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Better design for online: an aspiration

A few quick tips on designing online courses collated from various sources.

An aspiration

Designing online course is a bit like computer programming (or other inexact sciences) in that there are:

  • some rules or heuristics you can follow (design patterns)
  • some creativity you can introduce
  • some experience you can draw on
  • some limitations imposed by the language (perhaps in our case the structure of our LMS)

With many variables to consider we can only hope to improve ourselves through drawing on the ideas of other designers. Usually, it is unwise to depend on some kind of “magic bullet” like the latest offering from Open Source or vendors such as Articulate and Adobe.


There are many models available [1]  and most of them have the same or very similar aims.  Some are outgrowths of the classic design cycle like ADDIE but others are linear.  The advantage of linear is that you have a start a middle and an end and the process is relatively simple and rapid.  The disadvantage is that you won’t go through cycles of refinement at the design stage but will have to re-engineer based on actual feedback after implementation.

Realistically, you are hardly ever given an abundance of time!

If you understand the aim of your online course or unit, you will be better able to pick the best approach or model.  In her excellent book [2], Cammy Bean quotes Kineo’s Mark Harrison as identifying three main reasons for creating learning:

  • To inform or raise awareness
  • To improve knowledge and skills
  • To solve complex problems and change attitudes or behaviours

So at the very least you need to start with an appropriate model for the task at hand.  You don’t need to write a complex interactive scenario just to let people know how to find the fire exits.


At some point in your course, perhaps in the latter stages of your design if you are following a model like OTARA [3], you will need to add resources.  What can happen at this stage is you feel under pressure to add everything the learner might need plus everything the SME thinks they should have and the kitchen sink.

Such an approach not only adds clutter but runs the risk of confusing or putting the learner off.  The only resources that should be added are those that support the learning activities.

It’s fine to point the user at external resources when you want to allow learners the option of further study but add a description so they can evaluate whether this would be a good use of their time.


Rule numbers 1-10 are:

  • keep it brief and to the point.

Reading online is a slow and sometimes painful business.  Bullet points will help.   For example, we will often find ourselves presenting a description or list of items in one sentence.

“Wordy writing slows down the training process for several reasons. One, because it takes the student longer to read the poorly constructed material. Wordy or clumsy writing bores readers, causing their minds to wander. Even though the training has great graphics and slick animation, poor text construction causes poor retention and limited interest.“ [4]

While this may be fine for a blog post or article, online we should split this into a series of bullet points.  I leave this as an exercise for the reader!


Images are critical components of online learning and should be chosen with care.  They need to be processed, positioned and sized appropriately.  Ignoring copyright issues is a pretty good way to get sued or fired.

You need to find images that are relevant to the learning.  You will almost certainly have to pay at some point as quality images are time-consuming and expensive to produce.

A picture tells a story:

  • make them tell the same story as your course writing
  • keep them consistent in theme
  • select them on the basis of the feeling/emotion you want them evoke.


Videos and sounds can be important and convey a great deal of information in a very accessible way (the reason why YouTube is used as a search engine by many people).

They can be intrusive and use up bandwidth though.

The combination of multimedia and solid content is potentially very powerful and the addition of activities within video help ensure learners don’t just treat the video as entertainment but actually spend time absorbing it.  This is the principle behind products such as H5P [5].

From aspiration to inspiration

We started with an aspiration.  Many of us may not be born great designers but we can still learn from the best examples.

Keeping a notebook (physical or digital, such as Evernote) that you can annotate will prove a valuable resource when it comes to designing your next online learning course.

Finally don’t forget to make time to reflect on your latest creation and if possible get feedback on your efforts.


[1] http://wikieducator.org/VirtualMV/Digital_Learning_Technologies/Pedagogies/Instructional_Design_Models
[2] The Accidental Instructional Designer, ASTD Press, (http://store.astd.org) e-ISBN: 978-1-60728-407-9.
(Bean, Carolyn. The Accidental Instructional Designer: Learning Design for the Digital Age . ASTD Press. Kindle Edition.)
[3] http://kjh.co.nz/otara/
[4] http://instructionaldesign.gordoncomputer.com/Writing.html
[5] https://h5p.org/

Richard Jones
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Richard Jones

Richard has a long history of working with e-learning and educational technology in the UK, Portugal, Singapore, China, Australia, and New Zealand.

One thought on “Better design for online: an aspiration

  • Great post Richard, I really enjoyed this one. It does remind me how, errrr, ‘informal’ my own design processes have become, but perhaps that’s because so much of this is now tacit knowledge for me? However, even for those of us who have been working in e-learning and course design for many years, it’s really valuable to stop and reflect, and consider choosing and using other design approaches eh?


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