ExtensionEngine Blog

10 Best Practices for Online Learning Program Development

When I was a professor (not all that long ago), designing a class was not much more complicated than “figure out what you want to teach, and then talk about that and give an exam.” Moving a course online within an online or hybrid program requires, shall we say, a bit more insight and planning. To give you …an idea of the kind of planning that we think is necessary, our team put together the following 10 best practices for online learning program development.

  1. Define learner personas. Who are your target learners? Be as specific as possible in defining the various personas. What prior knowledge do they bring to your program? What are their goals for the course? How are they most likely to apply what they’ve learned both during and after the course? What do you know about their specific context and use cases? Demographics? Firmographics? What languages do they speak? What are their wants? Fears? Desires?
  2. Define learning objectives. What are the outcomes your program aims to achieve with the target learners? How have you sequenced your objectives to ensure learners’ knowledge and skills build on each other? The more tangible the better. Ideally, you can define an entire knowledge graph complete with a hierarchy and taxonomy for your learning objectives.
  3. Define program pedagogy. Is it pure online or blended? Or braided? Are you using a specific pedagogical model (eg, instructivist, constructivist, connectivist) or a hybrid of many? Some styles are better than others but context matters.
  4. Define the learner experience. Are there unique elements of the learning experience that you want incorporated? Is it going to be synchronous or asynchronous? Social? Video intensive? Immersive? Mobile only?
  5. Define learning platform. Once you know who is learning, what they’re hoping to achieve and the learning type, then you can select a platform that supports all of this. You’ll need to choose between open source, proprietary or custom (or hybrid) solutions depending upon the specific scenario.
  6. Define Content. Content can be licensed or created (or both). Who will be your subject matter experts? What form will the content take? Will you need to design new “teaching elements” that are interactive or can you integrate existing tools into your course?
  7. Define Assessments and Certifications. Both formative and summative assessments are a core part of a successful online learning program. Defining your assessments so that they tie back to the learning objectives they are “how you know that you know” the subject matter. What is your assessment framework, e.g. authentic assessment? You will also want to define whether and what type of certification or credentials you will be offering and tie that to your assessment strategy. Are assessments proctored?
  8. Define Operations Organization. Where is the “home” of the program and who is responsible for operations and support of the program. What are the resources available in-house and what resources can be outsourced?
  9. Define Support Services. What services are you planning to offer in addition to the core learning? For example, will there be personalized coaching or tutoring? Are there optional, value-added services?
  10. Analytics. Ideally you want to set up both long- and short-term analytics. Long-term analytics allow you to look at learner outcomes, content performance, etc. Short-term analytics allow you to measure and react in real-time. Ideally you can use analytics to create a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle for learning.

And of course, the underlying necessity to all of this is what sustaining business model is there for the program? All of the activities above cost money to plan, implement and operate, so who is going to pay for that?

I’m assuming that this comes across as a fairly expansive list — it turns out that online learning program development is complicated. It requires a lot of planning and coordination. But that’s what we’re here for — we have lots of experience putting together MOOCs and SPOCs and can help you think through all of these issues. 

Want to share this around? We made a slideshare incorporating our online learning best practices. Check it out below.