Written by:

Holly Macdonald


November 20, 2019

Has your organization reached a size or stage where you’re struggling to keep up with the training demands? Or are you looking to reach a new audience in a more modern way?  Then developing online learning or an e-learning course might be your solution. Yet, where to do you start? What do you do, more importantly, what shouldn’t you do? And how do you know that developing online learning is the right solution for you?


Our Dummies Guide to Developing Online Learning starts with what is e-learning. Then it explains the advantages of online learning. Also, it discusses the types of online learning and what makes great e-learning. Then we show you online course development processes you could follow.

As well, if you’ve heard of, but aren’t completely sure about Articulate 360, Moodle, Thinkific, learning models, flipped learning, blended learning and mobile learning, don’t worry. We cover those too in our Dummies Guide to Developing Online Learning. So after reading this article, you’ll know what you need to consider when developing an online course.

What is E-learning or Online Learning?

The Oxford dictionary definition of e-learning is “​a system of learning which uses electronic media, typically over the Internet.”

At its core, e-learning is about using electronic media to help learn new skills. Or gain new knowledge. Most importantly, it contains instructionally designed materials that take advantage of the benefits of an online environment.

Advantages of Online Learning

There are many reasons why people invest in e-learning and develop online courses. Below are 10 advantages of online learning.

  1. E-learning provides a consistent content experience. Live training depends on a trainer and their performance on the day.
  2. A major advantage of online learning for growing companies is that it supports organizational growth. It is quicker and more cost-effective to scale up online learning than to grow in-person training. Especially where an organization has many locations.
  3. In developing online learning regional or local differences are easily included. Similarly, different language versions are common to include. Modern e-learning tools have built-in language options and straight-forward translation capabilities.
  4. When hosting your online course on a Learning Management System (LMS) you can gather data on your learners. This data can help develop more effective marketing or sales campaigns, or insight for employee learning paths.
  5. Online learning offers practice in a simulated environment, which transfers to on-the-job performance. Instead of practicing in a high-risk live situation users can explore and gain confidence online. For example, pilot training, hospital surgery or real-time software application. This results in increased learning and adoption, and fewer errors. As well, the use of help desk and customer support resources can be reduced when educating customers.
  6. Another advantage is it is less expensive to run an e-learning course than to fly trainers or students around the world for a training session. As a result, it’s also better for the environment and reduces climate change impacts.
  7. The media assets created from developing online learning can be used for other purposes. For example, in marketing, training support for customers or internal staff, and partners. The repurposing of assets also allows for greater integration between departments.
  8. On-demand e-learning is more convenient for the learner. They complete the training when and where they choose.
  9. Repeatable – if a learner needs to go back and refresh their knowledge, they can do so at a moments’ notice.
  10. Another advantage of developing online learning is that it’s a customizable experience. It’s simple to develop a customized course module for specific audiences. For example, different versions of a course could be created for customers, employees, or service providers. This delivers a personal, branded and tailored experience with the least amount of effort or expense.

Types of Online Learning

Examples of how e-learning is usedThere are three types of online learning. Firstly on-demand e-learning. These are self-directed courses intended to enable you to complete the course on your schedule.

Secondly, there is live e-learning. These are scheduled events such as webinars and webcasts.

Finally, there are online courses. These are typically held over a set period and new content is sometimes offered or unlocked on a schedule. And an instructor may host the online learning. For example, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are often free versions of university offerings.

Learning Models

In designing your online course you can use a variety of learning models. Including flipped learning, blended learning, performance support/microlearning, gamification, scenarios, and simulations. These are each described below. During the design phase, you will decide on which learning models you will use.

Flipped Learning

In a traditional classroom, theory and practice are often presented in the same session. In contrast in a flipped classroom, the theory is taught first, often in an e-learning format. This allows the learner to review the content at their own pace. Applying the theory occurs afterwards during the face-to-face sessions. This allows for the learner to review the theory a second time. However, the focus during the face-to-face session is on problem-solving and feedback. Flipped learning is popular in K-12 and higher education, but is also useful in many other instructional situations.

Blended Learning

Blended learning provides a combination of in-person instruction and self-paced e-learning. This is very popular in higher education and leadership-focused training for corporate audiences.

Performance Support/microlearning

Performance support is tools used to help apply learning to the task. Like a job aid or flowchart. Microlearning is very small portions of content used to instruct or support performance. For example, a wizard or a virtual guide is an online learning tool used to support performance.


