10 Best Practices for Online Learning Program Development

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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 youan idea of the kind of planning we think is necessary, our team put together the following 10 best practices for online learning program development.

1. Define the 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 the 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 the program pedagogy

Is it pure online or blended? Or braided? Are you using a specific pedagogical model (e.g., 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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. Define the 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.

The underlying necessity to all of this is a sustaining business model for the program. All of the activities above cost money to plan, implement and operate, so who is going to pay for 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. 

Keep Learning

When Online Learning Needs to be Differentiated, Pedagogy-Driven, and Deliver a Great Learning Experience

At the 2018 Eduventures Summit, a panel of representatives from Harvard Business School (HBX), ArtCenter College of Design, and Moravian College discussed these three topics and how they influenced their online learning experiences.


Dr. Scott Moore

Dr. Scott Moore is the Principal Learning Strategist at Extension Engine. He leads our global Custom Learning Experience practice. In his 5+ years with us, he has worked with dozens of nonprofit, higher education, and learning business organizations as they considered using online learning to support their mission and margin. He has a deep understanding of organizational dynamics, online learning, strategic differentiation, decision-making, and more. Prior to joining Extension Engine, Dr. Moore was a faculty member, administrator, and dean at Michigan Ross and Babson College for 20+ years. Scott holds an MBA from Georgia Tech and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from Wharton.

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