eLearning 101: How to Make an eLearning Course (Updated!)

From the workplace to the schoolroom, more and more learning is taking place online. If you’re an educator, trainer or subject matter expert, you have an opportunity to develop new customers and audiences by developing online content that is accessible to anyone, anytime.

But if you’re new to the online learning world, even the terminology can be daunting! What’s an authoring tool? SCORM? An LMS? Don’t worry. We’re here to unlock the language and techniques of online learning for beginners.

The Vocabulary: Learning Management Systems, SCORM, Tin Can and the Experience API

Before you get started building elearning courses, you need to learn some key vocabulary. Let’s start with SCORM. The sharable content object reference model (SCORM) is a software standard that governs how course files communicate or report information to learning management systems.

Since the late ‘90s, SCORM has been the software standard of choice to ensure that any elearning course will play on any learning management system. That brings us to our second piece of key vocabulary: What is a learning management system? A learning management system (LMS) is a software platform that delivers, plays and tracks training content.

Companies, organizations and educational institutions use LMSs to deliver online learning to students, employees and other learners. As a course developer, you don’t need an LMS, but you’ll probably need to ensure that your courses can work in your customers’ LMS.

In the last few years, the folks at Rustici Software (already leading experts in SCORM) have worked with many partners and stakeholders in the elearning industry to develop a new standard, known as TinCan or the XAPI, that widens the scope of how online learning content can be managed and tracked by institutions and organizations. Not yet in wide use, it’s still wise to learn about XAPI to make sure you’re ready to stay on top of emerging technology.

eLearning Authoring Tools

If you’re seeking a straightforward way to develop an online course that will be usable in a wide range of learning management systems, your best bet is to purchase an elearning authoring tool. The gorillas in the e-learning development room are Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate—both are tools that create interactive learning experiences with a variety of content types and media. For example, you can start from scratch and build content in either of these tools or you can import PowerPoint presentations, videos, and images and use these tools to create interactive objects, add audio and export a variety of formats, including SCORM.

While these two tools are the most common in the marketplace, there are many other excellent elearning authoring tools include Lectora, Claro, and Litmos. Most tools offer a free trial period, so take advantage of that opportunity to make a few test courses before you commit to a purchase.

One final note on authoring tools: Increasingly, customers expect online training courses to be accessible on mobile devices like iPads, iPhones and other smart devices. While on the service this sounds simple, it’s not: Apple’s iOS does not support Flash, and historically many elearning tools have used Flash to support interactions in courses. As you make a decision on what authoring tools might work for you, ask questions about mobile compatibility and other features your tool might support.

Video in eLearning

With the widespread availability of low cost video production tools and high speed internet access, many elearning creators are using video as the cornerstone of their online courses. eLearning authoring tools will generally enable you to embed video clips as components of an interactive training course. In addition, OpenSesame has developed a SCORM video player that converts any video files to SCORM-trackable elearning courses.

This means simple videos can become elearning assets even in the most complex learning management system. Interested in creating video-based elearning courses? Simple cameras are affordable—and sometimes as common as the phone in your pocket.

Teaching from software tools? Interested in building screen capture like Khan Academy? There are lots of low-cost and free tools for screen capture and audio, including Camtasia, Quicktime, Snagit, and Screenr.

Need to edit your videos? Camtasia will do the trick, or on a Mac you can use iMovie (comes with your computer!) to edit together clips of video and add audio. Need to convert different video formats? Try the free, open-source Handbrake for all of your video file management needs.

Reusable Resources

For elearning developers who are pressed for time and resources, there are hundreds off-the-shelf and stock design resources to help you create high quality online courses expediently. Some favorites:

  • Videos: Check YouTube and Vimeo for video clips to embed in your courses. You can also use Gickr to make your own animates GIFs (thanks to Stevie Rocco for the tip on Gickr!). 
  • eLearning templates: Articulate offers tons of great course templates, icons, backgrounds and other images for free. The eLearning Brothers have course templates and Flash-based game templates and DIY eLearning offers customizable Flash interactions, too. Many authoring tools come with templates, so check with your authoring tool vendor to find out what resources are available! 

Find Your Community of Practice

Finally, the absolute best resource for joining the elearning community is the community itself! eLearning professionals have blogs, Twitter accounts, online chats and hundreds of other ways to interact with peers and learn. Here are a few ways to get started:

  • If you’re an Articulate user, get started participating in the E-Learning Heroes forum for to ask questions and learn from others. 

We hope we’ve give you the vocabulary and tools you need to get started! We look forward to seeing you join the elearning community on OpenSesame.

Do you have resources, ideas and communities you’d recommend? Share them in the comments!

Further reading:

Tools For Freelance Instructional Designers
How to Create Great eLearning Courses
Primer on SCORM Settings

More suggestions? Please share in the comments!