The Challenge of E-Learning Development
In recent years, course developers and instructional designers have been adapting to developing and delivering e-learning. Many of them accepted this challenge with reluctance and uncertainty of how they would adjust. Fortunately many companies were willing to facilitate the adjustment by providing tools and systems to make it as easy as editing a document on a word processor. Still the whole process of developing self-paced courseware online took on a whole different approach to instructional design.
For this purpose, the whole e-learning development process needs to become more of a marriage between traditional instructional design and software development methodology. Does this mean it needs to be complicated? Hopefully not. The idea behind any process is to simplify tasks to make the entire process more efficient, but it also needs to be thorough to eliminate potential oversights.
Instructional Design Basics
How do we apply a software engineering approach to instructional design? First we need to review a high-level overview of each to have proper frame of reference. Let’s begin with a basic instructional design model, such as Dick and Carey. (See Figure 1.)
The Dick and Carey model is a 10-step approach that starts with identifying the instructional goals of the course, which are used as input into conducting an instructional analysis and identifying the behavior and skills that students exhibit prior to training. The result of the analysis and entry behaviors is then used to develop performance objectives or the expectation of business results from the course.
The performance objectives are then used to develop criterion tests, which are designed to test that the student can achieve the expected performance objectives. The instructional strategy is then developed to determine the appropriate methods and media in which to deliver the content. The content is then developed based on the instructional strategy or storyboard. The course design is then tested in a pilot class, and an evaluation of the course design is reviewed. The course is then revised based upon the results of the pilot delivery. Finally, the course is delivered to the masses and evaluated on its effectiveness.
Software Engineering Basics
In software engineering the approach is similar in some aspects. (See Figure 2.)
The process starts with a definition of a system based on a set of requirements or goals that the system is expected to address. This usually results in a system specification document that describes what the system should do. There are many factors that go into this initial stage, particularly on how the software will function on multiple platforms or multiple operating systems. This is then followed by the development of a software plan that defines the resources, timeline and budget for developing the system. It also defines the scope of the software design and in many cases may also explicitly define what is considered to be out of scope.
The process continues with documenting specific software requirements. Different from the high-level requirements that simply describe how the system should basically function, the software requirements describe specific flow of information, interface and function details, and software validation requirements. The requirements are then reviewed until a final set of requirements is approved.
The process then enters the development phase, which begins with the design process. The set of requirements are now developed into a high-level design that evolves into a more detailed design. The design is reviewed and modified until it is approved for the next step.
Finally, the software itself is developed, typically with multiple programmers coding simultaneously, which introduces the need for a source-code control environment for parallel development. Depending on the size and complexity of the system, many components may be designed separately and tested separately (unit test), then tested as the components are put together as a complete system (integration test). Any errors detected during either the unit testing or integration testing are then identified and fixed. Typically before integration testing is started, all code development is frozen to avoid introducing conflicting code.
Once the system has successfully passed all the tests, a snapshot of the software is saved and released. The system is then monitored, and if any problems are reported, they are evaluated and fixed, then released in a patch to correct existing systems and also integrated for the next release of the system.
So, how do we apply the software engineering approach to instructional design? As in both cases, we must start with a set of requirements. In the case of developing e-learning, the process follows the basic instructional design process similar to the Dick and Carey model up to Step 6 or through the design phase of the learning development process in which the actual determination that we are delivering the content via e-learning is established.
The process from this point forward assumes development of asynchronous e-learning in which the learner is guided through an instructional design by electronic means. (See Figure 3.)
A storyboard is developed to organize the presentation of the content in a logical flow. The storyboard would represent the pages or screens that display to the learner and any interactive exercises or assessments that might be included.
The storyboard would then go through a technical review process in which each reviewer or subject matter expert (SME) would review the accuracy of the content. Once all reviewers have approved the storyboard, the content is ready to be developed.
Consistent with instructional design, the preceding and post-module assessment test for each course module as well as an overall post-course assessment are developed first to meet course objectives. Some courseware authoring systems support customized or accelerated learning paths by developing a pretest that is mapped to key topics within each module. If the learner can successfully answer a specific question or set of questions tied to a particular topic, that topic can be eliminated from the course automatically so that the learner is only presented with unfamiliar material. The post-test for each module would then validate that the learner understands the content and record a completion status for that module. Although a learner may have completed all modules of a course, an overall post-test may still be administered, particularly for certification purposes, before recording a course completion.
The module content is then developed following the storyboard path. In most cases the content will be developed from a template that already includes navigational controls and links to required and/or optional resources. The delivery of the content may include images, multimedia content, interactive exercises and demonstrations, dynamic presentation of the content and text. All of these components are designed to support a successful completion of the post-module assessment.
During development there may be more than one course developer working on the course or module. Depending on your development and learning content management system (LCMS) environment, each developer may need access to the same file or a file that is a dependent of another file. To prevent accidental conflicts or overwriting of developed content by another developer, I highly recommend employing a source code control process or system. A source code control system has the ability to prevent access to a file that is currently under development by another developer, or can support the creation of a local working environment by copying needed files from a central repository, then synchronizing changes made by other developers into the working environment to determine if those changes have any impact.
Once the module has been completed, it is ready to be tested. The unit test focuses on testing functionality and usability within the module itself. Local navigation can be tested, but navigation to other modules would not be tested, because the other modules may not be ready. The e-learning developer can follow a checklist of items to test at every page or screen, such as whether all images appear properly, all buttons and links work, animations and multimedia play smoothly, etc.
If possible, the developer can also test that the content is deliverable on multiple platforms in multiple combinations, particularly the minimum requirements. The minimum requirements can be determined by building a minimal system on which to test. This system would be representative of the minimal system requirements you expect from your learners’ system. There are methods in which you can develop rich content for high-end users and still provide quality content for minimal system users by detecting system resources at run-time.
When unit testing is completed for all course modules, the modules can be assembled to create a complete e-learning course. In most authoring systems this is already being done during development. When the complete course is built, all code development is frozen, and no developer is allowed to make even the smallest change. The course is now ready for integration testing. A new set of checklists is provided to testers to evaluate functionality (all components function as expected), usability (the components are easy for learners to use) and platform compatibility (all components work on all targeted platforms and configurations). The testers document specific problems and describe in as much detail the error encountered and how, if possible, it is reproduced. Once the integration test is completed, a list of documented errors is provided for developers who in turn update their modules and conduct unit testing to validate the fix. The integration testing cycle is repeated until all components function properly.
The course is now ready to test with an audience. A pilot audience is provided access to the course in the development environment and is provided with a checklist and a form to document any content or functional issues. If this course is being evaluated at Level 3, Level 4 and ROI, the pilot audience should be made up of a portion of an experimental group or be eliminated from the evaluation population completely if initial errors in the course are to be discounted.
When the pilot delivery is complete and all documented issues are provided to developers, then course developers revise the course or respond to the pilot audience to address the issues raised.
The course is then ready to be released. The release process involves uploading the course from the development environment to the production environment and providing access to the course through the learning management system (LMS). A course catalog description of the course should have already been completed during the design phases of the learning development process.
There is a lot more to this process, including physical development architecture and related processes, but this should give you a very high-level approach to e-learning engineering.
Pat Alvarado is an independent consultant specializing in corporate learning and learning technology. Pat can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.