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e-Learning kit: Designing for e-learning

Strategies and technologies for transitioning from face-to-face teaching to online environments (#eLkit).

Designing for e-learning

e-Learning strategies are divided into the five phases of instructional design (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015): 1. Analysis, 2. Design, 3. Development, 4. Implementation and 5. Evaluation, with particular attention to the principles of universal design. Instructional design is an iterative process and it is best to track its evolution and keep all versions along the way.

Universal design

The main principles are provided for the three universal design frameworks (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015). They challenge us to go beyond access considerations to designing and enhancing learning opportunities for everyone.

Universal Design frameworks

  • Universal Instructional Design:
    1. Creating welcoming classrooms
    2. Determining essential components of a course
    3. Communicating clear expectations
    4. Providing timely and constructive feedback
    5. Exploring use of natural supports for learning, including technology
    6. Designing teaching methods that consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing, and previous experience and background knowledge
    7. Creating multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge
    8. Promoting interaction among and between faculty and students
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
    • UDL guidelines (National Center on Universal Design for Learning):
      1. Provide multiple means of representation
      2. Provide multiple means of action and expression
      3. Provide multiple means of engagement
    • About UDL (CAST)
  • Universal Design of Instruction: 1. Class climate, 2. Interaction, 3. Physical environments and products, 4. Delivery methods, 5. Information resources and technology, 6. Feedback, 7. Assessment, and 8. Accommodation.

Phase 1: Analysis

This first phase consists of a needs analysis (identify problems or required change), task analysis (task students need to accomplish or perform), and analysis of learners (common attributes and differences) (Brown & Green, 2016).

Learner autonomy: Provide differing amounts of structure in e-learning environments to match a group's ability to take responsibility for learning, be engaged and intrinsically motivated (Morgan & Belfer, 2007). More autonomous students need some structure so that they can orient themselves but they can be left to shape their own interactions and choose their own path. A branched structure can address autonomy concerns (Gabriel, 2007). Rather than forcing everyone through a sequence of learning activities, branching out offers a possible structure to follow but it still allows for experimentation and self-direction.

Learner skill level: With additional elements, learners with different skill levels can design their own experiences (Dirkson, 2012). These include activities and materials at a more advanced level as well as options for anyone who needs more help. Vocabulary support, such as a glossary of terminology, will benefit most students and de-mystify highly technical language (Larkin, Nihill, & Devlin, 2014). Scaffolding learning objects, from basic to more advanced, together with these elements can address varying amounts of skill. Peer learning opportunities will also allow students of different skill levels to learn from each other.

Learning styles: To accommodate visual, auditory, kinesthetic and other learning styles offer different types of activities and options for assessment. However, there is no scientific evidence to support learning styles theories (Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015).

Phase 2: Design

Writing clear learning outcomes is a challenge. If you are transitioning face-to-face learning activities and materials online, this is where you return to the learning outcomes. Use another content expert to review designs, before moving on to the development phase.

  • Biggs takes a constructivist approach with his alignment principle, keeping the focus on what the learner is doing (2007). Constructive alignment is the alignment of assessment, activities, and learning outcomes.
  • Conole et al., 2004 also propose matching each of the elements of the e-learning design with their corresponding theories and activities, to be used later for evaluation purposes.​

The 5 stage model for designing online and blended courses:

  1. Access to learning environment and motivation
  2. Online socialization and culture building
  3. Information exchange
  4. Knowledge construction, with more complex activities
  5. Development (includes reflection and assessment of learning)

Phase 3: Development

The best advice for the development phase of instructional design is to include members of the target audience as early as possible, testing and piloting even concepts and rough prototypes (Seale et al., 2006)​. This is also known as rapid prototyping (Meier & Miller, 2016).

Consider the universal design principles described above, as well as the reusability of learning objects and different ways to avoid cognitive overload. The technologies section has tools to help with media production, such as captioning videos and incorporating interactivity.

Developing reusable learning objects

  • Re-usability in different contexts (Seale et al., 2006):
    • Only include material that meets the learning objective (avoid broad, multipurpose learning objects).
    • Each learning object should focus on meeting just one objective or have one goal (break up complex material into multiple learning objects).
    • De-couple the learning object from other objects (no-interdependency).
    • Only reference outside resources when necessary.
    • ​Do not include navigation from a website site. For example, navigation from a library homepage makes it difficult to reuse when the page is updated or to be reused for other libraries.
  • Reusability by others (Littlejohn, 2006):
    • Store learning objects for easy retrieval (institutional, subject or regional repositories).
    • Add appropriate metadata (created by and for; how it was used; teacher and students' perspectives).
    • Assign a license and include licensing information.