Creating games is a way to train and reinforce learning. A simple example is a “Jeopardy” game where users recall their learning through play. Other examples include quests, scavenger hunts, and timed activities. All ways of using play as part of the process of learning.


A “challenge” or typical situation that a learner might have to deal with in real-life is an example of using scenarios. These can be quite creative in an online learning environment. For example, in a retail environment, you might present the user with a range of customer situations. Their task is to apply company policy and experience the different outcomes from their choices. In such scenarios, the learner can imagine themselves in real-life situations. This makes the content very authentic for the learner.


In a simulation, the learner is immersed in a role-playing situation. Simulations provide a way for the learner to practice tasks in a realistic environment. These can be fully immersive, like a flight simulator or virtual reality surgical procedure. When requiring the repetitive practice of high-risk tasks, simulations are often used.

Interactivity of Online Courses

Regardless of which learning model you use, you must include interactivity in your designs. Good e-learning requires the learner to apply new knowledge and skills within the online course. Rather than passively consuming content.

Interactivity occurs anytime a learner uses on-screen features. For example, clicking a button, dragging an item, doing data or text entry, and playing a game are instances of learner interactivity.

The type of learning required, and the budget for the project will determine the amount of interactivity you include. Generally higher levels of interactivity add to the budget.

Levels of Interactivity

There are 4 levels of online learning interactivity. Each level providing a higher amount of interactivity for the learner during the course.

  1. Passive interactivity – No online interaction. This level of online course could include images and graphics, video and audio, and test questions.
  2. Limited participation interactivity – Learners have a limited amount of control over their online learning experience. It could include clickable menus and items, drag and drop activities, animated graphics, and some multimedia activities.
  3. Moderate interaction – Learners have more control over their online learning experience. It is more customized and complex. And it could include an animated video, customized audio, complex drag and drop interactions, simulations, stories and scenarios and multimedia.
  4. Fully immersive online learning experience – Learners have to fully interact with the e-learning content and provide feedback along the way. They have significant control over their online experience. Examples of interactivity include, simulated job performance exercises, customized audio or videos, avatars, stories and scenarios, as well as other advanced functions.

For more on online interactivity read the ultimate guide for e-learning professionals

What Makes Great Online Learning?

In developing online learning, 4 principles distinguish “great” e-learning from “good” e-learning. These principles of design (from Dr. Will Thalheimer) are all very achievable. But, while the visual design and level of interactivity are important, the principles of a great e-learning course are:

  1. How the learner goes back and reviews or recalls what they’ve learned
  2. Are you offering the learner the ability to practice using realistic decision making and authentic tasks?
  3. Feedback on the activities. Is enough feedback provided on the activities the learner does, to support their learning?
  4. Have you built-in spaced repetition of the activities, over time, to reinforce their learning?

Processes for Developing Online Learning

In our dummies guide to developing online learning so far, we’ve covered the advantages of online learning, and what makes great e-learning. Also, we know the types of e-learning and the various learning models that you can use, such as flipped or blended learning. But how do you begin to put it all together to create your online course? The first thing you need to do is have a structured, yet responsive, design process that focuses on the learner.

Critical in developing online learning is having the learner the cornerstone of the process. This cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. For instance, a common tendency is to choose the delivery of the course based on the preference of the organization offering the learning. But, how many people have experienced the frustration of a recorded webinar? Or, having to go through all sections of an online course created by a compliance department. Even though, you’ve taken the course for each of the last five years? Instead, design the online course with empathy for our audience at the forefront.

There are 2 well known processes used to develop online courses:  Waterfall and Agile.


The waterfall is a linear process where the developer completes each stage before beginning the next one. It is a well-defined process covering the necessary steps for creating online learning. For example, analyze, design, development, and test could be a waterfall process. The project proceeds through clear stages that demonstrate the progress made.

However, while waterfall processes are good for courses with simple content, they have some downsides. In particular, since a step cannot begin until the completion of the previous one, it can lead to unnecessary delays. For example, if the design step takes longer, this may result in less time for development. Or less time for testing before launch. Similarly, what if design changes are found during the development step? Is there enough budget or time available to adjust the design further.


Agile processes are cyclical and less linear. For instance, after an information-gathering stage, there is an iterative design stage. This generates a design prototype that goes into development to create a design proof or sample. This is then sent back into the design stage for another cycle of design. Similarly, the revised design is again sent into development for further modification. Determining the number of iterations occurs at the start of the project. Usually, such a decision is based upon the complexity, budget, and timelines for the project. More complex projects requiring more iterations.

