Clearer Courses

The key to making better online courses is to test, revise, and test again.

My love for The New Yankee Workshop has nothing to do with cabinetmaking skills. It has more to do with the process summed up by Norm Abram's maxim: "Measure twice, cut once."

That phrase embodies how careful he is and how much attention he gives his projects. His carpentry skills aren't slap-dash, second-nature. They're methodical. He demonstrates on every show that a perfect product comes from careful planning, measuring and testing (and really good tools).

It's not so different from creating finely crafted computer-based courses. A resonant course that keeps employees excited and helps them learn skills they'll remember isn't thrown together. It's built carefully, methodically and tested.

Pilot Testing

In education terms, this means setting up pilot testing. It's a process that's known to software designers and product designers. Before releasing a new product to the masses, it's first tested with a controlled group. A small-scale trial helps to weed out problems, identify errors and solicit recommendations that make for a better wide release.

It's exactly what you should do before creating a new course, but is a step curiously left out of many curriculum development projects. I think it's because many courses are developed by subject matter experts who know the material inside and out. But what they don't know is how the course will be received in a real world situation.

As soon as we plan development of a new course, we factor in pilot testing, evaluation and revisions. When possible, we re-test the new version so we can make more updates. Only through a field test can we really know if the course is going to accomplish what we intend.

Who To Include

Whether you're creating a curriculum from scratch or using one that's ready-made, plan for a pilot. You never know how even a tested course will perform with your learners.

Recruit carefully. Invite a mixture of subject pros and a representation of the intended audience. You want to make sure you're testing the material with the people who would actually be taking it.

Gathering Data

Spy, if possible. Sit somewhere near the pilot participants and taking notes is invaluable. You'll be able to pick up on frowns and smiles, frustrated noises or confused computer movements if you're watching. Just make sure you're not interfering with the test.

In any event, create a questionnaire that will be sent to all participants, and keep reminding them to complete it. The questionnaire should be focused on gaps, problem areas and nice-to-have features.

If it's the first time you've run a pilot, you'll quickly see the value of a test. The quality of information and level of insight will without a doubt be beyond what you could guess. Be methodical, revise when necessary, and your learners will benefit.

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