Thinking About the End User in Online Course Development

The author of any online course must consider the student experience in the course design. Like with face-to-face courses, online students have the opportunity to evaluate their courses when the term ends. Unlike face-to-face courses, however, most online courses do not feature synchronous sessions with instructor-student engagement. Instead, online students engage more with the content than with the instructor, which makes the content a necessary focal point for student satisfaction. To ensure students’ satisfaction, you must design your course for optimal Internet delivery. Although students demonstrate diverse technology skill sets and needs, solid preparation and planning can help you ensure that all students get the most a course in miracles out of your course.

As you develop your course, first consider your audience. For example, an online advanced computer course typically contains more technically skilled students than an English Composition I class does. As a result, the instructor of the advanced computer course can use more Internet jargon and even include more interactivity and social components. The students enrolled in the course are unlikely to need much direction on how to use the tools provided to them. In the English Composition I course, on the other hand, students may have fewer technology skills and, therefore, need more assistance using advanced technology products. As you design your course, identify the minimum technology knowledge your students must have to take the course. This step helps ensure that you address any gaps in technological knowledge that your students may have as you prepare the online course.

You also should consider the type of learners enrolled in your course. Because adult learners make up a large portion of the online course environment, make sure you consider the differences between adult learners and traditional college students. Adult learners are more problem-and-results-oriented as opposed to subject-future-oriented like traditional college students. Adult learners are self-directed and desire to learn and improve the skills that immediately impact their lives. In addition, they value participating in learning activities that enhance their knowledge. Adult learners typically have years of experience, are more likely than traditional college students to offer differing opinions, and need to see clear course expectations. Once you know what kinds of activities you need for your course, you can determine what technologies you will need to ensure that those activities can take place online.

Next, think about the types of media (e.g., videos, interactive elements, games) you will need for your course. The greater the variety of media you want to include, the more factors you must consider. While most computers purchased within the last two years have sufficient hardware capacity and the software needed to access an online course, not all students will have the software installed to fully participate in the online course if you have not prepared the course materials for optimal Web delivery. To ensure that your course runs well for all students, you must deliver content using software that can run smoothly on the majority of operating systems and Web browsers.

Always use the most up-to-date and versatile software and regularly review your course content delivery methods in light of new technological trends, such as Internet browser upgrades. For example, Internet Explorer has led the browser market since Netscape Navigator was discontinued in 2008; however, other browsers have been introduced in the last few years, creating so-called browser wars. According to Web site analytics company StatCounter, “Firefox overtook Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) to become the number one browser in Europe in December 2010” (StatCounter, 2011).

StatCounter further reports that “in December, Firefox took 38.11% of European market share, compared to IE’s 37.52%” but that “in North America, IE still retains a clear lead in the browser market with 48.92% followed by Firefox (26.7%), Chrome (12.82%) and Safari (10.16%)” (StatCounter, 2011). Based on these statistics, if you design an online course for only the dominant browser, half of the course participants may have a poorer experience than they could have had with an optimal browser.

In addition to considering browsers, you must consider the user’s Internet connection speed. For example, if you decide to incorporate video segments into your course, remember that download speeds vary depending on each user’s computer and Internet connection. Therefore, you should keep each segment short and to the point.

Further, you must consider the software needed for interactive course elements such as Flashcards. If you plan to include interactive multimedia pieces that reinforce learning, keep in mind that students may need to download additional software to play the media files.

Finally, you must consider how students will primarily view the course. Some mobile devices, such as iPads and iPhones, do not support Adobe Flash, one of the most common pieces of software used on standard Web sites. You will need to present this material in alternate formats for those mobile users. As you can see, many aspects of the user experience deserve consideration as you develop your online course. Thinking about these issues before you design your course will help you provide your students with a positive learning experience. Proper planning also will save you development time because you will not have to make drastic changes after the course launches.

Laura Crowder is a Marketing Coordinator at The Learning House, Inc. Learning House is a comprehensive online education solutions partner that helps colleges and universities develop effective and affordable ways to deliver online degree programs. Learning House provides a total online campus solution to each of its partners, including online course development and publishing, program marketing and enrollment management, infrastructure support, learning management system customization and hosting, faculty training and professional development, 24/7 technology support, and consulting.

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