IATEFL 2015 | Paul Sweeney: Course (be)ware: key lessons in online course development | Talk summary

Posted: April 14, 2015 in Conferences
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Abstract: I present a summary of lessons learned from the development of a wide range of online courses for teachers and learners in ELT. An experienced developer of ‘e-learning’, I will identify key lessons for the successful development of online courses. This is based on my own experiences and those of a survey of seasoned practitioners in the field of online course development.

Slides available from www.digital-elt.com; white paper coming in about a month from the same site.

Nowadays more and more people are moving into creating online courses.

A lot of people run into problems:

  • publishers – with course delivery
  • teachers – novices to creating content professionally

This talk is based on interviews with people experienced in online course delivery (who have created over 13,000 online course hours between them).


They answered the following question: what were the five biggest problems you faced?

Paul Sweeney decided to categorize the issues by where they happen in the process of course development – issues at different stages might have different impact.


Paul Sweeney decided to use the metaphor of a river:



  • Senior managers (who commission those courses) lack knowledge about them. Vendor surveys are not very informative and don’t give you a good picture of the composition of the costs, especially the ones related to technology (also, vendors have very different goals – e.g. selling a one-off package or continuous support – or simply taking you for a ride).
  • E-learning is not content. It’s a tutorial experience. 95 percent of your effort may go into creating content, but the main question should be in what ways is the used going to interact with this context? E.g. how many learners are prepared to go self-paced, or are they a lot more likely to need teacher support?
  • e-learning content is not ‘copying’. It is very difficult to create content and this difficulty gets vastly underestimated.
  • Some projects are just too ambitious. You can hear, ‘We want a course that would involve 100 hours and we’re aiming to launch in 12-18 months.’ Well, that’s just not realistic

Upper course 

  • Envisioned timescales
  • Reversioning (putting offline content online) – beware! Even if you’ve already got content and don’t plan to change it (which is very unlikely), people often underestimate that content has to be completely broken apart, and this editing is very complex.
  • Scoping: begin with the end in mind. What often happens is writing content that can’t be turned into online content because the tools do not allow that. Also often course developers don’t know what countries / context they have in mind. You need a good developing story and use cases and an understanding in what context / countries /… the content will be used.
  • It’s improtant to keep the following elements in balance: tech / UX – user experience / pedagogy / marketing / operational. Getting excited about one bit of technology isn’t good for pedagogy.
  • Going mobile: many people assume that using HTML5 is the simple answer because it works on all devices. But devices have different screen sizes – small screen experience is completely different etc. You need to ask yourself questions like ‘How will this text be laid out on a small screen? Do questions for the text go after the text? Do they pop up?’
  • The pernicious single platform fallacy
  • DIY authoring platforms – might be extremely difficult to use for writing and everything takes twice as long than it should for writers.

Upper course 

  • Planning & syllabus. Planning, planning, planning. People under-estimate how much planning is needed. It takes weeks.
  • Editors are often not seen as essential part. The thinking goes, ‘Let’s give it to writers and then to technical people’. When there’s no editors, no training of writers (who are often creative responsive classroom teachers, which is not the same thing as ‘a good writer’), no standartisation – this always go wrong.
  • Roleplaying: technology vs. content vs. UX. Content writers need to think through the process of putting it online: the person building the exercise won’t have teaching background / or this will be done automatically.
  • Prototyping. It’s important to develop a proof of concept before creating the whole course.
    20-30 minutes of learners, representative content, sampled in representative context

Middle course

  • Welcome to the sausage machine! How to keep track of hundreds of texts, images, audio clips? Develop naming conventions!
  • Content put together by distributed team – how to build the team and get them to work together properly, especially at the opening stages?
  • Testing & piloting
  • Learning analytics – not only for learners and teachers, but what about from development perspective – what was clicked, etc?

Lower course

  • Product support information & training. Again, it’s wrong to think of a course as ‘content’ or ‘a box’. People buying it need excellent overview information of how this product is put together. How can they flick through it and analyze whether that meets their meets?
  • Testing (you fail). One of the misconceptions about testing is that the developer is a good tester. But you know how it should work. Give it to someone who doesn’t have a clue – you’ll realize what features they’re not using, where they’re missing out etc.

Final notes

Lots of products fail to exploit the potentional of e-learning. We see PPP again, etc. The interactivity isn’t in clickability of the content – it’s about how the users interact with what’s on the screen. How to differentiate between the core content and extra content?

I don’t want to write the platitudes that this was an incredibly useful session (although here I am writing it). What a treasure trove of insight. 


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.


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