Conference sneak preview

What it takes to be an online learning designer

55-oeb-04-12-15-ph-271To design great online learning you need a number of skills. It’s a complex mixture of learning, media and technical skills. Donald Clark has spent 33 years in this business, designed and produced hundreds of online learning experiences and hired dozens of interactive designers and project managers. According to him, it takes about five years to get really good at this work, along with certain essential and desirable skills.

By Donald Clark

Before I break these skills down,, I’d like to mention one skill in particular, as I think it’s essential – writing. You need to be able to write fluidly, accurately and persuasively. If you’re slow and feel as though writing is a chore – this is not the job for you. When looking for prospects, check out their writing pedigree. Are they active on social media? Do they blog? Offline, have they written a diary? Demand evidence of good writing. Rant over.

Learn about learning

Designers are in the learning game, so an acquaintance with good learning theory is useful. If you want a quick run down of 2500 years of learning theory, the good, the bad and the ugly, watch my YouTube talk on that subject. If you’re saying to yourself – he hasn’t provided a link, then this is not the job for you. You need to be able to find things and do the research. It’s a summary of years of reading and reflection on the subject.

A second tip is to read Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. What makes it compelling is it’s its laser-like focus on contemporary research on optimal methods of learning, while swatting pseudo-theories to one side.

By far the most important message in the book comes at the start when they boldly claim that most good learning theory is counterintuitive. They set the scene by explaining why most students are misled by institutions into the wrong strategies for studying. Intuitively, reading, highlighting, underlining and rereading seem productive, but the evidence suggests it is a largely hopeless strategy for learning. In fact, the evidence shows that we are very poor judges of our own learning. The optimal strategies for learning are in the ‘doing’ and some of that doing is counterintuitive.

We kid ourselves into thinking we’re mastering something, but this is an illusion of mastery. It’s easy to think you’re learning when the going is easy – re-reading, underlining, repetition…. but it doesn’t work. To learn effectively, you must make the going harder and employ a few counterintuitive tricks along the way. Brown, Roediger and McDaniel neatly explain why the research is NOT about rote learning, the charge that is usually levelled against them – just to head that one off at the pass.

The premise is effortful learning, which is why online learning can be so powerful. It’s what most of the people I admire in the learning world have been saying for years – Schank, Downes and most academic, cognitive scientists. By effort they mostly mean retrieval practice; this is the one strategy they hammer home. Use your own brain to retrieve, or do what you think you know. Flashcard questions, simple quizzes (not multiple choice), anything you do to exercise the brain through active recall not only reinforces what you know (and so easily forget), but may even be even stronger than the original exposure in terms of subsequent retention and recall. That’s a killer finding. Recall is more powerful than teaching.

Make It Stick is a brilliant update on recent research in cognitive science about how we learn. (You don’t see Vygotsky in the index of this book, thank God.) It’s the result of over ten years of focused research on ‘Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice’. It’s practical and gives plenty of advice on both how to teach and how to learn, the point being that knowing how to learn is a necessary condition for good teaching.

 150 tips on online learning

First up, get familiar with some general concepts such as blended learning, 70:20:10, and the flipped classroom. These are shortcuts that will familiarise you with big-picture ideas. They contextualise your online learning. For a quick summary and critique of these concepts, see my piece 7 things Blended Learning is NOT.

On the specifics of design, I have written 150 tips, and rather than summarise them, I’ll simply provide the links from my blog (

10 challenging ways to get the best from your SMEs

10 ways to make badass INTROs in online learning

10 bloody good reasons for using much-maligned TEXT in online learning 

10 things you really need to know about READING on screen for effective online design

10 text-layout FAILS in online learning

10 essential online learning WRITING TIPS

10 stupid mistakes in the design of MULTIPLE-CHOICE questions

10 essential points on the use of (recall not recognition) OPEN RESPONSE questions

10 sound pieces of advice on the use of AUDIO in online learning

10 ways based on research to use VIDEO in online learning

10 ideas on the use of much-maligned TALKING HEAD videos in online learning

10 essential rules on the use of ANIMATION in online learning

10 ways to design challenging online SCENARIOS

10 unusual ways to make SPACED PRACTICE happen in online learning

10 ways to avoid snafus in VIRTUAL webinars


I’ve been writing about online learning for a long time. It’s not an easy job but it’s rewarding. If you enjoy learning about new things, writing, analysis, dealing with people, and creating online experiences, this may be the job for you. Unlike teaching in a classroom or lecture theatre, where you will only ever teach a few thousand people in your entire career, online you’re likely to reach tens, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of learners. Have fun.

Take part in Donald Clark’s preconference workshop at eLearning Africa 2016 on Tuesday, May 24th, 2016.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing the wonderful guide
    it is amazing.I feel motivated.

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