Three Essential Tips for New Online Training Designers

One of the biggest challenges online training developers have is that they often have no background in online training. Online training is very different than face-to-face training, yet many classroom trainers inherit the online learning developer role simply because their organization has decided to begin offering online training.

This is further complicated by the various reasons that many organizations venture into online training, such as scalability, cost savings, and optimized resource use. These are decisions of budget, not of learning and performance.

Is it any wonder that many online learning developers are metaphorically taking the square peg of traditional classroom workshops and trying to fit it into the round hole of online training? We need to first understand the differences between online training and traditional classroom training.

So where does someone new to the field of online learning design begin? Here are three essential tips for those entering the field of online training development:

Read. A Lot.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Reading is a critical part of continued education in any field, and it’s even more critical for online training developers, especially those who have “fallen” into the role. I separate reading into two categories: books and articles.

There are certain books that provide great foundational knowledge on which to start your work as an online training developer, including the latest edition of e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, and Design for How People Learn, by Julie Dirksen.

I also recommend reading relevant articles and blogs. These are excellent because they provide brief and current information shared by people that, like you, work in the area of online training solutions. Unlike books, online articles give you the opportunity to interact and ask questions of the author via comments. It’s a big difference you don’t get from books. There are a number of blogs and articles I would recommend, but a good place to start are the blogs of Cathy Moore, Tom Kuhlmann, and Connie Malamed.

Connect with Other Online Learning Designers

If you’re not already using social media to connect with others, you need to start. There are a number of active communities available to online learning developers. You definitely want to connect with like-minded individuals and leaders in the field of design. This will help you continuously develop your skills and keep current on techniques and research related to online learning.

The are communities available in virtually every social media platform, including Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Find communities you’re comfortable with and start making connections, and you’ll quickly find that these relationships will be the most important continuous development resource you have. This network of colleagues — your personal learning network — will not only help you build on the skills you know you need, but it will also expose you to knew skills you didn’t even know you needed.

You may notice that the first two recommendations I’ve made have nothing to do with developing. That’s intentional. In fact, I haven’t referred to the term “designer” at allI’ve only described the role as an Online Training Developer.

In reality, most online training designers are functionally online training developers, because their focus is on the technical side of the role — getting content into an authoring tool. There is little thought of design, let alone how design is different in an online environment than a classroom environment. So my final tip is to do something about that.

Don’t Allow Online Training to Be Defined By a Template

The vast majority of tools used to build online training use templates. Templates can be helpful, but if we allow them to define our projects, they can be dangerous.

Consider PowerPoint, one of the most basic tools we all commonly use. When you open a new file, the program immediately brings up a template for you (it even includes the words Insert Text right on the screen). Most users start there, plugging in text and maybe tweaking and customizing the look and feel. Online training is too often created the same way, with developers starting within the tool and immediately plugging content into templates.

That’s not design. Design doesn’t start with filling out a template. Design starts with ideas. And design starts with a story.

In a recent interview with Connie Malamed, well-known online designer Kevin Thorn describes this mistake.

“In my view the mistake is … not storyboarding at all and jumping right to development. How can you build a house without a blueprint? How can you build e-learning or a good narrative story without an outline?”

That’s why Thorn starts his projects not with an authoring tool, but with a pencil and paper, capturing ideas and sketching out stories. It enables you to truly design a solution to a performance problem, without allowing the solution to be dictated by a template.

If you want to build successful online training programs, your focus needs to be on how to design them, and less on how to develop them. Excellent books aren’t written because authors know how to use Microsoft Word; they’re written by master storytellers who just happen to use Word to capture their stories.

The same is true for online training designers. Design and development are two separate things, which in organizations are often linked into a single role. Learning the tool is important, but if that’s your primary focus, you’ll struggle as an online training designer. Focus on the story, and then use the tools to deliver it.

David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and ember of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user danstorey14.

For more Daily Mindflash articles on Instructional Design, click here.



  1. Good article
    I used to think online designer and online developers are the same .
    Now I am in doubt. But worse still I did not understand the difference.
    Any help .

  2. 3 Great tips for new people to on-line design. The tip about templates is key and is a tip even experienced designers should take on board. It’s like designing for the training room. Once you have the objectives and module breakdown, you then develop the activities. The workbook, slides and other peripherals should be the last thing to consider. The same applies to on-line learning – which to my mind, should mirror good classroom training and be based around how the brain learns best.
    Thanks for some great ideas.

  3. Jorge De La Garza

    Awesome posting! just noticed a “m” was missing in the word member on the sentence: David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and ***ember of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters.

    Hope it helps. didn’t want others to criticize a great article.

    Have an awesome day!

  4. Bob Zimel

    1) David is definitely not an ember – he is a firecracker

    2) David, I havd already followed Tom Kuhlmann. Thanks for the suggestion to follow Cathy Moore and Connie Malamed.


  5. Catherine Beggs-Hinkson

    Thank you so much for a great article. I have been an upper level elementary teacher for 11 years, over the past year I have been given the opportunitiy to work in the Corporate training world. I have been doing Technical Writing, but I have a Master’s in Instructional Technology. I am conitinually looking for articles that will help inspire my instrucational design career. Thank you for your words of wisdom and your clear advice on design vs. a template. Instructional Design has to be a creative art, that is the way it should be developed. The part that stuck with me the most on this article is, “Focus on the story, then on the tool.” Thanks again!!

Trackbacks for this post

  1. […] this online Twitter chat covered “Three Essential Tips for New Online Trainers” the discussions about metrics for learning resonated with me in another context – our […]

Leave a Reply