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8 Tips for Getting Started with E-Learning Course Design

eLearning designers are often the unsung heroes of effective online learning experiences. They have the powerful role of being the ones that build the content provided by the subject matter expert into a robust and engaging narrative for the learner.

However, getting there isn't easy.  If you are just starting out, you aren't going to become an expert on day one. But if you follow some expert advice, your road to success will be much smoother. 

This is a compilation of some things we wish we knew when starting out as a new eLearning designer. 

Here are the seven most useful tips:

1) Establish Expectations with Your Team

Moving content online means a team-based approach to learning. The designer is only one piece of the puzzle. Of equal importance are the Subject Matter Expert, the multimedia production specialist, the instructional production specialist, and other designers. With that many people working on the course, a lack of expectations leads to confusion, frustration, and ineffective learning experiences.

Use collaboration tools, project management tools, and consistent guidelines for everyone working on the course. Consider creating a role delineation chart so that everyone understands their expectations and knows what they are accountable for. This way, in the event of a misunderstanding or disagreement, the team can refer to the initial documentation to resolve challenges.

2) Work Backwards from Objectives to Assessment to Activities

The traditional train of thought many eLearning newbies think of is to design sequentially from course introduction to content to conclusion and then create the assessment. This does not encourage iterations on designs or a focused target on what is the most important aspect of design.

After the initial learning objectives are created, the next step is to decide what evidence is acceptable to verify that the learner has transformed the information presented in the modules into knowledge.

When considering possible assessments, focus on what format of assessment is useful for that audience and the kind of evidence needed to show competency on the part of the learner. Possible options for assessment format are multiple-choice, true/false, multiple select, short answer, and primary reflection. These formats can assess different types of knowledge. Declarative knowledge includes knowledge like being able to remember steps in a sequence or then names of chemicals while procedural knowledge focuses on learners being able to perform steps in a sequence or completing a successful chemistry experiment. The level of evidence required will help to dictate if you need a simple drag-and-drop activity or a more in-depth simulation.

Also, you should think about:

  • How long the assessment needs to be
  • How frequent the assessments need to be
  • If it is a formative or summative assessment. A portion of the assessment design decision is made by the scaling of the assessment. Take into consideration that an assessment built in the middle of a lesson should focus on formative goals while one at the conclusion of a lesson should be summative.
  • Does it need to be automatically assessed or will someone be able to review the work? Or will there be a mix between automatic assessments and manually graded?
    Final note: Make sure you include only those activities that help you achieve the learning outcomes and that you design activities to help learners efficiently tackle the assessment tasks.


When the End Justifies the Means: Designing eLearning Courses Backwards

How to Create an eLearning Course in 12 Steps


3) Design Last, Storyboard First  

Once you've identified the important objectives and related assessments, you are ready to focus on the design of the course. The first part of any good creative process involves storyboarding. The storyboard encompasses everything a learner will experience in the course from start to finish. It's the blueprint of the course, like a lesson plan - except a storyboard doesn't describe just general content, but everything else as well, from graphics to video. 

When building your storyboard, always think about the application. How will learners apply what they have learned from your design?

Time-Saving Tip: While storyboarding requires an initial investment, it will often cut your design time in half by having the course content and sequence completed before you start authoring.

Read: A Simple Guide to Creating Your First eLearning Storyboard


4) Use Technology with Purpose

Various web 2.0 tools should be used with purpose. When deciding on the technology to use, think about the initial learning objectives. Will that technology help? If your purpose is to build a sense of community, then using a tool such as a wiki, community blog, or video responses can help learners get to know each other. However, if all learning is individual, then this technology should not be used. Every time you want to use a new type of media or add-on tech in the eLearning course, ask yourself three questions: Is it going to detract from the content? Does it require a significant learning curve for the audience? Is there a cost to using that tool?

5) Gauge Your Audience 

Who is the audience you are designing for? Content will be presented differently for entry-level college graduates than it will for executives. Consider what they are using the eLearning module for. Is it for continuing professional development? Or are they engaging with the content to fulfill a requirement? If they are engaging in order to fulfill a requirement, there may be extra external factors to include in the design of the course.

Essentially, a good design identifies who will be the consumers of the content. Conduct any necessary needs assessment to know what the audience you are designing for needs. It is nearly impossible to design an effective course for the nebulous ‘everybody’ because everyone comes with different experiences and perspectives

Here's A Template to Carry Out an eLearning Audience Analysis


6) Consistency is Key

A learner who will be engaging with your eLearning course needs to recognize consistency among the different screens. This harmony helps to brand and create a sense of unity in the design. It also reduces cognitive dissonance for the learner. A learner will see the design, and it will help them recognize what “theme” to expect in the module. It helps them to focus on the content of the module, rather than the design. Good instructional design makes the design embedded throughout the learning. 

Read: Understand These 10 Principles of Good Design Before You Start Your Next eLearning Project

Being consistent need not be boring. Here are five rules to help you create a visually consistent eLearning course that doesn’t bring on yawns: 5 Methods to Achieve Visual Consistency in eLearning


7) Make 2/3rds of the Design Application-Centered 

For the most part, our prior (face-to-face) learning experiences have focused on the teacher as a possessor of knowledge. Learning in an eLearning environment represents a shift in identity. The learner now has ownership of their learning. Because of this, a large focus of the learning should be on application.

To know if someone learned, they need to exhibit a demonstrable change in actions back at their job. Therefore, a call to action is required to help learners transfer what has been gained through the module into their workplace behaviors. This does not happen instantaneously, but a good design sets the wheel in motion towards improved and more productive employees.

Give learners the opportunity to apply what they have learned in small chunks. Chunk the content and break it up with active activities that encourage learners to REFLECT AND DO.

Additional reads:

The Transfer of Learning from the Course to the Desk: 6 Keys to Success

Before, During, and After Training: Improving Knowledge Transfer in Your Organization in 3 Stages

8) Connect the Learning Experience Full Circle 

The first part of an eLearning course should always focus on what the learner already knows. Built-in prior knowledge questions that require them to bring their existing knowledge structures into the current learning experience. Similarly, the final part of the eLearning course should always be a reflection that brings the first step into connection with what they have learned throughout the module or course. This prompts assimilation or accommodation of new knowledge. 

Anything worth doing well takes time. eLearning design is no different. Do not be surprised if your first design takes a long period. You will increase the efficiency with which you design over time. Learners will appreciate a well-thought-out and intentional design. Remember, your audience is unique, learning objectives come first and storyboard before authoring, and you will be on the right track towards eLearning design success.


Diana Cohen
Diana Cohen
Education Writer | eLearning Expert | EdTech Blogger. Creativa, apasionada por mi labor, disruptiva y dinámica para transformar el mundo de la formación empresarial.

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