team following a custom elearning development processDetails of the eLearning Development Process

Many efforts get key steps of the eLearning development process wrong, yet having the right approach is vital to the success of your project. There is a lot of talk today about competing methodologies (Agile, Spiral, etc.). To understand how these new models might be applied to online training, you must first have a solid grasp on the details of a good, traditional approach.

In another article, we covered the traditional eLearning development process at a very high level. We also briefly outlined some alternatives. It is helpful to dive into the traditional development approach in more detail. After all, the details of planning virtual learning courses are what people often get wrong, even those who have been doing this a while. Whether you are new and trying to develop your first project plan or schedule or you are a client looking to grasp the steps involved in professional eLearning development, you will benefit from understanding the details.

In the first segment of this detailed, two-part series on the professional eLearning development process, we cover the steps from the project kickoff to final storyboard approval. In part 2, we will cover a recommended media development approach.

Steps of the eLearning Development Process

1) Project Kick-Off Meeting

This initial meeting will cover several things:

  • Team introductions
  • Target audience
  • Identification of key influencers and approvers for the project
  • Overall project goals
  • Plan for tracking development progress
  • Other means of communication
  • Target platforms and devices
  • Schedule of content review meetings
  • Project limits such as:
    • Total desired length of eLearning
    • Financial limitations
    • Final deadline
    • Dangers to scope

Often those creating the training are far more invested in the content than the target audience.
During the team introductions, it is vital to establish the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) for various parts of the project. Also, never underestimate the value of a good discussion about the target audience. To be successful, you must figure out how to make the training valuable to the target audience. Understanding the target audience drives the eLearning content more than any other factor.

It’s vital to establish the key influencers and approvers for the project. A common mistake clients make is waiting until AFTER the first version of the eLearning is created to get the key approvers involved. This tactic is tempting because this phase of development is  easiest to review and takes the least amount of time or communication. Nonetheless, it is VITAL that anyone who can stop approval of the project be involved in every approval step if at all possible. Otherwise, a key approver can introduce changes to scope at a point when there may not be adequate time or budget to implement those changes.

It is worth noting that a full schedule is usually not established at this point because the content needs to be reviewed before an accurate schedule can be developed. Often clients WANT a full schedule at this meeting, but it is like trying to build a detailed schedule for building a house when a rough blueprint has not even been created yet. At this point, you may be able to estimate general phases, but any attempts at a detailed schedule are really educated guesswork. Instead, put together a plan for when a full schedule can be established and schedule the content review meetings. While the best time to finalize a full detailed schedule is after the outline is fully created and approved, the development team can often publish a draft detailed schedule before this, modifying it after the outline is approved.

The meeting should also cover a list of things that could increase the scope of the project, especially since these are often these are not obvious to the client or even the development team. (We will cover a list of potential scope dangers in another post.)

2) Content Meeting(s)

The size of the project often dictates how many content meetings are needed. For small projects, you may only need one, but very large projects, there may actually be a series of meetings.

Content meetings may involve anything from reviewing previous course material to taking notes as content experts talk and answer questions.

These meetings should be recorded, if at all possible.

The instructional designer will both focus and the content and ask what related visual assets may already exist. Since this is the primary person on the development team who knows where the content is going, the instructional designer must take the lead in gathering assets.

Failing to take advantage of existing visual assets can have a couple of consequences. It can either drive the cost of the project up as the creative team recreates things they don’t know already exist, or it can makes the project less visually appealing as those key elements are missed.

To make sure the collected assets are high enough quality to actually be used, the instructional designer must be educated in video and file formats and communicate the  necessary specifications. The instructional designer must also verify the rights to the assets being used. 

Again, it does not make sense to push this asset gathering work onto a different resource. The instructional designer knows best where the content will go and has the most contact with the SMEs. For an efficiently run project, the instructional designer is the right person to lead asset gathering.

3) Research and Study of Content

The instructional designer studies the content further and also works to understand the audience fully. This process often involves reviewing client-provided materials, as well as other outside material created on the subject. The instructional designer may communicate with the client via email or phone to get any questions answered.

Several issues are commonly encountered during this phase:

These are all potential challenges the instructional designer must anticipate and know how to address.
  • The client wants to cover far more content than the time allotted for the eLearning.
  • The client’s content is contradictory. One place it says one thing, and, in another place, it says something else. Even the client SMEs may be in disagreement.
  • The client’s content is so high level and lacking in detail that it would not really be a benefit to the target audience.

When issues such as these arise, the instructional designer works with the project manager to arrange additional client meetings. Sometimes these issues are easily remedied with a single meeting. Other times, it takes getting all the client SME’s in the same room so they can debate the issues and reach a consensus.

4) Course Outline Creation

Once all big issues are sorted out, the instructional designer creates an outline with learning objectives. Good instructional design organizes the content in a logical flow for the target audience. Even though the outline is often brief, it usually accomplishes several key things, including:

  • Referencing in detail the source material to be used both for content and visual assets;
  • Providing high-level descriptions of the types of interactions that will be created;
  • Estimating the length of each major part of the outline; and
  • Listing what NEW assets need to be created, including graphics, video, animation, and audio requirements.

