Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Adventures of Developing an e-learning Course!


I have just been reading a post by @tomkuhlmann called Five Ways to Guarantee Your E-Learning Course is a Success.  The post is a relevant read for anyone in the field of delivering e-learning, training, and responsible for organizational performance.

I have cited below a paragraph from the post of particular relevance--about asking questions, the right questions. Disregarding the power of questions or forgetting to raise them and get them clarified can often make or break a course or render it ineffective.
There’s a lot that goes into building a course.  Make sure you get access to the right people and resources.  Who can review the content? Who can provide assets like logos, images, and documentation?  How will you connect with the potential learners? Who will review or pilot the course?  What’s the implementation strategy?  What type of IT support or technology do you need?
I have added some questions that I have found useful to ask

Who provides the final sign-off? Who is the business client? Whose buy-in do you require to ensure that there is post-rollout support provided to the learners? How will you ensure effective communication throughout the development cycle?

One of my recent experiences reinforced the importance of asking the right questions, asking as many times as required till all expectations are crystal clear to both the client-side stakeholders and the developers of the e-learning program (this includes learning solutions consultant, project managers, instructional designers, visual designers and communicators, illustrators, programmers, integrators, et al).

The mistakes I made, and what did I learn

I was working with an international client who were rolling out e-learning in their organization for the first time. After having familiarized them with the fundamentals of e-learning and having gathered the basic requirements, I got down to collecting the content for the initial modules from one of the SMEs. Being a highly technical course, this SME (Subject Matter Expert) intervention/interaction was of utmost importance. Post this first content-gathering phase, it was time for me to travel back to India.

Mistake #1: I forgot to verify with the stakeholders if the SME who had provided the content would also be the same one reviewing and providing feedback on the storyboards.

Satisfied that I had enough content to start work on the initial modules, I got down to creating the micro-design documents for those modules. Duly referring to the course design document, the audience analysis made, I began drafting the storyboards.

Mistake #2: I did not think of verifying/ratifying the micro-design documents with the clients. This would have saved a lot of heartache for us and panic for the client.

This was an international client and we are working across different time-zones. The primary mode of communication (during the initial phase) was e-mail, whose ineffectiveness I soon found out to my grief.

Mistake #3: I did not leverage the power of the Internet and the various options available for interaction, communication, collaboration--at least till that point. I learned better as time progressed. Again, after coming to grief.

I e-mailed the completed storyboards to the SME for feedback on content logicality, veracity, flow, and other such regular things. What I received in less than 24 hours was nothing short of a panic e-mail (from SMEs different from the one who had provided the content) saying that the content covered was inadequate, lacking in depth, and too generic to be of much use to technicians who needed much more specificity to perform on the job.

I almost had a minor heart attack being clueless as to how this could be the case since the content had been provided by an SME, albeit a different one. This difference was what threw a monkey wrench in what should otherwise have been a fairly straightforward case of review and feedback process.

Insights gleaned

After my panic sub-sided, I realized it was time to get into a more direct conversation with the SMEs. E-mail was just not the answer. The conversation that ensued provided me with the following insights:
  1. The SMEs who had provided the review inputs on the initial storyboards had been unaware of the source of content 
  2. The storyboards would be reviewed by multiple SMEs since it was important that all aspects of the tasks be covered
  3. Each SME had their own area of expertise, and all of these had to be brought together in the course
  4. The content was in a state of "high flux" since the product was still being tested and updated
  5. The content provided at the inital stage had changed (vastly) by the time the SMEs got down to reviewing the storyboards

Critical learning

Regular questions we typically ask but which often fail to take care of the finer aspects that go toward making a training program successful:
  1. What is the training needed for?
  2. Is the training truly required? Will this solve the business problem?
  3. What is/are the business need(s) that it aims to fulfill?
  4. What insights has the task analysis provided about performance, hitches faced during on-the-job performance?
  5. What has the learner analysis revealed?
  6. What is the overall desired performance outcome?
 Some important questions that remain unasked

  1.  Are all communication channels being effectively used (especially important if communicating via Web and across different time-zones)? Can better use be made of tools and applications like Skype, AOL, Webinars, conference calls, video conferencing, Google docs, etc.? (Disregarding or overlooking the effectiveness of these communication platforms in today's super-linked world is like sending snail mail when an e-mail could be sent.)***
  2. How stable is the content? How much of it is likely to change during the development of the training program? (It is safe to assume that in today's world, content will change and change rapidly.)
  3. Which part of the content is least likely to change? (Focus on developing those modules first.)
  4. Who are the SMEs? 
  5. Who is the final authority who will provide the sign-off?
  6. Is the reviewer/sign-off authority of the storyboards same as the one who will provide the final sign-off on the produced, functional modules as well? (Any unexpected change during this phase can throw a spanner not only in the development process but will also be a roadblock in the meeting of deadlines and schedules.)
  7. Are all the client-side stakeholders (SMEs, line managers, learning and development team, business managers, technicians, etc.) in synch with each other? 
  • Are they on the same page? 
  • Do they know how their inputs can impact the overall development process and final output? 
  • Are they aware that their respective inputs are important for overall course effectiveness? (While this seems like something that should be handled by the client, as effective consultants, the onus is on us to point out the importance of such interactions and also manage the communication in many cases.)
 This is by no means an exhaustive list. I look forward to additions to this list from all...

Some tools I actively used post this panic attack to ensure seamless communication flow

*** During the course of the project, we began to use:
  1. Skype for chats, demos, walk-through, feedback, discussions
  2. AOL messenger for IMs
  3. Dropbox to quickly exchange heavy files and folders
  4. Webinars for walk-through and demos
  5. Conference calls for quick queries and clarifications, discussions, brainstorming
  6. And of course, the ubiquitous e-mail for more formal updates, minutes of meetings, conveying information to all stakeholders-directly or indirectly connected to the development, ensuring all key people have the necessary, critical information for reference and record, and such like
How did these tools help

Apart from ironing out communication gaps and helping the panic to sub-side, these various channels of communication ensured we were in touch with the client at all points during the development cycle. This not only increased their trust in us but also helped us to build that invaluable rapport that made the rest of the project inspiring, fun, "learningful," interactive in the true sense, and increased the chance of the efficacy of the program manifold.

This constant, ongoing dialog also helped to make the SMEs feel involved and valued, lowered their resistance to suggestions, helped them to see our point of view, and created opportunities for healthy exchange of ideas.

I would love to hear your experiences and receive inputs...


  1. Liked the post. The point that stands out to me i "Are all communication channels being effectively used".

    What effectively you did was the project evolved protocols along the way based on needs. It is a good sign that clients and vendors are learning from the project.

  2. Thank you for the comment...the highlight of this project, as you have rightly pointed out, were the evolving protocols. This "learning along the way" and "implementing as we learned" made the project so exciting and inspiring...

  3. Hey Sahana,
    Thanks for sharing your experience - I liked your post. BTW, you may be interested in the BBC's learning design toolkit. They cover a lot of strategic questions that we should ask ourselves during different stages of the project. I like them as prompts and they're definitely a very good tool to keep up with your charter.


  4. Hi Sumeet,

    Thanks a ton! I am definitely going to explore the toolkit.

    I keep learning...and that is so much fun! :)

  5. We need more posts like this that share real world experiences and insight. I salute you for sharing your mistakes and lessons learned! Instructional designers/developers are life-long learners - this is one of things that makes this field so interesting to me.

  6. Hi Kim,
    Thank you very much for the kind comments. I do hope you will keep visiting and sharing your feedback.


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