Demand for online learning continues to grow. For example, in 2021 alone, Coursera had 20 million new learners register for courses on their online learning platform.
But designing new online courses is a multifaceted process. Before we can present the expert insights of online teachers, we need to make numerous choices to ensure learning is as effective as possible.
Consider all the factors that go into making classroom-based learning happen. Before a learner makes their way to a lecture, they need to find the admissions office to register. They must navigate across campus and find the right building and lecture hall – all before taking their seat. Once there, they need to track down their reading material and tutorials, work out when to show up for class, and make note of any due dates.
It’s the same for a digital learning platform; and figuring out how to guide the learner through all of this is key to planning an effective online course.
Hubble Studios attends to five key digital learning platform considerations during early course planning. This is our approach.
Consider how design orients the learner
Look and feel has a significant impact on how we experience an online learning platform, and it’s one of the first things we tackle during course planning at Hubble Studios.
When it comes to the design, the colours used as well as the typography and the style of images selected serve a dual function. They guide action (for example, you might select a yellow lightbulb icon to signpost a quiz, so your learner is clear on what’s expected of them), and they reflect your institution or organisation.
“It’s like being on a campus. There are signs telling you where all the departments are. They are all coherent, in the university colours, with the university badge. You know you’re on the campus,” says Hubble Studios Lead Learning Technologist Crystal Farmer. Visual clues like these let learners know they are where they need to be. Without them, the campus space would be disorientating. It’s the same for online learning design.
By considering design early on, you also set your team up for success during the course creation process. “Getting the design right and the design message, and the overall look and feel of the user experience, will set the foundation of the first principles that will guide all your other design choices,” says Crystal.
With the visual direction established, it becomes much easier to make further design choices and plan for any assets needed later on in the course creation process: such as icons, banner images, and logos. This will help the process to run more smoothly, and the course design will be more cohesive in the end.
Map your ideal learning space
Even with the world’s strongest learning material, a course can be let down by a clunky and unintuitive digital learning platform. “When I was at university many years ago, I didn’t love our learning platform. I never logged in. I knew there were notes on there, but I didn’t go fetch them,” Crystal recalls.
During this phase of planning, you need to take stock of the learner’s experience: from start to finish. Consider how intuitive it is for your learner to navigate, how easy it is to find information, and how many clicks it will take to get from A to B.
The goal here is to ensure that the learning experience makes sense holistically. And if there are issues, you need to then account for that somewhere. For example, if your learner is stuck, is there a comprehensive FAQ section that’ll guide them back on track?
“With FAQs, we’re trying to clear out any possible blockers before they happen. We have to make sure we have thought about the learner’s experience and thought about the kind of infrastructure we need to support them,” Crystal explains.
You’ll also need to consider how you want the digital learning platform to be incorporated into the daily lives of your learners. “When we went to school, it was part of our routine. It was inserted into our life, not something that was tacked on,” says Crystal. To help connect the learning experience to the real world, you might opt, for example, to incorporate a Twitter feed into your learning platform. This may help to link lessons on marine biology, for example, to the real-life insights of experts working in the field.
“It’s that kind of umbilical cord to the real world that you want to create because it makes the learning more relevant,” notes Crystal.
Take stock of your tools
Once you have a sense of the ideal student experience, you need to ensure you have the tools to deliver it throughout your online learning platform. Look at your existing toolkit. Do you have everything you need and are you using existing features to their fullest potential?
“With tech, you don’t want to pick something just because it’s fancy. You first understand what your learning outcome or your experiential outcome needs to be. And then you very carefully pair tech to that,” says Crystal.
It is important then to review the tools already built into various digital learning platforms. For example, Hubble often uses Moodle, which allows you to author quizzes, add videos, images and customise look and feel. It also has detailed reporting that provides valuable insights to instructors. If you’re locked into an existing platform, review its capabilities and then map these against the needs of your learners.
You’ll then be ready to investigate any additional tools you may need to install or integrate to deliver the best student experience. If you need opportunities for your learners to collaborate live, you could make use of a whiteboarding tool like Miro. If you’re looking to host group discussions or office hours, you could look into a virtual conferencing tools like Zoom or InSpace.
Consider content holistically
With a sense of the platform and any additional tools you’ll be using, it’s time to consider how these will work together to present your content cohesively. While you won’t be creating content during this stage of course planning, you’ll be thinking about where that content is housed and how it will work as a whole.
You’ll need to determine how courses will be organised and if assets need to be created to support this. For example, by making use of design elements to demonstrate hierarchy of information on your online learning platform, you can guide a learner through a lesson intuitively. By planning ahead, you can make sure you have reusable assets at the ready – such as icons – that’ll ensure course pages are engaging and clear, without needing any extra time and effort from faculty.
In the same vein, you’ll need to map out any conventions for templatized learning and plan for these templates to be created. This will save instructors valuable time that they could otherwise spend preparing for live lectures or engaging with learners in forums or Q&A sessions.
Find the right partner
Planning and delivering an effective online learning platform isn’t a simple process. Between optimising content for online delivery, designing a visual identity, and assessing the various integrations you’ll need to run courses according to your learner’s needs, the process can be daunting.
When approaching course planning, consider if and where partnerships will help you through the process.
Hubble Studios offers support through all aspects of course design and delivery. “We have graphic designers who will do visual mockups. We have a development team and business analysts who will look at all the functional requirements. We have learning designers who look at the learning outcomes and figure out how this all fits together in the learning experience. The graphic designers also look at user experience and user interface. And the learning designers and technologists will look at the tools that are available. And, once it’s live, it’s supported,” says Crystal.
Hubble approaches online course creation collaboratively and supports its partners in presenting their expertise as effectively as possible in the online environment. “We’re really not here to replace you as a teacher,” emphasises Farmer.
If you’re looking for a partner that’s equipped to guide you through holistic course creation, get in touch with the learning experts at Hubble Studios to see how we’ll partner with you through this process first-hand.