Understanding Online Learning Content Development: The Team

This post concerns small to medium sized organisations who have limited or no understanding of online learning content development but are in the process of creating their own courses based around in-house subject matter expertise and using an LMS (Learning Management System) that, while being transparent to use and feature rich, doesn’t magically turn subject matter into engaging courses. Large organisations with a dedicated and experienced online learning development team, graphic designers, content developers, multimedia editors and instructional designers will not suffer the same fate as those that find themselves floundering with expert subject matter and no skills to convert it into useful learning – in my experience, a very common scenario.

Let’s look at a typical online learning team and the skills they bring to the course development process:

  • Project Manager: Oversees the full life cycle of the project, schedules deliverables, ensures the team has the information and resources it needs to get the job done. Provides analysis to ensure that solutions are aligned with  organizational goals. Often this person is sourced from within the organisation’s management team and frequently oversees online learning project management as an additional responsibility to their main tasks. If this is the case there is a risk of ‘project drift’ as, in our experience, online learning is often sidelined in favor of their principle and time-demanding responsibilities. Project drift or stalling at this level can spell the death of a project.
  • Subject specialist: This person or persons is/are usually the easiest to identify within the organisation. They are the ‘holders of the keys‘ of knowledge. The ones that practice on a daily basis what is to be developed into the content for the course. They have the knowledge and are there to provide the raw content but it is an error to believe that they also have the skills to convert their own knowledge and content into engaging online learning materials.
  • Instructional Designer/Writer: Uses instructional design, cognitive psychology and learning theory to determine the appropriate solution to a knowledge, training or performance gap. Analyzes content, organizes content, designs solutions, and writes storyboards, scripts, performance support, mobile learning and manuals. Again, in smaller organisations, this person or persons is/are often recruited from other departments and are rarely experts in instructional design. They may come from marketing, communications or human resources where it is deemed that they use some of the required skills in their jobs. This task, in the worst scenario, is often completed by the subject specialist who has the subject knowledge but rarely any knowledge of instructional design or of the systems and features that the LMS can harness to convert the ‘knowledge’ into learning material.
  • Editor: Helps to improve overall writing, proofreads all writing. This person can usually be sourced from within an organisation.
  • Graphic Designer: Creates the user interface, graphics and animations; designs the look and feel of courses, learning portals, mobile learning and print materials with an eye toward the clarity required for learning and information dissemination. Small to medium sized organisations don’t always have an in-house designer. Many LMS will provide the organisation with design templates for the creation of courses but there are limitations to using these and cases frequently arise where a particular course requires design input that is not available in the templates.
  • Media Specialist: Produces and edits photography, audio and video when required for a project. This is another area where smaller organisations recruit anyone who has any experience using a camera or audio equipment. Poor quality, amateurish output and poor aesthetics here can ruin a project and lower the overall brand quality of the organisation.
  • Authoring Tools Specialist: Assembles all the elements into a fully operational online course, adds interactivity, ensures the course content interfaces correctly with the Learning Management System. This is the person who understand the LMS and all of its features and potential as well as its weaknesses. They should liaise with the instructional designer and project manager very closely to ensure that the course, as it develops, can be programmed into the LMS successfully. Often this person is culled from the IT team or even the support desk of an IT team (if the organisation is large enough for an IT team). This person often is not aware of all of the features of the LMS, does not have the time to give it the attention required and does not have a clear overview of the learning goals of the organisation.
  • Tester: Runs quality assurance checks by testing the course from a technical perspective and ensuring it matches the storyboard. This is something that can be distributed as a team task rather than requiring a single dedicated staffer.

Given time constraints, other responsibilities, skills gaps and often overly ambitious course development projections, it is extremely rare that a small to medium sized organisation can put together a skilled and effective team from amongst their staff who can develop a suite of courses, or even a single course, in-house without outsourcing some or all of the development work.

(This post is extracted from training sessions provided by Tony Hughes of praxMatrix to organisations in Australia, Poland, Germany, France and the United Kingdom)