Designing and Building Digital Learning Experiences

Today we're looking at three lessons we learned while building a Digital Learning Experience: Industry Professionals aren’t the same as faculty members, build content consistency across modules and subject matters experts (SMEs), and stick to your internal templates.

At the ETO, we love a good project retrospective. We’re just finishing content development for an online course and are about to begin the process for a second course (with a few repeat subject matter experts (SMEs). The course is part of a new online graduate program and is being developed by 9 subject matter experts (1 lead instructor; 8 instructors). Each subject matter expert (SME) led the development of one or two modules. What makes this development project new for us is working with a large instructional team of industry professionals that are developing a new course and program; we typically work with faculty members who have previously taught the course.

Background: We use an adapted version of the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) (for an overview, see Linkedin Learning's course on Agile Instructional Design). We did not adopt this model without some hiccups along the way; it's taken a few projects and a lot of conversation to customize this model for how we work as a team. The benefit of SAM, for us, is that we can identify what happens in each phase - Preparation, Design, Development. A lot of our conversation revolves around tasks – who should be doing what and why? How do we communicate this and when? We approach building digital learning experiences as a team, with each member of the team contributing their own expertise, but focusing on what SMEs do best and what the ETO does best. Typically, this divides into content (SMEs) and production (ETO).

A note before we get started: I refer to faculty/instructors/industry professionals as “SMEs” and to all of us staff at the ETO as “the ETO.”

Jump to:

  1. Lesson 01: Industry Professionals aren’t the same as faculty members
  2. Lesson 02: Build content consistency across modules and subject matters experts (SMEs)
  3. Lesson 03: Stick to your internal templates

Lesson 01: Industry Professionals aren’t the same as faculty members

Assumption: With enough iteration, one process will work across all projects. It turns out that one process doesn’t work; each project is different. For the first course, we approached the build the same way we do with faculty. We’ve been really lucky to work with faculty who are already deeply versed in teaching and learning. Many also knew the tools of the trade or had even previously worked on a digital learning project. This is not necessarily the case with industry professionals, many of whom are world-class experts in their domain, but who have not needed to focus on learning science.

Lesson: In our experience, industry experts come to the project with enthusiasm but less formal training in teaching. There is also the consideration of how deep to go; how much time to invest learning about design when this might be a one-off project? Unlike faculty, who might use lessons learned during this process throughout their careers, the time spent here is less assuredly transferable to other areas of their work. Time, as always, is in short supply. We wanted to support strong instructional design, without being overwhelming. We wanted to streamline the process (less meetings, less back and forth) to maximize SME time and thought that by promising to “fix everything in post” that we’d decrease the demand on the SMEs. By not dedicating the time needed during the preparation phase, we ended up with both SME and ETO time spent on elements that needed to be corrected, redesigned, and/or abandoned. We thought that we could pull out module content from an existing slide deck but this proved to not be enough context to make the right design decisions.

New Process Action: Ask each SME to give their existing presentation to the ETO team (and record it!). This also involved the development of a new resource: Recording a scratch track of a lecture or presentation.

New Deliverable: Scratch track recording – we not only have a better sense of what the presenter is sharing, we can provide constructive feedback on chunking and modality for the final digital learning experience.

You can see on this process diagram (geared to a SME audience) that the scratch track recording takes place after the course map and content are approved by the course conductor:

What is a scratch track? A scratch track is a recording of your content as is (no pre-work required). It's used a reference which the ETO will analyze and share ideas on how to translate the content (using different modalities) into a digital learning experience.

Result: ETO team takes on more of the preparation and translation work, spending more time in preparation before taking on design and development. SME presents (virtually or in person, if preferred) their presentation as it currently exists to the ETO. The focus of this is still content; not design, and no additional time is spent to prepare the visual aspects of the presentation.

Lesson 02: Build content consistency across modules and subject matters experts (SMEs)

Assumption: Everyone is on the same page. Everyone is not naturally on the same page; it takes work to externalize the content of each module. With a single instructor, or small instructional team, ensuring content consistency – depth and scope, level of challenge, style, and format – happens more naturally, since they typically come from one mind and from a previously taught course. In a project with multiple SMEs, each SME is not always aware of what is in another’s module. Styles can also vary, as some might use anecdotes, others case studies, analysis from data sets, etc. All of these are effective, and the goal is not to discourage this flavour. Our goal is to be aware of the different styles early so that we can thread some instructional scaffolding (to support self-directed learners) early in the digital learning experience.

Lesson: Before we begin production, we aim to reduce duplication of content from one module to another. Ideally, if the content is linear, the modules build upon previous concepts. When you have a course with contributions from multiple people, this step needs to be given more attention and thoughtfulness. Without experience, this is an invisible and often overlooked step. With a larger team, the inconsistency isn’t transparent without work to make it so; the ETO can use their history with projects like these to make the work that’s easy to miss impossible to miss.

New Process Action: Add an internal content approval process that occurs before the ETO begins their work. This review process typically includes an internal presentation of existing content (to the other SMEs). It is followed by a formal approval process completed the lead instructor. If your project has a project coordinator, they might also perform the content approval as this is focuses on alignment to course- and module-level outcomes.

You can see on this process diagram that the internal content review is step 02, sandwiched between step 01: scoping the course content and step 03: recording the scratch track:

Lesson 03: Stick to your internal templates

Assumption: Being flexible and creating a customized process is the key to providing good service. It turns out that flexibility doesn’t guarantee excellent service, especially if it comes at the expense of internal-ETO collaboration. A bit of history – the ETO began designing digital learning experiences as a one-person shop. Then two, then a bit more, and now we’re a more mature team of six, including roles that are more specialized (e.g., graphic and media developer) versus the more generalist roles (e.g., Instructional Technologist). Lacking defined processes made flexibility a pleasant side effect (versus a method) for each project. Having bespoke processes live in one person’s head was feasible, for a time. When we moved to full team projects, however, having each project run on a different process was untenable; we had a hard time understanding progress, task allocation, and scheduling.

Lesson: The tasks might change, customized to the needs of the stakeholders for that project, but we try to stick to the same deliverables. This has been helpful as we move from "external" conversations to "internal" building. Since not everyone on the team can attend every meeting or be privy to every update, it's important that while we be flexible, we also produce consistent prototypes, storyboards, and other project resources that make sense to those who will action those deliverables. In the past, we might have conceded to a different module map format or a different storyboard, but now we're more likely to stick to an ETO-tested and approved template but offer bespoke support to subject matter experts to complete these files.

New Process Action: Early in the project, we now host a project kick off session wherein we discuss how we typically do things and encourage discussion around the process. As things are flagged, the ETO can step in and provide extra support to build a deliverable (e.g., Cheryl might assist in storyboarding).  

Deliverables: Customized Project Process Kick Off meeting (slide deck) – We start projects with clear communication and aim to carry that momentum throughout the project. This meeting also introduces the project team to the upcoming deliverables. You can see on this Design and Development process diagram that during these phases, the ETO produces a Module Map, Module Prototype, Module Storyboard, and a style guide.

Deliverables (highlighted in yellow) produced during project:

Result: After establishing a phased process (preparation, design, development) that is clearly communicated, we are improving on how long it takes to create a digital learning experience (it’s still a long time) and are much more clear on who is doing what and when. We’ve also struck a better balance on task allocation, designating tasks based on what SMEs are better at doing and what the ETO is better at doing.  


Article Category: General Information