Avoid This Common Mistake When Getting Started with Online Learning

So you’re considering moving your face-to-face learning content online. Congratulations! Teaching online can be a great way to reach new audiences and take advantage of the opportunities created by the latest learning technology. But unless you’ve got lots of experience with online learning, you’re likely feeling a little overwhelmed and unsure where to start. Don’t worry! Much of what you know about good learning design applies to both face-to-face and online learning experiences. But there is one common mistake many newbies make when first starting out, and it’s crucial that you avoid it.

As a Learning Design consultant, I help organizations and individuals get started with online learning all the time. And time and again,the first question anyone asks is, “What platform should I use? Blackboard? Moodle? Something else?” I tell my anxious clients the same thing every time: This is exactly the wrong question to be asking as you’re getting started.

Why? It’s all about priorities. When it comes to technology, from a practical standpoint most folks are concerned about cost and ease-of-use. What’s most affordable? What can I reasonably expect my participants and teachers to be able to use without having to hire a bunch of developers? These concerns and questions are totally valid and important to consider. But choosing a platform as a first step in online learning design will lock you into a situation where the technology is limiting your ability to teach effectively.

Think of it this way. If you were planning a face-to-face workshop, rarely would you start by asking, “Which room in the building should I use?” Instead, you’d start with who your audience is, what their needs are, what you’re trying to teach and how. Then you’d try to find a room that had the basics in place, and think about how to customize the space to fit your needs.

If you were planning a face-to-face workshop, rarely would you start by asking, “Which room in the building should I use?”

Prioritizing the experience you want to create over where you’ll host it matters. Maybe, like me, you’ve been in the situation where you know from the start that you’re going to have to host your face-to-face workshop in a particular space. Say you’re planning a Parent Night and you know that you’re going to have to host it in the cafeteria because that’s the only part of the building is open for after hours events. Think about how the constraints of being forced into a space might impact your agenda and how you run your activities. Maybe you have to nix some of your best ideas because they just weren’t practical. Maybe you will have to come up with some creative solutions to use the space to its best advantage.

This can happen online, too. When you’re locked into a platform before you’ve fully baked the experience, you’re going to be constrained in what you can do, and you’re going to have to be creative in order to get what you want. Some things are going to be just plain impossible. Avoid this if you can by refusing to choose a platform until you have the non-negotiables of your online learning experience in place.

When you’re new to online learning and you haven’t fully grasped how different it can be from face-to-face learning, letting your platform drive your instructional decision-making can lead to all kinds of terrible experiences for you, your teachers and your participants. Instead, you want the technology you choose to add value to and enhance the learning experience, both for your learners and your teachers.

To ensure this happens, before you even think about what platform to use, I strongly suggest you begin by clearly articulating the kind of experience you’re trying to create. Ask:

  1. Who are my learners? What do I know about them? What are their needs?
  2. What are the learning objectives I’m trying to achieve? How will I measure whether or not learning has occurred?
  3. What kind of content, activities and interactions will support those learning objectives and engage my participants?
  4. What’s my instructional approach, and how will it play out online?

Looking for a cheat sheet? The Online Learning Design Canvas from the Designing Better Online Learning Experiences  Toolkit provides an easy to to explore these questions on your own, or with your team.

Only after you’ve answered these questions and created a clear learning design should you then revisit the question of platform. And even then, I’d suggest asking not “What platform should I use” but instead, “How can technology add value to this learning experience I’ve designed?

From there, you can make a list of the features of an online platform that might be useful to have. Maybe you want to have a robust resource library function that allows you to host videos as well as PDFs. Maybe you need to have a built-in forum so participants and teachers can have private conversations. Maybe you plan to host webinars, so you need some kind of video conferencing capability. Sort this list of features into must-haves, nice-to-haves and low priority. Only then should you start shopping around for a platform. Keep in mind that you have options. You can build something yourself, hack something together from a variety of providers, or figure out how to customize something you’re already using to make it work better for you.

When I work with clients who want to answer the platform question right away, I find ways to gently steer them in the direction of starting with designing the experience instead. I usually adopt a mantra of “Keep Calm and Focus On Experience.” Often, the issue of platform choice is rooted in more deeply held anxieties about how difficult, expensive and downright impossible-seeming it is to teach online when you’re used to operating completely IRL. I find that by spending time thinking about learning experiences first, the scarier (and less familiar) questions get easier to answer later on. Again and again, I’ve seen a client’s experience design becomes the rubric by which they can more easily choose platforms, set metrics, and envision future success.

To learn more about how you can apply best practices for designing online learning experiences, check out the Designing Better Online Learning Experiences  Toolkit.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Brandon Grasley.

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