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  • Rikki Lee

The Course Not Taken

You’ve spent months developing an elearning course for customers of NewName Software’s latest application. As an instructional design consultant, you became part of the team from the concept stage of the course, developed the script and storyboard, designed the slides and produced the final SCORM package that was hosted on NewName’s third-party LMS.

But two weeks before it was ready to launch its software and make the course available to customers, it was disclosed that NewName had stolen the app from lead rival OldName Software. NewName immediately shut down the business—and the LMS account was closed, with the course never viewed. (With the company in foreclosure, you also didn't get paid.)

Chances are that none of your courses have ever faced such a dramatic demise. But it brings up the point that, if you’ve designed dozens of courses, other existential threats have probably happened. So, not only were no completion certificates issued for one (or more) of your courses, no learners logged in at all. Maybe:

  • The course sat idle in the LMS because your company or client didn’t do the right amount or the right kind of marketing.

  • The course content was out-of-date, so it was deleted from the catalog.

  • Disastrous mistakes were made during the course planning, designing or testing that turned away prospective learners or made the course unwatchable.

  • A client mysteriously decided to shelve the project just before it was completed.

  • The course faced too much competition in the marketplace, and other courses were much more popular.

  • The company’s LMS was user-unfriendly, and most people who signed up for the course abandoned the attempt to access it.

But whatever the reason, many elearning projects—even those that have already received enrollments and are ready for learners to log in—remain unopened. With so many businesses and organizations offering online training to employees, private clients and the general public over the past 15-20 years, there might be millions of elearning courses (including videos) that have never been accessed or learned from. Your course that’s gathering dust in an LMS certainly isn’t the only one.

Tree : forest :: Course : LMS

So, a rhetorical question might be: If a course is uploaded to the LMS but no one launches it, does anyone learn—or has it been just a useless effort of the ID team? (This is the elearning equivalent to “If a tree falls in the forest…”) In other words, what impact does a course have without any learners to experience it?

Unless you’re both designing and marketing/selling your courses, that question is out of scope. It’s your responsibility to do the best instructional design job you possibly can, even if no learner actually makes it past the title slide. For your ID team, the success of a course is not how many learners have obtained and retained knowledge from it, but how well it was designed.

Still, knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and even inactive courses have some impact. The first learners of any project are the instructional design team, SMEs, reviewers, beta testers and so on. And much of what you’ve encountered while developing a course, including the subject matter, will be helpful to you as you develop later courses.

Making the most of any course

It’s perfectly normal to feel disappointed about courses that fail to draw more than a few learners (of course, if you’re actually privy to such information). But here are some tips to make the most of any course, regardless of the eventual size of its learning audience:

  • When you develop a course, keep in mind the typical learner, but don’t think about the number of real learners who might view it. It’ll be much worse if the course content is largely forgotten by most learners because it wasn't clear, concise and relevant. In other words, you didn’t do the best instructional design you could have.

  • Don’t start out a project with the defeatist attitude that “nobody’s probably going to take this course.” If you do, you won’t put in your best effort during the design process. Instead, focus on presenting the subject matter in the most effective and engaging way. Use case studies, scenarios, interactions, knowledge checks, activities and other techniques to stimulate learning and retention.

  • You’re only as good a designer as your next course, not your last one. Set your sights ahead to future projects, constantly working on improving your knowledge, skills and abilities. During periods of downtime, learn new instructional and graphic design techniques so you can improve with each subsequent course. As your own KSAs grow, so, too, will your learners’ KSAs.

  • Whether you design the course for in-house employees or for a client, be a vocal advocate for the course throughout the development process. You can offer useful information about the course’s features to help the sales and marketing team promote it to prospective learners.

  • Review the course before you complete the first draft to see if you can improve it even more. Maybe it can use some graphic tweaking, just-released information or more user-friendly interactions. Remember to discuss your suggestions for improvement with the design team.

  • Finally, make regular updates of design and content of every legacy course in your LMS to help keep it relevant for the foreseeable future, making it less likely that it’ll become a course not taken.

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