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Instructional Design for Online Courses

If there was already a growing trend of online learning, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated it. There is an expanding need to develop quality instructional materials in the virtual realm, and instructional design has had a significant role in this field. Instructional Design Central defines ‘instructional design’ as “the process by which learning products and experiences are designed, developed, and delivered.” It specifies that “[t]hese learning products include online courses, instructional manuals, video tutorials, learning simulations, etc. Instructional designers are the ‘architects’ of the learning experience…”

Although they seemingly have more tools at their disposal than someone creating content for in-person courses, designers must be savvy when it comes to eLearning. That’s because learners engage with online courses differently, and eLearning requires a higher level of interaction, accessibility and activity.

The following are five of the best practices for instructional design of online courses:

1. Understand Your Audience

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of dealing with technology is to first learn about the users. As pointed out by the Course Arc blog, “Millennial learners are very comfortable with highly-summarized, succinct content with lots of videos and interactivities. Many Baby Boomers, on the other hand, may prefer straight-to-the-point material in a lecture format.” There is a clear generational gap in online adaptability, and it must be taken into consideration when coming up with solutions for eLearning.

2. Stick to the Syllabus

It may be tempting to want to pack as much into a course as you can when desigining courses. However, the syllabus is a friend, not a foe. Having a clear outline of the educational outcomes and the ability to refer back to the syllabus as you develop the materials is extremely important, as every group of students has different needs and may require other tools to navigate the content of the course. Hence, the syllabus is a guiding light.

3. Filter Content

In the same vein, it’s essential to stick to what is required learning versus trivia, curiosities and other “would be nice to know” aspects. eLearning has a special relationship to time management and, especially for adult learning, it’s important not to waste time and go straight to the point. As Designing Digitally puts it, “Just because you have the content dump, it does not mean that you must use all of it in the course. Remember that your employees are hard-pressed for time. They will be motivated to go through a course if they feel that it is worth their time.”

4. Make it Interactive (and fun!)

The most exciting part about crafting online learning courses is the possibility of using a diverse array of languages. Designers can bring the content to the learner in a highly innovative way and dismantle the perception that school is “boring” by using podcasts, games, apps and videos.

5. Keep Them Curious

It may be tempting to design courses with a set of right or wrong answers. But asking good, open-ended questions is a much more exciting way to engage with learning. Although memorization is an age-old tool for education, letting students get to the conclusion on their own is more effective.

These are just a few initial key points to consider when working with instructional design. There are many other interesting aspects to the field, such as customizable design, active learning and accessibility for people with special needs. Given the modern age and a post-pandemic world, is it clear that hybrid and online courses are here to stay. More students seek alternatives to traditional education, and online learning offers affordable and accessible options. Designers in this field have their work cut out for them as they explore this new frontier of post-pandemic eLearning.

Learn more about St. Thomas University’s online Master of Science in Instructional Design & Technology program.

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