And what's digital learning, for that matter? Well, Digital Learning Now’s Roadmap for Reform has this to say: “Digital learning is learning facilitated by technology that gives students some element of control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”
Design for this must take in all aspects of the creation of digital learning content – as well as how to effectively analyse, design and develop digital learning initiatives.
This is the mechanism that delivers the content. Technology is just a tool, not the instruction itself. It facilitates how learners receive content. At a macro level, it includes internet access and hardware, which could be a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
Control over time
Digital learning is not restricted to a set time frame. Learners expect to be able to plug in or out of a course at any time. The structure of an elearning course needs to reflect this, allowing for start-stop sessions and the pausing of a lesson at random intervals.
Being internet-based, digital learning is conducted in an open environment. Users in London or Mumbai could equally subscribe to the same course – and the course structure should be flexible enough to accommodate this.
Interactive and adaptive software allows users to learn in their own style, which means a linear course structure won't suit everyone. Digital learning content needs to be as flexible as the people who use it. And learning technologies must provide real-time data that give assessors the information they need to adjust instruction to meet the unique needs of each student.
No set pace
Users must be free to learn at their own pace, spending more or less time on lessons or subjects to achieve the required level of learning. Particularly in a business environment there may be an overall "deadline" for a given elearning initiative to be delivered, but within this constraint, the course design must allow learners as much self-pacing flexibility as possible.
The crucial element: content
Digital content is the high quality instruction material which must be delivered through technology. From web pages to videos, PDFs to quizzes, slides to interactive scenarios, it needs to be engaging and interactive, if users are to benefit.
The critical thing is to fashion a user-centric system powered by digital learning that allows each learner to realise his or her fullest potential.
Design skills needed
Before you can create engaging digital learning content, you'll need to be able to do the following:
- Analyse learning requirements and audience characteristics
- Select the most appropriate forms of content
- Work to design, develop and deploy your content
You won't have to do this alone. There are numerous online courses and commercially-available workshops that will give a grounding in digital learning design.
Learning design course structure
Typically, a course will be shaped around the types of content most likely to be appropriate for your organisation, and the software tools you have available. Subject matter may be tailored to the needs of beginners or more experienced specialists. Issues covered will likely include:
- Uses for digital learning content: including classroom or lecture room aids, self-study materials, and job aids/reference materials
- Types of digital learning content: interactive tutorials, software demos, visual aids, quizzes, presentations, podcasts, reference materials, learning games, instructional videos, etc.
- Establishing objectives for the content
- Selecting the most appropriate instructional methods and delivery media
- Choosing the most suitable tools to develop the content
- Creating usable and appropriate content to meet your objectives: consider textual material, graphics, audio, video, questions, and other interactions
- Getting specialist help when you need it
- Evaluating the effectiveness and usability of the content
- Maintaining and continuously improving the content
- Integrating digital content into blended solutions
- Tools and techniques for sharing content
Course participants may be required to design and develop a number of short pieces of digital learning content. They will usually receive constructive feedback from experts running the course, and from their peers.
According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, digital learning tools and practices have a beneficial impact in wide areas, such as:
- Online and formative assessment
- An increase in the focus and quality of teaching resources and time
- Evolution of online content and courses
- Applications of technology in the real world (classroom and boardroom)
- Development of adaptive software for students with special needs
- Development of learning platforms
- Participation in professional communities of practice
- Increased access to high-level and challenging content and instruction
- Enabling new strategies and formats, such as online and blended learning, and competency-based learning
The bottom line
Frequent users of digital learning platforms gain greater exposure to 21st-century skills:
- Critical thinking
- Global awareness
- Problem solving
Technology helps instructors do more by creating new learning environments that allow students to go deeper into the subject matter. The effective design of digital learning content is an integral part of that.