One of the advantages of the agile process is that projects do not stall waiting for the completion of the previous stage. Since a final design is not generated in the initial design stage, development work can begin earlier. Design changes being made during iterations through the process. With skillful management, a project can proceed along its original timeline and budget. Despite potential obstacles along the way.

Yet, there can be some downsides in developing your online learning using an agile process. Firstly, it requires more flexibility from the project team. Also making changes throughout the development process might have budget implications. As well, it can be a more difficult project to manage. For complex online learning, it would be important to have a project lead experienced in agile development processes.

Lastly, there may be more re-work and meetings to explain and clarify what to expect in the early phases of the project. Especially if the team is new to the process. However, if done well you will end up with a superior online learning product.

Good resources on agile design processes are an introduction to sam for instructional designers and a lot like agile management approach.

Spark + Co Process for Developing Online Learning

Over the 12+ years creating customized online learning for over 50 clients, we at Spark + Co., have developed our own, process for developing online learning. It combines many of the features of both the waterfall and agile models. However, it is not a rigid process. We apply the steps to the specific nature of the project taking into consideration an organization’s objectives, design requirements, budget, and time constraints. The process allows for as much iteration as necessary both within and between the stages.

Engage + Analyze:

Spark + Co., process for developing e-learningDuring this early stage through a consultative process, we identify and develop a learning objective(s) for the project. This process will involve a training needs assessment. The learning objective(s) will align with the overall objectives of the organization. Engaging with key stakeholders at this stage is important to get feedback and buy-in.

One deliverable at this stage is the development of a profile of the target audience(s). Also, we identify any constraints that need consideration.

Other decisions made at this stage include the authoring tool used to develop online learning. Also, the hosting environment and any LMS (Learning Management System) will be agreed upon. If mobile learning is important then plans will be included to ensure the course is mobile friendly. These aspects are discussed in more detail later in this article.

Lastly, it’s a good practice to set up your file structure to ensure that you have all your course assets in one place. This might include:

  • Authoring tool source file(s)
  • Images
  • Media files
  • Narration files

Instructional + Creative Design

In the design phase, we collaborate with key stakeholders to develop a prototype module/storyboard. It is intended to engage the learner as much as possible within any budgetary or timeline constraints. As part of this process learning outcomes are defined based on the learning objective(s).

We’ll also review the content for the intended course. If there’s existing content (powerpoint files, documents, videos, etc), we’ll flag them for consideration in the storyboard. We’ll also note where content is needed. It’s important to note that content is typically modified from it’s original form to best suit the course structure and interactivity. Much like adapting a novel for a movie, we adapt content for e-learning. 

Also, at this stage we design a custom course outline and brainstorm creative ideas for the course development, keeping the user experience top of mind. Three key design aspects are considered: instructional, visual, and experience. All the while ensuring the overall course navigation is intuitive and straightforward.

Finally, we determine the types of instructional media used. For instance images, video, animation, narration. As well as the types of instructional activities that will occur (e.g. quizzes, scenario’s, drag & drop).

Build, Test + Modify

Authoring Tools

Now its time to build a prototype of your course. To do this you’ll use an authoring tool. An authoring tool is a specialized tool intended to create content and media. These tools have built-in functions so you can include interactive elements as well as various media.

There are many authoring tools to choose from including those listed below.

  • Articulate 360
  • Captivate/Adobe Suite – similar to Articulate Storyline
  • H5P – an open-source tool that builds e-learning and is tightly integrated into CMS tools, such as WordPress and Joomla as well as open-source LMS’ Moodle.
  • Adapt Learning – an open source tool similar to Articulate Rise
  • Evolve Authoring– similar to Articulate rise
  • Gomo Learning – similar to Articulate rise
  • Lectora – similar to Articulate Storyline
  • iSpring – a presentation-style
  • Smartbuilder – similar to Articulate Storyline
  • Raptivity– similar to Articulate Storyline

The selection of which tool to use is based on a variety of factors. These include your experience using authoring tools, type of course content, and budget. This decision would be made at the engage and analyze stage.

Development Stages

A typical project will have three development stages. Larger and more complex projects may have more development stages. Between each stage, feedback from stakeholder groups is incorporated into the next stage of development. Depending upon the complexity of the project this is also where more design changes can also be made.