Cognitive overload

Mayer and Moreno offer 9 ways to reduce cognitive load (required cognitive capacity) when teaching with multimedia (2003):
  1. Present words as narration, rather than as visual information (off-loading)
  2. Break down presentations into segments (segmenting)
  3. Begin by introducing the different components of systems to be learned (pretraining)
  4. Exclude interesting but non-essential material (weeding)
  5. Offer cues on which components are essential by stressing key words or using arrows, headings, or mappings (signaling)
  6. Align words and images on the screen
  7. Avoid simultaneous animation, narration and on-screen text (eliminate redundancy)
  8. Synchronize visuals and corresponding narration and avoid presenting them successively
  9. Match multimedia design with the learners’ abilities to hold and manipulate mental images (individualizing)

Phase 4: Implementation

Synchronous versus asynchronous

When teaching synchronously, it is best to also offer asynchronous communication options to benefit those studying in another language or who require additional support (Morgan & Belfer, 2007). For example, students can participate in asynchronous discussion threads and take extra time to process posts and write responses. Synchronous time can be used the way that face-to-face time is used in the flipped classroom model, fostering active learning, with recordings made available to students afterwards (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015).

Posting media

There are tips in the literature for posting learning objects and other materials:

  • Avoid posting all materials at once. Release materials and have due dates at consistent days or times to establish a rhythm (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015; Salmon, 2013; Google online course kit). It will bring students back to the environment regularly and it will also synchronize discussions in forums. A schedule also helps students know what to expect and better manage their time.
  • Post different types of items in consistent places, especially assignments and important documents (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015).
  • Include details on the length of videos posted and the types of files that can be accessed.
  • Remind students that they can replay video and audio files and repeat activities as many times as they like.
  • All videos should be closed captioned and text transcripts should be available for video and audio objects. Audio only can be offered for videos.
  • Provide PDF alternatives to videos with text and images so that students can choose to read materials instead of watching. Text alternatives support students without access to graphics or using voice systems (Seale et al., 2006).


  • Orient students to a course by email with information and activities related to the content as well as the environment, required software and technologies (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015).
  • Provide e-learners responsibilities (Gabriel, 2007) they have to agree to participate in collaborative activities, share ideas, contribute to discussions, learn from each other + time management + motivation + monitor their progress.
  • Orient everyone to the features of the technology and navigation options with an overview video and with a one page "at a glance" document (Rao, Edelen-Smith, & Wailehua, 2015).
  • Offer a completion checklist at end of each unit/module.
  • According to the e-tivities framework, the invitation to each online activity should provide a brief and enticing title, a purpose linked to the learning outcomes, a summary with instructions on what to do, an interesting spark linked to the topic, expectations for individual contribution, a request to begin the dialogue, the role of the moderator, schedule and estimated study time, and a link to the next activity with additional resources.

Phase 5: Evaluation

Evaluation and assessment may combine teacher reflection with data from different sources (Oliver et al., 2006). For example, you can get a lot of analytics from social media, such as tweets and shares. Student tagging and classifying of resources also provides insight into a group as a whole (Dron 2007).

Biggs recommends combining evidence from three perspectives: students, teachers, and the critical friend (2007). Evidence from students' perspective can come from questionnaires, focus group interviews, students reflections on learning process (journals, diaries, portfolios, self-assessment. peer-assessment), grade distributions, and samples of students performance (pre/post test). Evidence from teachers' perspective includes insights and evidence from teaching portfolios. Biggs recommends keeping a personal record of practice, reflecting on teaching philosophy and practice, identifying strengths and areas for improvement, and planning professional teaching development. The role of critical friend is to act as a sounding board and provide another perspective.​

Good Library instruction

In 1999, Dewald published criteria for good library instruction and they have since become essential to academic libraries evaluating e-learning. Good library instruction is: 1. Course or assignment related, 2. Collaborative, 3. Uses more than one medium, 5. Provides clear objectives, 6. Teaches concepts, and 7. Offers librarian support.

