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How to create engaging e-learning courses & digital learning material

Have you been asked to complete an e-learning course by your employer? Did you find it interesting and engaging? We do sometimes encounter digital learning resources that are dry and uninteresting. But when the tables are turned and it’s you that has to create online training, how can you create engaging e-learning courses & digital learning material?

I’m a digital learning materials developer and adviser and primarily work in the higher education sector, developing digital content, with academics, for students. I often work with colleagues that are new to digital learning or e-learning, helping them apply their ideas and teaching expertise into writing their own engaging e-learning courses. My other roles include running workshops and training events for staff and students on digital materials. I have also worked on various freelance projects in the private sector.

Defining what and how you want people to learn

As you plan your resource, the first step is to think about the overall goal of your project, then summarise what your learners will do to reach it. These two elements are the aims (the overall goal, endpoint, or ‘what’) and objectives (the stages that the learner will go through to reach the aim, or ‘how’) of your resource.

The aim may be a sentence or two, and the objectives will probably be a list. This will help you bring together the topics that will form the structure of your e-learning course. They will give you a reference point for building your material, and they will help your learner understand what to expect from, and get out of, the resource.

How to be a digital educator

The next step is to think about how to apply your aims and objectives. If you are new to writing learning material, then I have a useful activity for you to try.

Start by thinking about your own experiences of good face to face teaching. These examples may be recent or a distant memory, but they are all valuable. Here are some examples of what makes good teaching that we see from our workshops:

  • Clear aims and objectives – the learners know what to expect from the teaching.
  • Interesting, engaging teaching.
  • Lots of activities and questions – the chance to do things rather than listen to the teacher at the front of the class.
  • A friendly, informal tone from the teacher. And good feedback on any activities – what they have got good, not so good – and why.

Then, think about how these good examples can be applied to a digital learning resource or e-learning course. Face to face teaching and digital learning may seem very different – how can they be compared when the digital resource does not have the expert, the facilitator, to deliver the teaching and respond to questions from the learner? The answer is in the learner’s experience. Let’s apply those examples:

  • Clear aims and objectives – They can be listed in the digital resource and referred to throughout the material.
  • Engaging teaching, activities and questions – Engaging the digital learner with a variety of activities and media, such as images and video – I’ll explain this later. Explanatory text certainly has its place, but your content may be better published as a PDF or eBook if it’s mostly words.
  • Tone – Think about your written content as a dialogue between you and learner. Go for an informal tone that reflects how you would speak to your learners in face to face teaching and avoid language that would be better suited to a report or an academic paper.

Can a digital resource have a two-way dialogue between the teacher or expert, and the learner? Yes – from the teacher, the dialogue comes from presenting topics and concepts, and providing activities for the user to complete. From the learner, the dialogue comes from interacting with the material and completing the activities.

When designing your material, provide context for activities and media, this will help the learner understand the value of the activity or concept – not always the case with the mandatory digital training exercises that we all have to do. The teacher can then respond to this dialogue with effective feedback, such as explaining why the learner’s response to a question is correct or incorrect, and signposting to additional reading if needed. The most effective and engaging e-learning courses or material does exactly that and can be easily built into your activities.

Topics and activities

Next, brainstorm the topics you want to write about, and think about how they will help the learner achieve the aims you have written. Try to arrange your topic list into an order – this will give you the overall structure of your resource. From there, start to think about writing concepts for the learner to absorb whilst providing activities for them to interact with what you’re teaching. Remember to focus on the narrative and a relaxed tone, and provide effective feedback with the answers to the activities.

Futurelearn, a free e-learning platform for digital courses, is well worth looking into for ideas and inspiration, and to learn about a new topic or concept. Futurelearn covers a huge range of free short courses, including how to create engaging elearning courses, all developed by experts at universities and colleges. The courses use a mixture of activities and facilitated online discussion across a wide range of topics.

How will you introduce topics and concepts to your learners? What about diagrams or graphics? The Little Medic is one great example. Developed by a University of Bristol medical student who produced beautiful and detailed sketches for their study notes, they published the pieces on an Instagram account. How about a short video? This could be a narrated presentation, or a narrated software demonstration.

Self-test questions

Quiz questions, where the user selects one or multiple answers, can be used in a variety of different ways in your resource. You could test the level of your learner’s knowledge as a short quiz when they start the resource. Or, ask the learner a question as you are presenting a concept, in the same way a teacher may ask a question during face to face teaching. You can also use them to test learning. These questions can be built into a quiz with a score so the learner can keep track of they are doing. The feedback – the dialogue with the user – is really important. Help the users understand why their answers are correct or incorrect, and link to sections of your material for them to revisit if needed. You could even present some of the questions at the start of the resource, and repeat them at the end, to show the learners what they have learnt by completing your activities.

Drag and drop exercises are useful for matching exercises, to label an image, diagram, or table. One example could be a workflow exercise. And they provide some variety for the learner, enabling you to create more engaging forms of e-learning content.

What’s the reward for the user?

Finally, you’ll need to think about what they can take away from your resource. They may find a downloadable/printable summary of the key learning points a useful reference. Or, something like a reference manual if you are developing a workflow or software training resource. They may also need a certificate to show that they have completed the training for CPD.

Evaluate your content

Finally, it’s always a good idea to get some constructive feedback on a draft of your learning resource or e-learning course – this can be invaluable in shaping the content of your material. This will help you improve any areas that are not clear or need emphasis, and to check that your activities and feedback are achieving their aims.

Need some help to create your own engaging eLearning course content?

I’m available to work on your digital learning projects. Contact me through Plume – email [email protected] and ask for Dominic Alder.

Not sure where to start with your own learning management system? See how we can help with Learning Management System development.

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