Designing e-learning can be a costly and time-consuming activity. The traditional ADDIE process for design is comfortable for many designers and project managers, but it rarely creates truly engaging and instructionally interactive applications. Instead, most e-learning created using the storyboards typical of the ADDIE process results in lessons that are little more than content narratives with inserted comprehension questions and pasted-on media.
Rapid prototyping and iterative design is a powerful alternative method for designing e-learning programs and is more appropriate for achieving true instructional interactivity and valued performance outcomes.
What is rapid prototyping?
Rapid prototyping is an established method for software design that is especially appropriate for e-learning applications. In this iterative process, initial design ideas are proposed and then represented in very rough form in an online, working prototype that is created with minimal investment of time and resources.
Content is rough, graphics are crude, and actual functionality is usually improvised and incomplete. Prototypes may not even be built using the same tool that ultimately will be used to author the application. However, the prototype does need to represent the kernel of instruction that will allow the entire team, including target users, to make informed and powerful assessments of the design and crucial improvements before wasting time and money doing the wrong thing.
Prototypes are reviewed and refined through a few iterations (three is usually appropriate), culminating in the creation of a reasonably complete and descriptive functional prototype. This functional prototype defines required functionality of the instructional interactivity, along with course controls and navigation. It also stipulates guidelines for media and content.
The interface look-and-feel graphics are created to support the design as defined by the prototype, rather than the typical approach of forcing content into some predefined interface. Content documents (usually text documents or spreadsheets) are written so that, taken together with the functional prototypes, the developer has a complete roadmap from which to implement the design.
How it works
Rapid prototyping and iterative design works when the team embraces some core assumptions about e-learning design and development.
- The goal is to create effective instruction. (This seems ludicrous to stipulate, but many e-learning development teams perform under a management philosophy that just getting somethinganything online is good enough.)
- Good e-learning is achieved by creating a memorable and meaningful experience that motivates the learner and incorporates actual performance behaviors in the interactivity.
- Good instructional design is not a prescriptive or rote process. It benefits from experience, experimentation, shared responsibility across all team members (subject matter experts, designers, managers, developers, media specialists), and validation with end users.
Selection of the prototyping tool is important. Here are some guidelines.
- The prototyping tool must be able to represent (at least crudely) all types of interactivity available in the delivery environment. For example, Dreamweaver is rarely used to deliver full e-learning programs, but it is a decent prototyping environment because one can represent the range of available response gestures pretty easily.
- The tool should allow easy modification to a prototype without having to start from scratch. In general, Flash is not an ideal prototyping tool in that interactive elements are too cumbersome to modify quickly without rebuilding.
- The prototyper needs to be adept enough in using the tool, such that little time is spent pondering exactly how to build the prototype. Effort should be spent on creative thinking at this stage, not on technical wizardry or cleverness.
- It is critical that prototyping be rapid. Initial prototypes should take about an hour or so to develop. If prototypes take longer than that, you need a better prototyping tool, or you are prototyping in too much detail.
Rapid prototyping as a design methodology has several key advantages over traditional storyboarding and the ADDIE method. First it focuses on the key element of effective e-learning - the instructional interactivity. The designer's (and indeed, the whole team's) focus is on the creative element of design and instruction. Because end users are able to review and provide useful input early in the design process, rapid prototyping also results in e-learning programs that tend to be accepted by the target population more fully.
With full team involvement throughout the design process, the animosity and contention between team members is reduced dramatically. And perhaps most importantly for project management, the development activities can be carried out quickly and with little rework and cost over-runs because design elements are already validated before costly investments are made in technical programming or media creation.
Why it works
Rapid prototyping maintains all the essential elements required for instructional design (analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation), but it employs an iterative process where these tasks are done in smaller segments, cycling back to complete the tasks after initial ideas have been validated.
Online prototypes are uniquely valuable in that they provide a way to represent and evaluate design ideas for computer delivery - something simply impossible to achieve with paper-based storyboards. Most importantly, it encourages creative problem solving and application of the best that all team members have to offer to solve the issue at hand.