Review: The eLearning Designer’s Handbook

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Overall Review

Tim Slade, The eLearning Designer's Handbook: A practical guide to the eLearning development process for new eLearning designers, 2nd edition.

Tim Slade’s The eLearning Designer’s Handbook offers an essential roadmap to those entering the field of eLearning. Simply put, if you’re starting out, this book should be at your right hand. The book will also be a welcome guide for anyone who finds themselves “accidentally” creating eLearning but without a sufficiently clear view of how the entire process should work.

Though aimed at “new” designers, Tim’s trove of wisdom gained through years of trial and error will help readers of all experience levels to avoid pitfalls and to add effective development strategies to their toolbox. eLearning design and development, especially given the availability of rapid authoring tools like Articulate Storyline, can seem deceptively simple. As each of this book’s ten major sections demonstrates, however, there are a surprising number of ways that things can go off the rails.

There are also many steps that, if done right, have a beneficial, cascading effect on everything that comes after. Tim has seen it all and each chapter is filled with suggestions for avoiding miscommunication, stress, and disaster while smoothing out the development process and strengthening the project’s learning potential. Almost every page has an off-hand suggestion or observation that could help keep a project on the right path.

This handbook will have lasting value on any eLearning designer’s bookshelf. Get it.

The Most Valuable Parts

There’s potentially a lot to discuss about this book. Everyone who reads it will have different takeaways that address their own particular questions, struggles, and knowledge gaps. I’m going to highlight below the three aspects of the book that I found most valuable on my first read-through.

I’m not saying these are THE three main takeaways from Tim’s book. Rather, they’re the ones that stuck with me given my current learning and experience. For instance, having just taken a great course on Needs Analysis, Tim’s discussion of the topic was useful for me but not necessarily earth shaking. But his following discussion about kickoff meetings and creating project plans and timelines was a true “wow!” moment.

You’ll probably find that different parts of the book speak differently to your needs and interests. That is because there is a lot here!

Kickoff Meetings Roadmap

The section outlining how to plan a kickoff meeting and what steps to take immediately afterward struck me as pure gold. Tim discusses whom to invite to the meeting and how to make sure the right people are in the room (and the wrong ones aren’t). If you’re new to instructional design or transitioning from a different field, such as education, you’ll be glad to have a sketch of all the different people who will be there, their roles and common concerns, and how to make sure you’re on the right page with each.

But even if you’ve held kickoff meetings before, Tim’s set of fifteen essential questions to answer in the meeting will get your mental wheels turning. I guarantee at least one of his suggestions will either be added to your normal list of questions or become a useful variant.

Working with SMEs and Stakeholders

Tim’s emphasis on aligning SMEs’ and stakeholders’ expectations during a kick-off meeting, rather than focusing on the details of content and learning outcomes at the outset, speaks to another of this book’s invaluable features. Tim has many years of experience working with all sorts of SMEs on all sorts of projects and his wisdom on this topic suffuses the book.

Throughout, he points out common problems or potential misunderstandings as well as how and when to communicate with your SMEs and stakeholders. Many of these discussions in the book are brief, but they can put very important things on your radar.

For instance, in the section on prototypes and reviews, Tim includes suggestions for helping your stakeholders understand how to review a course and includes a warning that stakeholders often unexpectedly bring in additional people to the review process. The reminder to be proactive and find out who these people might be and to include them as early as possible is the type of small tip found throughout this book that will save huge headaches later.

Learning Theory

While most of the book explores the process of taking an eLearning project from start to finish, sections on learning theory at the beginning and end are presented in an extremely useful format. Tim presents compact overviews of the research of Malcolm Knowles (andragogy), David Merrill (task-based learning), John Sweller (cognitive load theory), and Donald Kirkpatrick (four levels of evaluation).

Just as you might expect from the keyboard of an accomplished instructional designer, Tim does a great job of effectively boiling down their research and demonstrating how to make practical use of it in eLearning course design.

The concluding section discusses measuring the effectiveness of your course (a step easily skipped by harried designers). Tim offers a game plan for how to do it well and relatively painlessly.

Bonus Favorite: Example Design Documents

Throughout the book, Tim gives examples of the types of documents that will be a lifeline when development woes, surly SMEs, or tight deadlines begin to pull a project off track. These include a sample project plan, project timeline, storyboards, and my favorite, his sample “design document.”

Getting to see how a seasoned pro conceptualizes both the guardrails and the core content of the major stages of course design and development is worth the price of admission.

Final words

In sum: early career eLearning designers will wear this handbook out while pros will still find valuable tips, hacks, and examples throughout. If you are an eLearning designer, get this book.