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Lesson 1. Quickstart: e-Learning Design and Content Roadmap

11 minutes

Michael Sheyahshe, an artist, author, developer, and technologist at alterNative Media, presents a whole series of 10 lessons on making e-Learning cool: “How To Create Great an Online Course From A To Z.

eLearning professionals wear a lot of different hats: trainers, instructors, instructional designers, etc. Whatever your role is, in this lesson we’ll consider you as someone who creates content. You’ll find out how to increase your skills, create eLearning content easier, and avoid some of the roadblocks ahead.

E-Learning primer

When referring to e-Learning or instructional design in this series of lessons, we mean the entire process of creating and authoring, from concept to deployment. In this lesson, we won’t just look at the instructional design part, or the theory (which is very important). What we’ll focus on is getting the project done in an effective manner.


All of you know and probably work with different methodologies, like Waterfall, ADDIE, and SAM. Perhaps your company or clients expect you to work in Agile or an iterative SCRUM-like environment, as today’s businesses are looking towards the Agile trend. You also may have your own methodologies.

What’s more important, especially if you don’t have a clear methodology or process established, is to understand that there is always a pipeline you need to go through no matter what. Even if it’s your own internal process.

So the first bit of advice would be to develop your own succinct process. If you don’t have any yet, just go and find one. Try Agile, SCRUM, ADDIE, or any other you like, or create your own hybrid method. Whether you give it a name or not, learn it and stick to it, as it’s very important in terms of getting your job done.

General content roadmap

Let’s have a look at Michael’s version of what you can expect in the content.

  1. Planning.
    At this stage, you’re gathering all the information and data and identifying the key personnel and subject matter experts (SMEs). This stage is where you plan and schedule each of the following stages of your particular e-Learning project. You also need to clarify different roles’ responsibilities and define everyone’s understanding of the project or the content itself.

    In other words, here’s where you’re hedging your bets. Hedging your bets means that you have enough time, and you’ve given yourself enough padding, so that you won’t be caught up at the end.

  2. Goals and objectives.
    This doesn’t necessarily mean creating a list of objectives that you’d normally see at the beginning of any presentation. It can also mean what level of ability you want someone to have at the end. Not only understand what content you’d like to do, but what you want this content to do, and what you expect from learners after they take the course.
  3. Audience.
    Understand your learner and make every decision based on your audience. What sort of device are they using? What do you expect them to do? Will they really study on the subway? Is this something they can take home or is it just-in-time learning? Do you have staff to augment and support your learners after you train them? These are the questions you need to ask and answer, as you go along.
  4. Learning platforms.
    Think about learning platforms. Many of us have to work within LMSs or LRSs. In producing for an LMS or LRS, some testing needs to be done. For example, if your SCORM package is communicating with an LMS, make sure you allow time for that.
  5. UI.
    You’ll also need to understand how to create eLearning courses for different devices. Think about how your material will work and look on different screens, and how the learners will experience it. That’s especially important these days in terms of a mobile-first environment.

Here’s a distilled collection of things to talk about, whatever methodology you’re using:

  • who are the key players?
  • what is the reason for this learning?
  • who is the audience?
  • what devices are they on?
  • where does it have to live after I’ve created it?
  • what is the best experience and clearest layout for users?

Industry-standard process for e-Learning authoring

Chapman Alliance divides their learning into three levels. Level one (Michael calls it “page turners”) is what everyone is required to go through as quickly as possible. It can look like simple pages or slides with some images. Most of the time, a lot of us deal with level two. It contains a few images, a little bit of interactivity, some video, and some media. Level three would be something like really immersive simulations or serious video games.”

Planning and pre-development stage

Before you open PowerPoint

There are a few things you should consider before any content is created, any assets are assigned, and before you even open PowerPoint for the first time.

Gathering data

Information and all the things you’ll need to shape the content.

  • Who’s your audience and what’s their “story”? (The learner’s story is those small vignettes and questionnaires that you have to answer for yourself).
  • What’s the device?
  • What’s the platform?


