You have gotten approval to build a curriculum that includes several or even dozens of eLearning courses!
Maybe you are using your internal team, or maybe you engaged an outside content creation team like our award-winning custom eLearning development team at TrainingPros.
In either case, you should consider taking two weeks at the start of the project to agree on a prototype for the courses. Two weeks may seem like too much time for something with little perceived gain.
Yet, a prototype can save you a lot of time, money, and headaches.
First, let’s define what we are referring to with an eLearning prototype. This is a term that can be used differently based on your situation.
So, for the purposes of this article, our definitions are:
- Prototype: A micro-example of an entire course that may or may not contain actual content. The prototype focuses on functionality, appearance, style, and how to treat specific types of content. A prototype should be established when you are creating an entire curriculum or can even be created for all future courses from a learning department for the foreseeable future.
- Storyboard: The storyboard focuses on a specific course’s content and instructional design (ID). It’s a way to ensure your content and instructional treatments are approved before you begin development. It is not about establishing overall functionality. You might include a rough cut of the course or wireframe in this category.
A prototype has several purposes. The first and most important purpose is to test the course settings’ compatibility with the LMS. But a thorough prototype does much more.
Author and freelance eLearning designer Tim Slade wrote, “The purpose of an eLearning prototype is to help you demonstrate and validate what the final eLearning course will look and feel like. This includes how you’re presenting content, how the course will look and feel, how you’re implementing proper instructional design techniques, and how the interactivity will work.”
Without building a prototype first, you could have entire teams building courses that don’t resemble each other. You might also be spending a lot of effort creating a course that the stakeholder doesn’t like.
According to The Rapid E-Learning Blog, “Many e-learning developers spend too much time building courses that are almost complete before they solicit feedback about the course.”
The downside to developing this way is that changes, even small ones, could end up being costly. Let’s explore five key reasons why you need a prototype for all your future eLearning projects:
As a consultant or learning leader, have you ever gotten close to the end of an eLearning project and had the stakeholders start asking for what they think are minor changes to the overall appearance?
It’s not a lot of fun to explain to them how much more it costs to make changes to the interface of a course at that stage.
If you’re working on a fixed fee course and haven’t obtained proper sign-off, you could also end up working many hours making changes that don’t add to the quality of the eLearning course.
You can avoid costly rework by establishing a clear scope during the prototype phase that states the final course will be based precisely on the approved look and feel.
Be sure, as part of the prototype review phase, you provide clear instructions on what to look for and what is “locked down” at the end of this phase. Insisting on formal sign-off is a must!
In addition, a prototype can help learning leaders obtain stakeholder buy-in for the project and give the subject matter experts (SMEs) an understanding of what the final product will look like.
I’ve often found that SMEs and stakeholders have difficulty envisioning the final product. A prototype will help them immensely.
When developing eLearning, there are a lot of design and functionality-related decisions that have to be made sooner than later, like:
- Do you need narration?
- Do you want all the narration text on the screen or only images and a few keywords?
- What about accommodating disabilities?
- Do you want similar activities handled consistently?
- What should a scenario look like?
- How should the content flow from objective to assessment?
These examples are just a few of the decisions that must be made. There are many other ways to modify the functionality of an eLearning course, more than we have room for in this article.
Building a prototype is an opportunity to finalize course functionality at a point where costly mistakes aren’t halting development.
Including some basic activity screens during a prototype phase is considerably more cost-effective, so there is no mistaking how to handle a “drag and drop,” a “multiple choice,” or any other interaction that will be used frequently.
Also, if there is a standardized way to handle content presentation for an objective, this is the point in the project where you should solidify that flow.
If you are a corporate learning leader, you already know that your eLearning authoring tool works with your learning management system (LMS).
And frankly, as a consultant, if you are using a standard eLearning authoring tool, you are likely pretty confident that it will work with the client’s LMS.
But this is still a necessary step for multiple reasons:
- It gives the client peace of mind.
- Are you using video in your courses? This is an excellent chance to ensure the video operates correctly in the LMS.
- It helps you confirm your assessment questions are set up to score correctly for the LMS.
- It ensures your project is not that one in a million with some sort of compatibility problem.
The last thing you want is to finish building a course only to find out it won’t work with the LMS. Depending on the issues, it could mean having to start over.
Sometimes projects include multiple courses or have a very short timeline. In these situations, you might need multiple internal developers or learning and development (L&D) consultants on the project.
When that is the case, you absolutely need a prototype. An eLearning prototype can save time onboarding new developers to the project and allow you to scale your project better.
Once finalized, the developers start their courses using the same template file. By doing this, they each have examples of all the different types of functionalities that are already approved.
In the end, courses will be developed consistently, and learners will not notice any style differences.
A prototype phase can add several weeks to the beginning of a project timeline. This is usually not an easy sell to stakeholders.
So, how can a prototype phase shorten the project timeline?
- The interface is approved before you start development. Checking this off helps shorten the timeline because you can put many developers on the project as soon as the interface is approved. Comments and changes should only focus on tweaking words, asking for different pictures, or testing the functionality of the interactions. You can eliminate requests focusing on button color or placement or other minor requests that cause a lot of work.
- The functionality of activities and assessments is approved before you start development. This shortens the timeline because the developers know exactly how to treat each type of activity. If the storyboard calls for a scenario, they have a template with the exact layout they can use.
- Your stakeholders have had a practice round with the review process. Doing this helps with the timeline because the stakeholders discover what each review cycle will mean regarding their time and attention to the project plan. Another advantage is that they have learned how to use your review tools and have become familiar with other review processes.
If your goal is to develop eLearning in the most cost-effective and timely way possible, getting the interface design and interactive elements reviewed and approved before development is a huge win.
Creating a prototype may seem like an easy eLearning project phase to skip in the name of saving time. However, the time spent to develop a prototype and get sign-off from your stakeholders can be quickly recouped.
Spending that extra time on the front end can exponentially increase a project’s long-term gains. In fact, if you are embarking on an extensive, multi-course curriculum, you could even argue it is essential to include a prototype phase.
Ultimately, the decision comes down to whether or not your project timeline can absorb the hidden costs of unforeseen content revisions, compatibility issues, and inconsistencies during development.
If the unknown seems like too big of a risk, why take the chance? Build a course prototype and eliminate the unknown from your eLearning project sooner than later.