Recently, I was asked to give a simple example of what an online Learning Designer (LD) would do with some content provided to them by a Subject Matter Expert (SME). I tried to give a simple example but then found myself expanding on it in-depth as I feared it would be viewed as ‘too simple’. The reality is, online learning design is a complex skill that is often underestimated. Using the analogy of building a house we can understand that learning designers lay the cement, build the frames and brick up the walls, decorate the interior, and hand over the keys to the real estate agent.
While Learning Designers are integral to online course development, this is a team affair though, just like housing construction. See our blog on “Building a course development A-Team” for more details on how Oppida sees the ideal online course team being constructed.
NOTE: For the purpose of this article, I am using the words ‘course’ and ‘module’ to explain the online educational product. For example, Oppida is developing a course called ‘Project management for digital course development’. It consists of 10 modules; one will be called “Project kick-off” for instance.
The integral role of a Learning Designer
Laying the cement
In the design phase of a project, LDs are critical in ensuring the foundations of the online course product are strong. Activities undertaken by the LD could include:
- Writing course learning outcomes.
- Writing the course storyboard.
- Scoping assessments.
- Deciding on the LMS.
- Running focus groups with learners.
- Helping create the project plan and budget.
Throughout the building process, the LD has a crucial role in ensuring the team is communicating, confirming that smaller projects are progressing, and assuring that everyone is following the blueprints. As new ideas and issues arise, the LD must address these and maintain focus on the final product. Learning Designers do this with an educator’s mindset, and it’s all driven by a solid understanding of how people learn. It is an LD’s responsibility to help other team members understand what is possible and conducive to an engaging learning experience while following best practices.
Building the frames and bricking up the walls
Just as in the process of building a house, you can’t lay the foundations without having an idea of where the walls will be. The same thing goes for developing an online course. So, as the cement is being poured, the layout and design of where the frames are being set have been somewhat decided. The ‘house’ then starts to take form as the project moves into the development phase. At this point, activities undertaken by the LD could include:
- Writing module learning outcomes.
- Creating the module storyboards.
- Supporting assessment design (rubrics and briefs).
- Ensuring constructive alignment.
Decorating the interior
Once the walls are up, it is time to decide on the paint, floor coverings, fixtures, and furniture. Often LDs are provided with ‘white rooms’ with no furniture, and their job is to create the ambience and ‘experience’ of the room. It’s here where they:
- Curate the subject matter content.
- Substantively edit (following an established editing guide).
- Add graphics, tables, quotes, diagrams, and images to enhance.
- Add context to resources and sometimes even assess their value.
- Ensure there is a mix of active and passive opportunities for the learners.
- Commission any custom videos, animations or sound recordings (and write the scripts).
- Work with the Education Technologist (ET) to publish it in the Learning Management System (LMS).
- Work with a Graphic Designer on any graphic assets needed for a better User Experience (UX).
Like decorating a room, there are endless possibilities for the LD to be creative using their solid understanding of pedagogy and the online tools available to create engaging learning experiences that achieve the desired outcome.
Handing over the keys
Even though the builder and interior designers are working room to room, they are also looking at what the whole house will look like when finished. LDs also have this responsibility to ‘visualise’ what the final product is and ensure the right processes are in place for consistency. They are there to make sure a 19th Century portrait doesn’t get put on the walls of an ‘Art deco’ themed room.
Learning Designers also often take responsibility for user acceptance testing (checking everything works and is in the right place). They then tend to hand over to the Project Manager or Sponsor, depending on what Quality Assurance (QA) milestones were decided at the beginning of a project.
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Phew… That’s a lot of responsibility for one person
Yes, I hear you! And I am bound to have missed many details. An expert Learning Designer with a strong background in education may add hundreds of important elements to the product in subtle ways that can be hard to identify.
However, I hope this analogy sheds some light on the critical role of design when developing an online course. The Learning Designer really is the builder, architect, and interior designer and that’s why at Oppida we recommend, where possible, the LD also takes on the role of Project Manager (PM). The only thing the LD doesn’t often do is choose the paint, cushions, artwork, light fittings, and furniture. These are the tasks of the homeowner (SME and client organisations) and their family (the learners).