Why you should build and test a workable model of your course early in the design process.

You’ve just had a brainstorm for a great new course idea, and you’re eager to begin planning content. You quickly write a course outline, and are ready to begin fleshing it out into a full-blown course. But before you get too carried away, there’s a step you should take first: course prototyping.

An e-learning prototype is different from a storyboard, but not as developed as a beta test. Whereas a storyboard is all about content (what should I cover, how should I organize it), a prototype is about the mechanics of your learning system. Your entire prototype could be full of place-holder text, and it wouldn’t matter. (In fact, some might argue it should be nothing but placeholder text.)

It may seem like an unnecessary delay when you’re excited to begin content development, but prototypes can save you a lot of pain down the road. Here are just a few reasons why prototyping is a worthwhile investment of your time.

1. Fine-tune learner experience before diving into content.

Content is the heart and soul of your course. As such, it’s understandable you’d want to start writing as soon as possible. Yet your learners may never fully engage with your content if your learning system is difficult to work with.

Prototyping gives you a sense for how your learners will engage with your course it its final environment. Will they be motivated to complete a scenario, or will the course mechanics be so cumbersome that they’ll quit halfway through? Are menu items and displays confusing? Is there too much text on screen? You may find that the prototyping phase helps you edit and restructure your content before its even written.

2. Gauge the difficulty of course requirements.

Your course may seem straightforward on paper, but once it hits a live environment, it can become far more difficult. Maybe you’ve added too many questions to a review quiz, and learners are exhausted by the extra work. Or perhaps you planned a scenario exercise that’s too difficult for learners to complete.

Working with a prototype can show you spots where the content is paced poorly, or where a task isn’t structured clearly enough. If there are snags in your course design, you can work them out before your learners get hung up on them.

3. Avoid late, eleventh-hour changes.

The nightmare scenario for any course developer is to realize too late in the process of significant structural problems with their course. While small tweaks can happen almost any time (even post-launch!), a major problem can delay your course from hitting a beta test until the issue is resolved.

You may think a problem that significant would be caught sooner, but remember: until your course is in a live environment, you don’t know how it’s going to behave. Prototypes can give you a better sense of what your course will be like earlier in the process.

Set a sustainable pricing model.

Finally, calculating development costs for an online course can be difficult. A feature you thought would be easy to use may turn out to be more complicated, or you may hit an unexpected snag in the development process that requires an expansion of your budget.

You may have built your business model around charging one price for a course, only to find that your figure is far too low. You may be able to raise your course price enough to compensate, but it’s an anxious place to be in nonetheless.

While prototyping adds time and expense to the development phase, it’s a cost you know about and can plan for. And in return, it prevents unexpected costs from catching you unawares.

How do you build an e-learning prototype?

Your prototype is not the time to get hung up on wordsmithing. It’s an opportunity to build the design aspect of your course design, at a stage where mistakes cost nothing and the gains you can make are high.

Key decisions you should make during the prototyping phase include::

  • Your Learning Management System (LMS). Your online needs a platform, and your choice of LMS will be the most consequential in determining how you want learners to experience your course. Take time to determine your needs, research the market, and fine one that checks all the right boxes.
  • Interactions. How are learners engaging with your content? Do you plan to include any interactive functionality? What will the lesson flow look like?
  • Layout. How will you use headers, images, and other design elements to structure your course? Do these features create order and hierarchy in your layout?
  • Motivations. Do learners want to keep using your course? Does the system prompt and encourage them to keep going? This is one of the more overlooked aspects of prototyping. Just because you’ve written another lesson doesn’t mean your learners will want to take it.
  • Assessment criteria. Does your course give immediate feedback? Does it allow learners to re-take a test or practice a scenario multiple times? Do your tests come at a point in the course where learners will feel comfortable taking them, or do they interrupt the flow of the lesson?

You can begin building your prototypes in whatever medium feels most comfortable to you—including pen and paper. As you develop your ideas, move toward an interactive digital medium that lets you test out your ideas. This could be anything from PowerPoint to your LMS itself.

If you’re planning to use other plugins for added functionality, now would be a good time to begin testing them out. You don’t want to plan your entire course around the expectation that a plugin will work a certain way, only to find it doesn’t meet your needs. Or, the reverse might happen! You may discover a feature you hadn’t thought of, and want to work it into your course. Either way, the sooner you know, the better.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Prototyping is an easy step to skip, but doing so may come back to haunt you. Most of the decisions you make in the prototyping stage have to be made some time. By tackling them early, you’re just giving yourself an early look at the scope, design, and layout of your course. These decisions are not trivial, and can have a significant impact on the content you create.

So, save yourself repeated content revisions later by developing a working prototype today. The preparation pays off.

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