The development phases usually include the creation of three versions.

  • Version 1 – Alpha version – A wireframe is developed for the basic flow of the course. The content is entered along with descriptions of the interactions to expect. As well, placeholders are included for images to be added during a later stage.The alpha version functions, but is only rudimentary. The goal of this version is to ensure that the flow and level of detail of the content is appropriate.
  • Version 2 – Beta version – This version includes the images added. As well this version includes any interactive functionality. Also included is a text-to-speech version of any narration. This allows the script to be fine-tuned before recording the final narration. There may be more than one iteration of this version.
  • Version 3 – Final version –  Key stakeholders complete a review of the final version. Most of the focus is to ensure detailed grammar, text, narration, and imagery is correct. As well as doing a final run-through to ensure complete functionality. 

Launching Your Online Learning Course

Before launching your course several activities are needed to ensure success. Firstly, the new online learning needs to uploading to the hosting, learning platform, or learning management system. This process will involve various IT professionals to ensure a smooth transition. Besides uploading the course you will also need to consider

  • Q+A’s to address user and/or technical issues
  • User support documents
  • Marketing and communications plans
  • Pricing strategies

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where ‘if you build it, they will come’. So this requires significant effort to create user support, and marketing and communications. Also, if you are selling the online course you will want to have developed a pricing strategy.


How do you know if the e-learning course that you developed is successful? Now is the time to track performance against the learning objectives set at the start. While exact measures will depend on the objectives set, some indicators show course success. For examples of those in the table below.

Indicators of Online Course Success

Indicators of Online Course Success

Hosting Platforms

Our dummies guide to developing online learning wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t discuss hosting platforms. While needed for users to be able to access the course, there’s another significant reason making this an important decision. The hosting platform you choose will impact the design of your course. So it needs deciding upon early on in the process.

There are many ways you can consider to host your online learning. For example, you might decide that all you need is to host it on a website for people to use. However, if you want to track who takes your course, or what score they get on a quiz then you will need a Learning Management System (LMS). LMS and other hosting platforms are explained below.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

The LMS was originally meant to maintain training and compliance records for employee training. However, the market has grown and segmented over the past few decades. Now with over 700 LMS’s on the market selecting the right one for your course is no easy task. While all LMS’s perform the same basic functions, they are all created differently. Each LMS has its unique quirks and features. For example, some will include shopping carts and will integrate with your HR System.

As a result, there is no one best LMS to choose and it’s important to engage an experienced professional to lead you through this decision. In the Engage and Analyze stage at the start of your project you will need to identify the core business and course requirements and select a hosting platform or LMS.

In making this decision the LMS needs to be considered as an integrated part of online learning. For example, some LMS’s allow lots of control over design and branding, while others are much more limited. Having a course designed and branded, only for certain features to appear in a very different design, isn’t going to add to a user’s experience. Thus, in designing your online learning you need to develop it with the LMS in mind.

A great source for more LMS information is talentedlearning.com

Learning Record Stores

LMS’s were developed to read “SCORM” files – a standard used to track employee records within an LMS. As the web grew and evolved, it became clear that learning didn’t happen only within the LMS. As a result, new systems developed that would allow tracking of training outside of the LMS. These are the records kept in a Learning Record Store. Some LMS’s have these capabilities, others are separate functions.

An example of activities tracked is how many times a person attempted a quiz. Or how much of a video they watched. Or what outside resources such as Youtube videos did the person access as part of their learning.

All-In-One Learning Platforms

These are platforms where you can use their authoring tool to create the course and to host the course. These are often used in higher education and with individual course creators. The built-in authoring tool allows you to produce text, images, add video and audio, and some “quizzing”. Examples include Moodle and Thinkific

  • Moodle – an open-source system that is often used by non-profits which allows you to build and track courses. You do need a host that is Moodle friendly
  • Thinkific – a course platform that allows you to develop courses, track completion, and sell the courses. There is a large marketing and e-commerce aspect to support the sales of online learning.

