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3 Essential Principles for Designing Meaningful eLearning Experiences

Mark Parry eLearn Magazine

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We’ve seen more rapid growth and change in the way online learning experiences are created and delivered in the last few years than ever before. With so much change happening in such a short span of time, being tasked with creating meaningful learning experiences can be overwhelming. In order to design and deliver learning that has a positive impact, it’s important to reflect on best practices for learning and instructional design. As part of the eLearn Success Series presented by Open LMS, learning designer Mark Parry shared what he feels are the most important design principles to make learning experiences long-lasting and meaningful in our ever-evolving world.

Mark is an award-winning instructional designer, teacher, and digital content producer with more than 30 years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, digital media production, and professional development for educators. He is currently a learning designer at the Association of Independent Schools in New South Wales in Australia.

Good Learning Design Requires Good Design Principles

Mark bases many of his suggestions on the work of German industrial designer Dieter Rams, who says good design:

            1. Is innovative 
            2. Makes a product useful
            3. Is aesthetic
            4. Makes a product understandable
            5. Is unobtrusive 
            6. Is honest
            7. Is long-lasting
            8. Is thorough down to the last detail
            9. Is environmentally friendly
            10. Uses as little design as possible

Although originally meant for industrial design, Mark applies these principles to eLearning experiences and encourages other learning designers to do the same. Establishing good design principles before beginning a project is essential to creating meaningful experiences for learners. It’s also important to keep in mind the purpose of the learning, the context in which the learning will take place, and the pedagogy behind the learning experiences. While all ten principles are important to designing great learning experiences, here are three principles that cannot be overlooked.

1. Make It Useful to the Learner

When creating meaningful eLearning courses, the experience of the end-user should be at the forefront of designers’ minds. According to Mark, good instructional and learning design makes an experience useful and understandable to the learner. A sufficient amount of time should be spent thinking about why the education is needed and how it will benefit those receiving it. Although they can be tricky to determine, an eLearning experience should start with the learning outcomes. The competencies being addressed should be a starting point for eLearning developers as a way to assess whether the learning product will be beneficial for users and if it will meet their needs. Before focusing on the content or aesthetics of the experience, designers need to ask themselves, “Why do learners need this? How will it benefit them?”

This requires constant reflection throughout the design process. According to Mark, “If you have reflection and review throughout your process, you’ll definitely get to a more useful product because you’re deciding how [you can] improve this [product] or how [you can] better meet the needs of the learner.” Learning and development professionals are tasked with creating experiences that will fill knowledge gaps and lead to more educated individuals. To accomplish this, designers need to consider the needs of their learners. Organizational goals are important, but when learners don’t find value in their eLearning experiences, they likely won’t achieve the intended learning outcomes. When this happens, the organization won’t benefit anyway.

2. Make It Unobtrusive

Mark states, “We’re not going to create an eight-hour online course that you have to do all in one go. It just won’t work.” That’s because the best instructional design is unobtrusive to the learner. Long courses meant to be taken all in one sitting are ineffective and likely won’t yield positive results. Instead, learning designers should consider what Mark calls “chunking.” In other words, the learning is broken up into smaller, more manageable pieces. This is also often referred to as microlearning. 

We see this during face-to-face professional development sessions. People can only “sit and get” for so long before they need to get up and move around. That’s why there are coffee breaks or small group sessions during live learning events. For eLearning, “chunking” could mean smaller learning modules or microlearning courses. Learners appreciate being able to complete a task or module in a short amount of time. It can also provide a boost of confidence and motivate the learner to keep moving forward in the eLearning experience.

There’s also an emphasis on leaving the learner some “breathing room,” as Mark calls it. There needs to be a space for the learners to be active participants in the process. Give them a channel to ask questions or provide their own thoughts along the way. This will help to avoid cognitive overload. Designers can prevent their learners from feeling bombarded or overwhelmed by the learning experience by putting themselves in the learners’ shoes from the very beginning of the design process.

3. Design More With Less

There is value to simplicity that can sometimes be overlooked during the design process. It can be tempting to include “bells and whistles,” as Mark calls them, that aren’t actually necessary for the end-user to acquire new knowledge. Keeping the learning experience design as simple and intuitive as possible will reduce learners’ frustration and provide them with a more meaningful experience. During an eLearning experience, everything the user sees on the screen should be aesthetically pleasing. More importantly, it should all serve a useful purpose. 

A more simplistic design also means that it can potentially be modernized and reimagined more easily as technology improves and the world continues to change. Mark says good design is also sustainable. Unless the content itself becomes outdated, the learning experience should be long-lasting in that it can be adapted for new technologies. 

People are engaging with learning and design technologies more than ever before, and according to Mark, “it’s really pushing [the] whole industry at the moment.” Despite the world’s constant changes, learning and instructional designers can still create lasting and meaningful eLearning experiences.

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