Over decades of experience, the number one stumbling block I have seen to choosing the right online learning platform for selling courses is that people don’t take the time to really clarify their business and learning objectives or articulate a crystal clear, detailed view of the types of user experiences they aim to provide.
I think this happens for a couple of reasons.
First, it takes time and effort. Some people just aren’t willing to or don’t have the discipline to put in that time and effort, but I don’t think that’s the problem for most course creators. Most of us are busy – often too busy. We’re unlikely to devote time to an activity we don’t fully understand – and that points to the second reason:
Most people don’t really understand what setting business and learning objectives or formulating use cases involves.
So, in this article, my aim is to help readers better understand what’s involved in setting objectives – including why objectives matter – and developing use cases. More importantly, by sharing this knowledge, my aim is to better equip you to confidently choose the right online learning platform for your course business.
Why Objectives Matter
First, why the focus on objectives?
Partly it’s because if you don’t know where you are going, your chances of getting there are much lower.
When you don’t have clear objectives for your online course platform, you can easily get overwhelmed, distracted by bells and whistles, and bogged down with “paralysis by analysis.” You not only don’t reach your destination, you never really get started.
Or – possibly better, often worse – you just roll the dice and go with something that looks good or that semi-famous person “X” is using. Maybe it works okay for you at first, but down the road you discover glaring gaps that set you business back and have you pulling your hair out.
Clear objectives help you avoid all of that. Even if they don’t lead to the perfect platform, they at least ensure you move forward with your eyes wide open, aware of issues that are likely to come up in the future.
Another reason that objectives are so important is that selecting an online course platform is a decision process and – for the same reasons just covered – objectives are foundational to that process.
Any good decisions process is going to start with objectives, then consider alternatives – i.e., the options for achieving the objectives – then weigh any key risks involved before arriving at the decision.
The problem with so many of the decisions we make – and online learning platforms are not exception – is that we start with the alternatives. And – particularly since we don’t have clear objectives to consider them against – we don’t properly weigh the risks.
So, let’s try to avoid that.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time getting technical about what counts as an objective (e.g., vs. a goal) or how to word one in the most appropriate way. I find that kind of thing just usually leads to people throwing up their arms in exasperation. Rather, I’ll focus on the areas that tend to be the real substance of objectives.
The following sections outline some of the key areas you may want to have in mind as you consider what you are trying to achieve from a business and learning perspective – and, as a result, what an online course platform needs to support. The point is not to address every area in detail, but to identify the ones that are truly most important to achieving your goals.
Business Objective Areas
These are areas that relate to what you aim to achieve from a business standpoint. It is very different, for example, to be the sole creator of few courses offered through a single channel versus a business that will collaborate with multiple course creators and distribute the courses through multiple channels. A clear understanding of where you are trying to go from a business standpoint is critical for choosing the right platform.
- You as sole creator – Guru
- Other creators – Convener
- Licensed content – Aggregator
- Diversity of offerings – How different will your offerings be from each other?
- Quantity of offerings – How many offerings will you have?
- Frequency of updates – How often will you need to update your content?
- Scope of updates – How substantial will the updates likely be?
- Single channel – all users have a single point of entry
- Multi-channel, single platform – users from different groups can have different points of entry
- Multi-channel, multi-platform – courses need to be accessible on your platform as well as other platforms (e.g., a corporate client’s learning management system)
- One-time fees
- Bundling – combining a course with other courses and/or non-course offerings (e.g., books, coaching)
- Discounting (based on code, user type, time period, etc.)
- Affiliate relationships/channel partners
Customer Management & Support
- Intimate/Active/White Glove
- Forms of assistance from platform provider
- With your current business/operating model
- With your current technologies (e.g., e-mail platform, CRM)
- With new technologies
Investment level [ROI]
- Revenue – Realistically, what’s your potential upside?
- Investment – What does it make sense to spend (considering all other costs, including your own time)?
- Timing – How soon and how consistently will you need/have cashflow?
Again, these aren’t meant to be exhaustive. You may have other areas that it is important for you to address. The main thing is to try to be detailed about what any new objective areas you identify involve – i.e., bullet out what the possibilities/details are for the objective, as I have above, and get clear about how they do or don’t apply to what you need to achieve with a course platform.
As you go through this process, you are going to identify needs that will rule out online learning platforms you may be considering. That’s exactly what you are aiming for. Being clear about the objectives leads to a narrower set of alternatives to consider.
Learning Objective Areas
These are areas that relate to what you aim to achieve from a learning standpoint. To a certain extent, this may be an artificial distinction – if your business is education, then your learning objectives really are business objectives.
Still, it is useful to distinguish between business and learning objectives when making a platform choice. Keep in mind that these are high-level objectives – again, at a business level. These are not the more narrow learning objectives you should develop for particular lessons or courses.
Course creators should be aiming to deliver one or more major positive outcomes to their learners. Think of these along the following lines:
- Level of outcome – Do you aim to support a simple shift in knowledge and comprehension or are you shooting for a shift in applied skills or even long-term behavior?
- Validity of the outcome – How will you establish that the learner has achieved the target outcomes? Through testing? Through graded assignments? Through detailed requirements and certification?
- Sustainability of the outcome – How much responsibility for ensuring the learning you facilitate is sustained over time, e.g., through follow-on assessments and evaluations, dripping our reinforcement content.