Learning Experience Platforms

The latest category of tracking platforms developing are Learning Experience Platforms. These platforms are becoming the next generation of LMS’s and offer additional ways to distribute online learning. For example,

  • Email (drip) delivery – this takes segments of your course and delivers them via email on a schedule. The schedule is either fixed (cohort) or dependent (determine timeline).
  • SMS (text messaging) – using text messaging instead of email
  • Chatbots – these would be more suited to performance support but could offer mini-modules based on your users’ queries.
  • Podcasts – you could base your course more on an audio model and offer extra downloads where appropriate
  • App development – you might choose to make your course a self-contained app. Or develop a companion app to support a broader course structure
  • Subscription – you might want to sell a subscription for several courses
  • Membership – you might want to offer a membership that includes free training
  • White label – you might offer your courses to others to sell


Mobile Learning

With the increasing use of mobile devices, no guide on developing online learning could ignore mobile learning. Mobile learning is becoming an increasingly common way for people to take e-learning courses. Most authoring tools (e.g. Articulate 360) allow you to publish in a “mobile-friendly” way. However, you must ask how your learner will be using your course first.

If you decide to design for a mobile-first usage this may require some of the interactions to be different. For example, there’s no “hover state” for mobile devices.

However, mobile learning is not about devices. It’s about understanding what the audience is doing while using those devices. If someone is going to sit on a couch and take your course using their tablet, that’s quite different than someone who is working in the field and wants to brush up on a process, using their phone. Designing online learning with empathy means that you understand what your user is doing when they take the course. It’s not just about whether it “works on a phone”.

Alternatives to Developing Online Learning Yourself

While authoring tools (e.g. Articulate Rise or H5P) are fairly intuitive to learn, and there are a lot of resources online.  For example, there are instructional design books, and courses on how to become an instructional designer. However, if you don’t  have the time, or inclination to do it yourself there are alternatives for you to consider.

Buying “off-the-shelf” E-learning

Off-the-shelf content is generic online learning. Some common types are standard management/leadership skills and soft skills. Such as communication or time management skills. These topics have content that applies to lots of different organizations. But may not be specific to your industry or your company. However, they can be a way to provide a lot of content at a lower price point. Sometimes these are bundled into your learning platform.

While off-the-shelf e-learning can be cost-effective, to make it a good solution you’ll need to add context. By adding in the “so what” along with specific examples of how it applies in their situation you can more effectively support the learner.

Hiring a Full-time Online Learning Instructional Designer

If you have many e-learning courses to develop over some time, adding a full-time instructional designer to your team could be the way to go. This will allow you to develop, over time, in house expertise.

Yet, hiring the right person can take time, especially in today’s competitive job market. While this might be a longer-term solution it might not meet your immediate needs. As well, if you don’t have a steady stream of online learning well into the future then this resource may become unproductive or redundant.

Custom E-learning Course Development

Another alternative is to contract out the project to a firm to develop your custom online learning. Typical completion time for an e-learning course starts with a 14-week timescale. At Spark + Co, we adjust the timeframe up or down depending on the urgency, resources, availability of reviewers/stakeholders, and complexity of the course.

When you hire a firm to custom design the online course, you’ll receive the published course and the source files. So you can update the course yourself. However, you may need to buy a license for the authoring software. Alternatively, you could also arrange with the firm who created your course to maintain it as part of an ongoing contract.

If you hire a firm to complete the course for you, may want to review our series on hiring an instructional designer  (10 Qualities and Skills of a Great Instructional Design Company How Do You Find a Great Instructional Design Company, How to Select the Best Instructional Design Company and Traps to Avoid When Hiring an Instructional Designer)

As a special offer for readers of this blog post, we are offering a free 30-minute consultation. Either email or call us and mention you were reading this post. We’d be happy to answer your questions or provide advice on any aspect of online learning development.

To claim your free consultation call or send us an email: 250-537-9461, info@sparkandco.ca

Dummies Guide to Developing Online Learning – In Summary

So, we’ve taken you from understanding the advantages of online learning to various ways you can develop it, or get it developed. During this, you’ve discovered that there are several factors you need to consider in its development. From the type of e-learning course to the learning models you can use, to the level of interactivity you want to create. We’ve also covered processes for developing online learning and what you need to consider in hosting it and in evaluating its success. Now you’re ready to launch yourself into its development. Or find an off the shelf package, or hire an e-learning instructional design firm to create your custom online course. Whatever option you choose to develop your online learning, you now have an understanding of the components and know where to start.

We hope this article, and future articles, that will expand on some of these topics, help to guide you in the right direction, and ‘Spark Your Interest”. If you have specific questions about anything in the article, or if you have suggestions for additions or future articles please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@sparkandco.ca, 250-537-9461.  And don’t forget to claim your free consultation!