Many of us work with storyboards; some of us call it wireframing. Michael also advises that you agree on the visuals on this stage, and have your clients give you the OK for the fonts, colors, etc.


  • Key people. Find out who the core people are, who you bring questions to, who you get approval from.
  • Schedule. Define the schedule and timeline. Make sure you understand the timeline and have enough time for any unexpected issues.
  • Roadblocks. Give yourself enough Plan Bs.

Useful tools

As you begin developing and planning, a mind map is a good tool to work with. It’s a really productive way to get in, see what’s involved in the content, how it’s branching out, and what you have to do with it. This is a useful tool, and not only for your own consideration. You can bring it to your stakeholders, get their ideas and see how their viewpoints can potentially shape what’s going on with the content.

Another useful thing to do is to get the client to sign off on a design document. That would be the colors, the fonts, the graphic resources, and how it’s going to look. You may have a person on your team who usually handles that part of it. However, it’s always good to have a resource to go back to.

Additional things to consider

Assets are very important, especially if you want to go from a level-one “page turner” to level two, more interactive and robust content. This includes things like photos, videos, backgrounds, audio narrations, etc.

Human factor. When working with other people, keep in mind that there are different roles, goals, personal perspectives, and even different schedules. Someone’s going on vacation, someone has to take a leave. Some personalities may, unfortunately, adversely affect your content creation as you go along. So be aware that it happens.

QA. It actually takes time to go through your content, document any bugs or issues, and to get it fixed.

Devices and accessibility. Understand what devices your learners will be looking at your content on. Make sure it’s accessible to your learners.

Also make sure you understand your assessment questions. Do you have people writing questions for you? Are you pulling from a centralized question bank? Where is it, and who has access to it? Know these answers before any questions come up.

Tips and tricks

Pitfalls to avoid

Less is more. Having a clean and simple screen for your learners is strongly suggested and highly necessary. So make sure you “use less” and are succinct in how you’re telling the story and communicating your ideas in an effective manner.

Less is more, except when you’re providing information. Allow learners to get more information. That can be as simple as creating links to resources or a list of glossary entries. Make sure your learners can dig deeper for a deeper learning experience.

Scope creep. This refers to anytime the scope of the project, or its schedule, continues to get bigger or extends for whatever reason. On a large scale, scope creep can kill a project, whereas minor creep just adds a couple of days to a project. Even though you can’t avoid it, make sure you have a contingency plan to deal with it.

Re-edits. This is a common issue. All you can do is to allow enough time in the planning process. Plus, plan out and reach an agreement with your team and stakeholders as to what happens if there are re-edits, and what happens if the deadline needs to be pushed. It’s not an easy topic to approach, but it needs to be approached beforehand, unless you want to have unpaid time. Make sure you have that clause in any contract you sign.

Another pitfall occurs when designers and testers aren’t familiar with LMSs, or don’t understand how SCORM or xAPI works. Clarify this before you start.

Time savers

In all pipelines and methodologies, there are ways to save time. As you look at your entire process plan, think about what’s going to take the most time. Recording audio? Video? Re-edits? The earlier you can hammer out the scripts for those, the earlier you can hammer out some kind of framework to get those done.

Plus, the earlier you can do it in your process, the better, because schedules slip, people can’t make it, people get a cold and can’t record audio, and re-records and re-edits happen. Make sure you make time in your schedule. Sometimes having a compressed timeline means that anytime there’s any delay, it blows the project out.

Establish your conventions early. What will be the names for files? What kind of version control will be used? At what point is something archived? You may end up creating versions 1 to 99, so at what point are versions 1 to 98 archived? Establish this in your team and identify this in a document.

And when possible, leverage the tools you have. Have a really nice simple animation for your learners rather than again doing a level one page-turner.


Here are some really key places to go and get some information.

The next lesson will be devoted to SMEs, stakeholders and different roles, as you go along with your e-Learning project. Stay tuned! Like this lesson or have any feedback? Please share with us in the comments below!

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