How (and Why) You Should Run an E-Learning Prototype

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 learning system. 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 places 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.

4. Set a sustainable pricing model.

Finally, calculating development costs for an online course can be difficult. A feature you thought would be easy to program 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 design aspects you should assess include:

  • The Graphical User Interface (GUI). Your online course is more than just words on a screen. It includes images, icons, menus, and cursors. Begin prototyping your GUI with pencil and paper. It’s an intuitive, low-cost way to sketch through ideas as you plan the early stages of your project.
  • When a learner clicks on an icon, what happens next? How will they know what buttons to click and what icons lead to which features?
  • Do you allow for enough white space? Can learners easily distinguish visual cues on the screen? Are content spaces arranged in a logical way?
  • 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 with pen and paper, and switch to an interactive medium such as PowerPoint once your ideas begin to take a more definite shape. If your project is large and complex enough, it may even be worthwhile to build a fully-functioning prototype. For smaller courses, prototype until you feel confident in your design.

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.


Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating (and selling) their online courses. Twitter | LinkedIn

1 Response

  1. Dear Justin,
    I just last week sent you a short article about this via your group. I don’t know if that lead to this post but if it did I am very glad you are letting people know about this. It is vital for beginners.
    Your point about getting it working first with minimal content is key, saves a lot of time and money. LearnDash is a great service but it has some limitations. Doing the prototype as you have suggested will give the developer a chance to work around those limitations.
    I can suggest starting a location for beginner articles like this. It will be very helpful. Often old hands forget what it is like to get started.
    Keep up the good work. Mark Mobley

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