Building Effective Online Courses, Part 1

Part 1: How and Why to Conduct a Needs Analysis

To create a successful online course, it’s necessary to first identify why you’re creating the course. This phase in the design process is commonly referred to as a Needs Analysis and is where the instructional designer determines who needs training and what kind of training will best meet the learners’ needs. A thorough needs analysis helps organizations see the return on their training investment, as it helps to ensure that the right people receive the right information, in the right format so that the information can be retained and put to use on the job.

The A in ADDIE: Determining the Need for the Course

The ADDIE model is the general process widely used by instructional designers. This process addresses the following five phases:

Analysis > Design > Development > Implementation > Evaluation

In the Analysis phase, the need for the online course is established. The instructional designer gathers data and conducts research to determine the performance gap, which is the disparity between the learners’ actual performance and optimal performance. Attention must also be given to discovering what factors are causing the performance gap. Training interventions such as online courses can only solve issues caused by a lack of skill or knowledge; training will not solve barriers such a lack of proper resources, lack of managerial support, or lack of motivation to do the job.

The Dick and Carey instructional model follows a similar approach to the ADDIE model and also guides instructional designers in completing a thorough instructional analysis prior to designing or developing any content. This model was designed to show how the close relationships between the learners, the materials, and the instructional activities and delivery all lead to accomplishing the intended learning outcomes. By properly identifying the need for the online course at the onset of the project, the designer’s strategy is more intentional and more tightly aligned to the instructional goals.

Meeting Learners Where They Are

Effective online courses are learner-centric, putting learners in the driver’s seat by delivering engaging content that holds their attention and meets their needs. This magic doesn’t happen by accident though, and a thorough understanding of the learners themselves, as well as the overall need for the online course, is necessary to create content that learners will find relevant and valuable.

Learner analysis follows the initial needs analysis, to determine general characteristics of the average learner. The instructional designer may consider contextual and environmental characteristics of the learners, such as their educational backgrounds, their prior knowledge on the topic, their interest level in the topic, their challenges on the job, their goals, and what motivates them. Knowledge of the learners is powerful and equips instructional designers with information that will lead them to create online courses that will be effective because they were made with the learners’ needs in mind.

One trait that is common to today’s learners, no matter their industry, job description, or educational background, is that they arrive on the job with their personal devices in hand. Online courses that are mobile-ready are no longer “nice to have;” this is something organizations need to have to offer their employees. Authoring tools such as knowbly that build content in mobile-ready outputs allow designers to focus on what matters (effective instruction) without worrying about the technical aspects of getting the content in front of learners. Today’s online courses are not limited to learning management systems that employees can only access through their employer’s internal systems, and employers are now designing mobile-ready online courses that learners can access at their leisure on their own devices.

The Importance of Writing and Following Measurable Learning Objectives

Once the need for the course has been determined, and general traits of the learners have been identified, one additional and equally necessary step in a needs analysis is to write measurable learning objectives. These statements address how the course content will close the performance gap.

The most widely used guide for learning objectives is Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a hierarchical diagram that displays the cognitive skills and processes that can be expected of learners following instruction. The taxonomy ranges from simple to complex and can assist in the creation of learning objectives. Each step of the taxonomy lists verbs or “action words” that describe the various outputs learners will be capable of, and designers can simply select actions from Bloom’s lists that are appropriate for their content.

Learning objectives must be measurable, meaning they clearly and precisely describe the learners’ intended actions following instruction. Guides such as Bloom’s Taxonomy also help prevent the common mistake of using unclear verbs such as “understand” in learning objectives. Instructors and designers cannot visibly observe learners “understanding” the content, but they can, however, observe and measure when learners summarize, compare, contrast, or discuss, which are all verbs that Bloom identifies with understanding content. When objectives are communicated to the learners, they know what is expected of them as the outcome of the training. When designers write objectives before they write the content of the course, they remain mindful of the end goal that they have in mind. Their content creation process will be guided by the objectives; anything that does not teach the objectives does not belong in the course.

Needs Analysis: Putting it All Together in a Simple Case Study

Imagine that customer service representatives at a hardware company are having difficulty making the proper recommendations to customers based on the customers’ needs. Instructional designers conduct a needs analysis and determine that the representatives’ knowledge of the various products the company sells is insufficient for them to make proper recommendations to their customers. They decide to create an online course to teach the learners this content.

The designers continue their needs analysis with discovering basic facts about the learners, such as the average learners’ tenure on the job, educational background, and prior knowledge of the products. The learners are field-based employees who are not often at their desks, so the designers decide to make the online course mobile-friendly so that the learners can complete it on their mobile devices while they are on the road.

The designers then write measurable learning objectives to close the performance gap by teaching the learners about the products they are responsible for selling. A sample learning objective for their online course is: “Upon completion of this course, learners will be able to determine which product to recommend based on the customer’s stated needs.”

After moving through the design, development, and implementation phases, the end result is that this new course is highly effective. It meets learners’ needs by delivering the content they need in a format that engages them and is easily accessible for them. The stated learning objectives addressed their performance gap, and the course content was tightly aligned to the intended goal of increasing their knowledge and thus, increasing their sales.

Interested in learning more about how to create effective online courses? Let’s design better learning together.

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