The eight general standards from Quality Matters:

  1. Course Overview and Introduction
  2. Learning Objectives (Competencies)
  3. Assessment and Measurement
  4. Instructional Materials
  5. Course Activities and Learner Interaction
  6. Course Technology
  7. Learner Support
  8. Accessibility and Usability

Online program evaluation framework (McPherson & Nunes, 2004):

  1. Measure achievement of program objectives (summative processes)
  2. Evaluate quality and effectiveness of course materials (formative processes)
  3. Evaluate support given to learners (situated processes)
  4. Measure the quality of the learning experience (formative processes)
  5. Evaluate the online learning environment (situated processes)
  6. Evaluate face-to-face elements (if any) (formative processes)
  7. Measure achievement of student expectations and goals (summative processes)

Summative evaluation: Takes place after implementation of each module/section and at the end of the program to assess the final product. Can design comprehensive anonymous questionnaires.

Formative evaluation: Ongoing - takes place during the design, development and implementation stages for continual revision and improvement. Students are encouraged to provide comments and ask questions throughout and are solicited for feedback after completing each module/section (ex: questionnaires, interviews).

Situated evaluation: Monitor student presence, participation and progress during implementation in the learning environment (learner behaviour in context).

Learner bahaviour analysis at the session/module level and at the course level (Premlatha & Geetha, 2015):

  • Analyze time spent and interaction with each of the different learning materials and assessments.
  • Determine preferred learning objects versus those that are skipped.
  • Learners may fall into different categories: 1. Overviewing: cover a lot of materials quickly and get an overarching view, 2. Studying: spend some time on each of the options available, 3. Deepening: spend a lot of time on materials, or 4. Flitting: no real strategy, wandering through materials.

Bottom of the page bonus: Tests are fun, take the VARK questionnaire.

Poll on the page

Which of the 5 phases poses the most challenges for teaching online?
Analysis: 13 votes (12.75%)
Design: 27 votes (26.47%)
Development: 6 votes (5.88%)
Implementation: 15 votes (14.71%)
Evaluation: 41 votes (40.2%)
Total Votes: 102


See the full bibliography for works consulted.

​Biggs, J. B., & Tang, C. S. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill & Open University Press.

Brown, A., & Green, T. D. (2016). The essentials of instructional design: Connecting fundamental principles with process and practice. New York: Routledge.

Conole, G., Dyke, M., Oliver, M., & Seale, J. (2004). Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design. Computers & Education, 43(1), 17-33.

Dewald, N. H. (1999). Transporting good library instruction practices into the web environment: an analysis of online tutorials. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 25(1), 26-31.

Dirksen, J. (2012). Design for how people learn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Dron, J. (2007). Control and constraint in e-learning: Choosing when to choose. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Pub.

Gabriel, M. A. (2007). "Toward effective instruction in e-learning environments." In: Bullen, M., & Janes, D. P. Making the transition to e-learning: Strategies and issues. Hershey, PA: Information Science Pub.

Larkin, H., Nihill, C., & Devlin, M. (2014). "Inclusive practices in academia and beyond" In: Fraser, K. The future of learning and teaching in next generation learning spaces. Bradford: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Littlejohn, A., Cook, J., Campbell, L., Sclater, N., Currier, S., & Davis, H. (2006). "Managing educational resources" In: Conole, G., & Oliver, M. (Ed.), Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research. Hoboken: T&F.

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.

McPherson, M., & Nunes, M. B. (2004). Developing innovation in online learning: An action research framework. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Meier, J. J., & Miller, R. K. (2016). Turning the revolution into an evolution: The case for design thinking and rapid prototyping in libraries. College & Research Libraries News, 77(6), 283-286.

Morgan. T., & Belfer, K. "A framework for choosing communication activities in e-learning" In: Bullen, M., & Janes, D. P. (2007). Making the transition to e-learning: Strategies and issues. Hershey, PA: Information Science Pub.

Oliver, M., Roberts, G., Beetham, H., Ingraham, B., Dyke, M., & Levy, P. "Knowledge, society and perspectives on learning technology" In: Conole, G., & Oliver, M. (2006). Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research. Hoboken: T&F.

Premlatha, K. R., & Geetha, T. V. (2015). Learning content design and learner adaptation for adaptive e-learning environment: a survey. Artificial Intelligence Review, 44(4), 443-465.

Rao, K., Edelen-Smith, P., & Wailehua, C.-U. (2015). Universal design for online courses: applying principles to pedagogy. Open Learning, 30(1), 35-52.

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning. Taylor & Francis.

Seale, J., Boyle, T., Ingraham, B., Roberts, G., & McAvinia, C. "Designing digital resources for learning" In: Conole, G., & Oliver, M. (2006). Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research. Hoboken: T&F.

Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271.

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