Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Essentials of eLearning Course Design (in your LMS!)

eLearning course design is a definite skill.  It's more than just good instructional design (although if you want a good course it needs this too), it's about putting your course together in a way that works best for learning and the learners.  There a raft of tools out there, but what if you're using your LMS as the authoring tool for your learning?  (okay if your LMS doesn't contain authoring tools stop reading, or actually keep reading and then start making the case to change it).  Can you make good elearning and good looking elearning using your LMS?

One of the biggest misconceptions I fight against on an open source platform like Totara LMS (or Moodle for that matter) is the way that a course must look.  The problem of course is that often the preconception is right in the way that the vast majority of courses are put together in the same scroll down the page like a long list way.  There's nothing wrong with this, and of course there's lots wrong with this too.  A lot of it comes down to personal preference, but I never met anyone who really liked excessive scrolling down the page.  To add more to this there's something wrong with your course if it's largely text based.  Hey it works for a blog (I hope) but a course page needs a simpler interface more simple recognition and less reading.
Yuck!! It has loads of activities but just rolls on down the page and is a real turn-off!

From the depths of my teaching memory I remember the first and perhaps most important rule of teaching; know your audience. Same is true for elearning; and whilst I appreciate how difficult that is when you have to provide a course for such a potentially wide range, principally your business type is known.  If it really isn't known and you really don't know your audience at all then you must prepare for the lowest common denominator, that usually means providing a course for a lower level of literacy - that's where the graphical elements come in.  It's no mere coincidence that road signs across the globe use simple graphic indicators rather than wordy sentences - quicker recognition and regardless of your ability to read the language.

So giving your course a bold graphical interface is a really good idea, but that doesn't mean you can't include instructions, aims or other wordiness required by your subject matter.  What I would do though is try to limit this away from your main course page as much as possible.  For my courses if I want to state the aims or learning objectives for the course I would much rather put them in to a pop up or side bar than direct in the course flow.  That may go against the grain for some of you, but whilst a learning course absolutely should have learning objectives, it may not be absolutely necessary for those to be raised on a flag and given the highest priority to the learner.

If you can put together the resources etc you want to support your course, whether that be background reading, pre-course reading, additional information or a vital part of the course in a list of sorts then you can do this - and then get away from the list and go to icons for the resources.  If you're going to go with a book type design for your course and step people through page by page, don't just put all your resources in the pages.  It's frustrating for learners to have to read everything; particularly if they pretty much get it all from the start.  I prefer the pull approach to learning, say 'here's the extra resources if you need/want them'.  That means that all your resources form a part of the course library if you will, as the learner needs to dip into the library they can - you could use book icons or something similar to unlock all the resources or if you only have one or two you may have direct (preferably) graphical links to them.  Don't forget to use roll-over links and titles for the icons so that you get the best of both worlds.

I have pretty much the same approach with the activities as the resources.  I list out all the bits I want to include in the course, then I hide them away (in Totara you put them in a hidden topic section).  This then gives me the flexibility to set up my main course page using the simple html editor built in to my system.  This means that I have all my activities and resources built and in the system but hidden so I have a blank canvas to design how my course looks and feels.  What I try to do then is fill the visible area in as engaging way as possible and use my icons to hyperlink to the resources and activities that I have hidden.  It's not that I don't like Moodle or Totara icons, just that I can have more flexibility in how they look.  If you don't know how to write effective html then use either the built in editors for a Moodle based LMS or their equivalent.  I like to use the table function in Totara because I can split apart my icons really easy and use the hyperlinks to have all my links occupy the main screen piece.

The last bit that really needs thought is the other areas of your course page - of course this depends somewhat on your system, but Totara has a stack of 'blocks' that you can move around the outside of the main screen area.  You can actually increase the size by removing these all together, but I like to remove them from one side only as you get more central screen space but you also retain the ability to bring in the blocks and the functionality they bring with them.  My favourite of all is the html block - this is cool as it gives you the same equivalent space as the main screen space but conveniently split away in a side block.  You can use two or three of these to house all your resources in a neat way.  You can also use the label resource function in Moodle or Totara to bring in separators and split up the big block into layers.  I love the course completion status block on Totara as it is a great way to show your learner their status (and technically the objectives too!).
An example of a clean interface course - big launch and easy side buttons!

So that's it really, be creative in the way you use your LMS and don't just accept the built in icons and vertical display as the way it has to be.  Your LMS is about learning, you just have to use it that way!