ATD Blog

30% Harder to Design for the Online Learning Environment

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Most clients we encounter believe that moving their content to an online, virtual environment, such as Adobe Connect or WebEx Training Center, is a simple matter of tweaking the materials. In fact, it is 30 percent harder to design training for the online environment because there is one more entity that needs to be designed for—the technology. 

By using classroom training design as the benchmark, we know that learning is typically designed for two entities: the facilitator and the participant. The facilitator’s role is to lead the class and make logical connections between the segments of content. The participant’s role is to practice with the content and interact with one other learners during any activities that are designed to bring the content to life. 

In the online environment, though, the facilitator’s and participant’s roles are a bit different. What’s more, there is the third role of the technology itself, and perhaps someone who is managing the technology in a supporting capacity. Designing for this third entity is what makes instructional design for the online environment so much more difficult. Like any solution, designers must think through what the facilitator will say or do to move the content along and make logical connections, as well as how the participants will stay actively engaged with the content in an environment that is less stimulating than a classroom environment (due to the lack of visuals and movement such as a facilitator at the front of the room). However, the instructional designer also must consider how the technology is best used to enhance the learning experience and not detract from it.

Case in Point

During a lesson that emphasizes listening and questioning skills, the classroom-based version has the facilitator read a list of 20-instructions while the participants listen and draw what they believe the instructions are telling them to do. In the first round of the activity, in the classroom version, participants are not allowed to ask questions. At the end of the activity, the participants all hold up their pictures and compare what they heard to what they drew. The activity is conducted one more time and the second time the participants are allowed to ask a limited number of clarifying questions. This is an excellent—and fun—way to illustrate the importance of listening and questioning skills. 


To move this activity to the online environment, and still have the same learning outcome, careful consideration needs to be given to the role of the technology. Will learners draw on a piece of paper at their own location? Should one learner be assigned to be the illustrator with coaching from the remaining participants? Is this activity crucial enough to send participants off to a breakout room where they might work in small teams or even individually so that they can “show their work” to the rest of the group? 

This is a simple example of how critical consideration of the use of the technology is to the learning outcome. No doubt, there are a number of ways to use the technology to enable this listening/questioning activity, but which is the BEST way? Which is the least onerous for the learner in terms of executing the activity easily? Which technology will require the least amount of time to set up and conduct, so that the pace of the class can stay brisk and keep the learner’s attention?

Design for the Support Role, Too


In addition to the technology itself, the role of a technical support person often must be included in the learning design. A well-run online class often uses two individuals: —the facilitator/speaker and the technical support/producer. By doing so, the facilitator can concentrate on classroom engagement and moving the curriculum along, while the producer focuses on ensuring the technology works for each individual, assists individuals behind the scenes, and executing the technology when necessary, such as opening polls or setting up breakout rooms.  

For example, if learners are to go to breakout rooms, it is often the producer’s role to prepare them.  The producer needs to know: How many people should be in each room? Is it random assignment or is the group makeup critical? What slides or other materials need to be in the rooms in order for the learner’s to do their task? The producer’s role is then a third entity in the classroom that must also be accommodated. 

Bottom line: For successful online learning outcomes, these three critical roles—facilitator, participant, and technology/producer—must be considered thoroughly. The design must seamlessly integrate with the online learning platform to keep the focus on the topic and the learner’s outcomes so that learners do not become overwhelmed or dissuaded by the technology. 

Want to learn more? Join me at ATD TechKnowledge 2018 for the workshop: Designing for Virtual Learning Using WebEx Training Center.


About the Author

Dr. Nanette Miner is a nationally known author and consultant in the field of workplace learning.  As an instructional designer for over two decades, Nanette is unique in that she is able to design curriculum for all delivery mediums including the traditional classroom, asynchronous and synchronous eLearning, or a blend of all mediums.  She is the President and managing consultant for The Training Doctor, LLC. A popular speaker at industry and trade conferences, Dr. Miner is the author of The Accidental Trainer (Pfeiffer, 2006), co-author of Tailored Learning: Designing the Blend That Fits (ASTD, 2009), editor of How To Design For The Live Online Classroom: Creating Great Interactive and Collaborative Training Using Web Conferencing (Brandon Hall, 2005), contributed to the 2009 Pfeiffer Annual on Training, and has authored over 100 articles on various aspects of workplace learning. 

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