Eighty percent of the instructional design happens during this step. After this point, the ID work focuses more on writing and storytelling. 

5) Internal Outline Review and Detailed Schedule for eLearning Development

The project manager, instructional designer, and creative lead should meet together to review the outline. The creative lead is often able to provide vital input to make the interactive or animated segments better or alternative ideas to be included in the outline as possibilities. 

A high-level schedule may have been drafted a little earlier in the process as the content requirements became clear. At this point, it is time for the team to create a full detailed schedule, which will show the client when the various review cycles are during the eLearning development process. (We will detail what this schedule may include in a later post.)

The common mistake associated with this step is trying to schedule any portion of the creative work before content is fully approved. It is the primary way money and time are wasted in eLearning media development.

6) Outline and eLearning Development Schedule Review Meeting

The purpose of this meeting is to review the outline document and collect client feedback. In most cases, no or minimal changes are needed. That’s because the content meetings held earlier in the process tend to develop a clear picture of how the eLearning needs to unfold, and the outline is a reflection of this. Also during this step, the schedule is reviewed and adjusted, as needed.

7) Outline and eLearning Development Schedule Edits

If any changes were requested to the outline, that document must be updated, which usually only takes a few days at most. The exception is when new content was added. If this happens, additional content meetings are scheduled, as needed. Whenever changes are made to the outline, the draft schedule must also be revisited to see if updates are necessary.

8) Outline and Final eLearning Development Schedule Approval Meeting

If any other changes to the outline or schedule are needed, they are usually made during this meeting so final approval can be given.

9) Scripting / Light Storyboard Development

Next, the instructional designer creates a script or storyboard with visual asset notes. The initial draft typically does not include test questions because changes to the storyboard could require them to be reworked. 

During the writing process, we almost always involve a second editor or writer. We have a saying about writing that we apply even to ourselves: “People like two types of writing: good writing and their own writing.”

People like two types of writing: good writing and their own writing.

Even the best writers are not always the best evaluators of their own work. 

Another step we always take is listening to the script being read aloud, either by another team member or computer-generated audio. We have never seen a script escape important changes as a result of this auditory review.

10) Internal Script Review Meeting

One of the worst mistakes you can make at this point is to send a script or storyboard off for client review without giving representatives of the whole team a chance to review the script.
People called to develop creative and interactive elements must have the opportunity to review the ideas for them. Very small tweaks at this point can often dramatically improve the final eLearning experience. Unrealistically scripted interactions can be modified to be in line with the budget and schedule.  The team can ask questions about existing assets, and the list of new assets can be considered in light of the development budget.  Even the narrative flow can be evaluated against planned visual ideas. When this review step is skipped and issues are recognized after client approval, it is very awkward to correct them.

Also, if a visual or interaction described is unclear, a graphic or quick sketch can be created and included in the storyboard to communicate the vision of what is to be developed. Even grabbing a screenshot from a previous project can be helpful. For instance, “The game described here will look similar to this image from another course.”

Now we have seen a lot of development teams expend a lot of effort at this point in new asset creation.  We strongly recommend against doing so. Right now in the process, the client has only approved an outline. It is much better to save your development hours for a more fully approved script. The client may still have some really good ideas coming that could totally change the planned graphics. If you limit yourself during this step to descriptions and existing visual examples, incorporating any new good ideas from the client is quite painless.

11) Client Script Review Meeting

Normally this script or storyboard document is also reviewed in a client meeting, and feedback is recorded.  Depending upon the client’s experience eLearning development and the complexity of the project, a storyboard walk-through and narrative read can be helpful here.

12) Application of Client Feedback

Client feedback is incorporated into the storyboard. If the feedback was significant, another round of meetings is necessary. If the feedback was extremely minor, the document can simply be sent back to the client for for approval. Test questions should also be created and included with this final storyboard draft.

Again, the key is to value everyone on the team and get their buy-in before sending something back to the client for approval.
 If changes were made to parts that impact creative media, the instructional designer runs these by the creative media team before sending the storyboard back to the client. After all, a single out-of-place sentence can throw a wrench in a planned animation. Also, something that seems like a small requirement change to a game or interaction may make a bigger development impact than a non-developer might realize. Involving the team again at this step avoids many potential issues later.

13) Client Approval Meeting

This meeting is usually held to review changes made to the storyboard since the last draft, make any remaining tweaks, and get final approval. Now that you have a final storyboard, you are ready for full production to begin.

We will cover this next part of the process in a later article.

A Professional Partner in the Process

If you are looking for a team of eLearning professionals to guide you through these steps as well as media development, Left Brain Media has the resources and expertise for successful results. We deliver quality solutions to large corporations, small businesses, and non-profits. Contact us to learn more about our custom eLearning courses, eLearning games, creative video production, and dynamic websites and applications.

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