of the learner is greatly increased by an understanding of why instructional design matters in eLearning. This understanding leads eLearning designers to consider and incorporate effective design strategies.