Defining quality learning in self-paced eLearning: Practices and challenges

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This session will engage participants in a discussion on defining quality design practices for self-paced eLearning. We will discuss how self-paced fits into the eLearning landscape, examine theoretical assumptions to determine impactful design choices, and discuss the design challenges.


As an instructional designer with over ten years experience working in higher education, I have run several faculty professional development courses focused on elearning, blended learning, and technology integration in face-to-face classrooms and develop eLearning courses across the higher education academic disciplines. In my current position at University of Wisconsin Madison - within the organization WIDA in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research - I design and develop eLearning training materials for a mass audience of K-12 educators. Previously, I had worked at University of Wisconsin Colleges Online in Madison as part of the state-wide team coordinating the design, development, and delivery of eLearning courses throughout the 2-year colleges across the state. My prior projects also involved coordinating instructional design and instructional technology integration of grant-funded programs, which included education evaluation, classroom technology implementation (iPads and laptops), outcomes assessment, workforce development, project management, and program-level instructional support.

Extended Abstract

The focus of this session is to discuss and establish learning design practices and principles for self-paced eLearning (SPeL) materials – learning tutorials that are delivered without the aid of a facilitator. The central question being asked is: what defines quality instruction when materials are presented without the aid of a facilitator?

SPeL is typically used in professional training contexts, delivered through a human resource office’s training department, or as part of client or product training packages. However, there has been a growing use of self-paced learning for credit-based higher education course support. A SPeL learning course or module contains the learning content, the instructional process, and assessment system typically packaged together and plugged into a learning management system. Software packages such as Articulate 360 or Adobe Captivate are popular tools used to create SPeL materials.

This session will focus on helping instructional designers and developers make better decisions in the production of SPeL materials. This will be accomplished by highlighting aspects of distance education theory, showing examples of design practices, discussing what design choices might enhance the development of SPeL, and present the challenges in developing self-paced materials – particularly related to meeting accessibility standards.

The session will begin with an opening activity, where the presenter will ask groups of participants to list distance education examples between a continuum of formal and informal learning. This information will be recorded on a shared digital workspace used throughout the session. Groups will be then asked to share their ideas while the facilitator asks pre-arranged questions related to the effectiveness, efficiency, and appeal of the examples. Within the spectrum between formal and informal eLearning, the facilitator will establish a threshold that distinguishes self-paced eLearning (SPeL) from other types of eLearning. This will be connected to common theories and practices that influence learning design and in turn, SPeL design. The facilitator will then show examples SPeL courses, while asking participants to provide feedback. The session will conclude with the presentation of design tensions instructional designers and developers face when creating self-paced eLearning. Participants will be asked to reflect on how these tensions impact their design choices.

The premise of this presentation is to acknowledge the use and ubiquity of self-paced eLearning materials within the broader range of eLearning, particularly as it relates to formal and informal learning. Researchers and thought leaders such as Michael Allen (Michael Allen’s Guide to eLearning) and Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer’s (eLearning and the Science of Instruction) have dominated the field of eLearning design and provide design guidance related to SPeL. However, eLearning in higher education means something very different. Michael Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance (TTD) may provide a bridge between formal distance education and SPeL used in professional training design and bridge this gap. Through a session such as this, it may help disentangle conflating definitions of eLearning, and perhaps helps focus on the problems instructional design is meant to solve – impacting behavioral change or improving performance.