Thursday, 2 May 2013

Lessons Learnt from Developing an Online Learning System

For the past few months of my life I’ve been working as a Web Editor for an online learning system. The job role was quite specific, but I became involved with a lot more of the project than I originally thought I would do, so I thought I’d document some of the issues we encountered in the hope that others can learn from them. Here are the main points I learnt from the project:

Build From the User Backwards
Upon joining the project it quickly became apparent that the entire project and its many separate areas were all being worked on at the same time, by separate teams, without much direct consideration of the end goal. Some projects may be able to run like this, but for an online learning system the approach should be more structured and really focus on the actual end goal: to teach people a subject using a website. It is essential to any new online project to work from the end user backwards. I can’t think of a situation whereby this wouldn’t be appropriate. Keep usability in mind at all times.

Write Content that makes sense for the web
During this project I was pretty much the last person to see and review learning content, and the only person to enter it into the learning site. Essentially I was one of the last people in the ‘chain of command’ to receive content, yet one of the only people who actually knew how the CMS worked and what could be entered properly. You see what I’m getting at here. What should have happened is that rather than have content passed down to me, I should have worked directly with the learning module developers before they even started writing, to create something that was formatted and written directly with the end user in mind. And this isn’t just to big up content editors! It just makes sense.

It’s an online system. Think of the best ways in which learning works online
Seems obvious. The content that was developed for our system was written by academics, and it was clear that there was no real technical considerations from them. Which is fair enough, how could they be expected to know what to consider when they hadn’t been told? It is important that the people who are writing the learning content understand the basics of the technology being used, so that they are aware of what can be made more interactive and how this impacts on the learner. Informing authors of really simple things such as why YouTube videos may not remain reliable permanently and problems with using copyrighted images will save a lot of hassle in the future.

Make it accessible
Accessibility shouldn’t just be something that the Web Editors and developers are doing. Everyone who develops learning content should be taught at least the basics of accessibility. For instance something so simple as teaching the importance of image descriptions could make a massive difference to overall accessibility, whilst removing extra work for content editors.

Use online collaboration tools.
I honestly don’t know how we got on without using these. I suppose the problem we had was the team were used to using the usual suspects (Outlook, Excel, physical notebooks etc) and to change people to using online collaborative tools would have only been successful if implemented from the very start. With a project going through continual change, something to monitor changes and todos would have made a massive difference and speeded up the planning side of things, as well as providing a solid reporting system. With everyone using old school organisation, it almost felt like we were working against each other.

Develop a clear style guide
This is really important and links in with the point about writing content for the web. Consistency is key here; the style guide should have clear guidelines for authors and web editors so that every page follows a strict style. Fonts should be the same, picture sizes if possible, and placement of interactive elements should be the same, to maintain easy navigation for users.

I could have gone into a lot more detail, but I think the obvious lessons learned here are often the ones that get overlooked. If you’re starting out a new online learning project, get in touch and I’d be happy to go into more detail.
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