What methods would best support the types and levels of learning outcomes you want to help learners achieve? There are hundreds of instructional methods from lectures to case studies, to group work, to interactive exercises, to quizzes. Remember that very often there are multiple instructional methods that can be used to achieve a particular outcome. Rather than trying to anticipate every one you might use, consider the broader needs that different methods may address:
- Degree of interaction with learners – To what extent is it important for you to interact with learners, if at all? Is lecturing enough, or do you need to be available for Q&A, coaching, mentoring, etc.?
- Degree of interaction among learners – Will learners benefit from interacting with each other, if at all, and how structured or not does that interaction need to be?
- Degree of interaction with content – Is your expectation that learners simply view or listen to content or will they need to engage with it somehow, whether through lower tech approaches like reflection or higher tech approaches like clicking on hotspots or branching to different content based on performance?
- Assessment of learning – To what extent will learners benefit from assessment, and of what type – e.g., self-checks, pre-assessments, post assessments, graded assignments? What types of feedback need to be provided and at what point – e.g., per question, at the end of an assessment?
- Timing and location – Where and when does it make most sense for your learners to access the learning experiences you offer? Can they set aside scheduled time to interact with you and/or other learners? Can they only engage when time allows? Is providing content they can use in the flow of work – e.g., just-in-time job support – desirable?
How might you best use a range of different media options to support the methods above and help learners achieve the desired outcomes? Consider:
What types of content align best with your teaching style, with what you know about your learners, and with the business and learning outcomes you aim to achieve? Again, there are hundreds, if not thousands of variations on basic media types. Be careful to consider how much flexibility a platform offers with uploading, linking out to, configuring, managing access to, and tracking use of the following types of content:
- On screen-text – short and long-form; linked/non-linked
- Video – created by you or others; interactive/passive
- Audio – in the course, in a podcast
- Graphics – still and animated
Media can be delivered and accessed in a variety of ways, both within in your course platform and outside of it. Options include:
- Face-to-face classroom
- On-demand online (e.g., in self-paced courses, instructional videos)
- Real-time online (e.g., webinars, chat)
- Asynchronous online (e.g., discussion)
Keep in mind that all of the above can be blended together – e.g., you may offer some on-demand content in combination with periodic webinars if that aligns with the business and learning objectives you have defined. Additionally, not all of the online activity has to happen within your course platform. It may make sense, for example, for some of it to happen on social media. Finally, all of the digital experiences above may take place on desktop or laptop, a table, or a mobile phone. The degree to which you need to ensure your platform can support these channels will depend on what you know about your audience’s typical online habits and your learning objectives.
Again, getting clear about the objectives helps to narrow the alternatives. There are a lot of platforms that do not support anything more than basic learning outcomes very well – often because they don’t support the methods or media that would be best for achieving those outcomes.
Online Learning Platform Use Cases
Just having clear business and learning objectives will put you light years ahead of most people in making an online learning platform decision, but to really get the most out those objectives, you need to map them to use cases and then to the requirements most essential for supporting those use cases.
What Are Use Cases?
Use cases are basically user scenarios that accurately describe the most critical functions you expect your online learning platform to support. The basic idea behind use cases is that choices about technology should be driven by the desired user behavior and outcomes to support your objectives. Ideally, they should be developed before any focus on specific features and should then drive your review of features as you vet platform alternatives.
Developing Use Cases
Once you have identified your most critical business and learning objectives, create brief descriptions of what a user (which may mean you, a learner, a collaborator, or a client organization) will experience in the course of supporting that objective. This may sound somewhat daunting, but it doesn’t need to be a complicated process. Use a simple structure like the following for your short list of the most critical objectives:
- Use Case
So, for example:
|To sell my catalog of courses to businesses who will have their employees log into my platform to access the courses||An employee at my client company views my list/ catalog of courses; finds one she likes and clicks to enroll; during checkout, she puts in an enrollment code an administrator at her company has given her; once she clicks submit, she is able to automatically access the courses she selected. The administrator at the company can log into my site and see that the employee has enrolled and also see her progress through the course. This administrator can only see employees at her company.||Ability to create enrollment codes with limits on number of uses Ability for a client employee to enter the enrollment code during checkout to zero out the cost of one or more courses Ability for a client administrator to log into my course platform and see the progress of her company’s students and only her company’s students|
The reason to do this is that you want to see/be shown that any platform you seriously consider can actually deliver an experience like the one described in the use case.
And, to be clear, the goal is not to create dozens and dozens of use cases. Focus on the ones that you really need a platform to nail if it is going to successfully deliver on the key business and learning objective areas.
Vetting the Alternatives
Having gone through the process I describe above, you are now in a position to vet potential platforms with a much clearer idea of have they must do for you. I guarantee you this will enable you rule out a lot of platforms very quickly, cutting down massively on the sense of overwhelm and confusion that cam come with choosing an online course platform.
Yes, it takes a bit of time and effort – you may easily end up spending a few hours to work through everything above – but your platform is an important business decision and taking some time to think through it up front just makes sense.
As you move toward actually kicking the tires on platforms, I’d encourage you to also consider what type of learning business you are or aim to be. Armed with that knowledge and your clear objectives and use cases, consider the online learning platforms I highlight here and/or here.
While you are at it, I also strongly recommend you grab my free course platform selection guide, which comes with a spreadsheet you can use to organize and prioritize your requirements and score the platforms you review.
See also:Pete Linforth from Pixabay