Developing interactive online content – What it takes to succeed?

Online course content development is a key phase of the entire course development process. It requires active participation and collaboration of all team members: Project coordinator, subject matter experts, instructional designers, media specialists, and technical support team. Each of them has an important role to play ensuring the quality of the final product.

In this post, we assume that the analysis and design phases have been completed successfully, and the course specification had been created, discussed, and approved. Development of engaging, interactive, and the relevant online content based on specification requirements will be analyzed in this post.

Subject matter expert (SME) prepares the course material

The main responsibility of the subject matter expert is to prepare the course material which covers all learning objectives, respective activities, and assessments. The material SME provides may contain:

  • Presentations,
  • Lecture notes;
  • Handouts;
  • Manuals;
  • Documentation;
  • Case studies;
  • Assignments;
  • Discussion topics;
  • Assessments;
  • Illustrative material;
  • Reference material.

The list of provided materials depend on the nature of the course and its complexity level. Usually, the provided course materials had been collected and accumulated during in-class delivery of the respective course. Existing material can’t be automatically digitized; for online delivery it needs to be re-organized, re-structured, and adapted to new learning environment.

The provided material should be aligned with the learning outcomes and divided into online lessons. It is important to remember that one online lesson should not take longer than 30 min learning time. Regarding the number of content pages, it is difficult to make any suggestions since it depends on what other objects except online text will be placed on the screen: questions, mini-cases, diagrams, external links, animations or any other objects.

Working on the course material, SME should follow the following recommendations:

  • Review course learning outcomes before developing the content;
  • Assessments must be aligned with learning outcomes and respective portions of the course content;
  • Course material should provide knowledge and skills which are stated in the learning outcomes.

Since online learners have different background and different reasons for enrolling into the course, it is recommended to define:

  • compulsory scope (must know) – the part of the content learners need to understand and know;
  • optional scope (nice to know)- the part of the content learners may skip.

When writing the content for online course, SME should follow some language requirements:

  • keep sentences short;
  • use simple sentences;
  • use active voice;
  • avoid jargon;
  • express ideas clear and concise;
  • use bulleted list where appropriate;
  • when referring to learners, use personal pronouns.

The content prepared by SME will be used by other team members to prepare the given material for online delivery.

Instructional designer (ID) decides on online content presentation

To make course material suitable for online delivery, ID makes very important decisions regarding online content delivery:

  • Lesson storyboard structure;
  • Use of instructional techniques to present the online content;
  • Supplementing content with examples and media elements;
  • Adding practical exercises and assessments to the content.

Lesson storyboard structure

Lesson storyboard defines the structure of each online lesson. ID reorganizes material provided by SME into the sequence of slides which are arranged according to storyboard requirements. I usually suggest having the following elements in the lesson storyboard:

  • 1)Lesson title – 1 slide;
  • 2)Lesson learning objectives – 1 slide;
  • 3)Introduction – 1-2 slides;
  • 4)Content – 20-22 slides;
  • 5)Summary of the lesson – 1 slide

Core element of the lesson storyboard is the content which can be presented by 20-22 slides containing text, examples, questions, and media elements.

Content presentation techniques

One of the most important tasks is to choose the suitable content presentation techniques:

  • Storytelling. It provides an information through a story narrative, it uses illustrations: pictures, animations, and videos. Storytelling is suitable when online courses are created to develop job-specific skills and knowledge; it is suitable to describe processes and different roles involved. Storytelling highlights how knowledge can be applied in real-life situations.
  • Scenario-based technique. Lesson content is built around a scenario which represent a challenging situation, and the learners are required to make decisions. This technique allows providing a feedback on the decisions made. This technique helps to learn strategic principles by applying them to the concrete situation. It works well when developing decision-making, communication, and interpersonal skills. This technique requires strong cooperation between ID and SME.
  • Toolkit. An online lesson can be presented in the form of a toolkit when learners are encouraged to select topics they are interested most. Toolkit lessons are suitable when the short pieces of the content describe different and independent options, parts, or processes. Learners are encouraged to navigate freely since the logical order is not important.
  • Demonstration-practice technique is used to learn step-by-step procedures. It provides demonstrations and then learners can to practice by repeating all the actions. It is a popular technique when learning some IT procedures, security operations, banking operations, etc.

Adding examples and media elements

Examples can be used:

  • to illustrate a concept, show the steps of a procedure, explain practical application of the concept which has been previously introduced;
  • to stimulate thinking and reflection before offering definitions and principles.

Integrating media elements.

Different media elements that can be combined to create online lessons. It is important to keep in mind that media elements should enhance learning and make it more effective. Using too many media will create the overload on students’ memory and attention, and the expected learning result will not be achieved.

Usually, the online content comprises the following media elements:

Text. Written text is used for representing the course content. The following principles apply when displaying the text: readability, consistency, clearness, and proper arrangement.

Graphics. Graphics include illustrations, pictures, diagrams, flow charts, and icons. Graphics serve different purposes: representation, decoration, information organization, and interpretation. Graphics are making course content attractive and interesting, and catching learners’ attention.

Animations. This type of media can be used to demonstrate a set of procedural steps or transformations. It is recommended to have not more than one animation available on the screen and to allow students to control the animated movie.

Audio. Audio increases the effectiveness of the course and it can be used in combination with the text to summarize or expand explanation or to accompany other media elements.
Video. Video helps to reproduce the behavior, communication patterns, processes, and procedures. It can be used to present and interpret case study. Long video fragments are not recommended integrating into the course since it can slow down the connection.

Adding practical exercises and assessments to the content

Practical exercises and assessment questions reinforce the achievement of learning objectives. Questions keep learners’ attention, and it is important to have them in the storyboard.

The purpose of practical exercises and assessments depends on of the specific content:

  • memorization of facts;
  • understanding of concepts and processes; and
  • application of procedures in real life situations.

There are several types of questions which are commonly used in online courses:

  • True/False;
  • multiple choice;
  • multiple responses;
  • matching;
  • ordering;
  • fill-in-the-blank; and
  • short answer/essay.

Sometimes, educators are getting into discussion about the validity of certain type of questions. My approach is:

  • Quality assessment tool should contain different types of questions suitable for the evaluation of the specific content;
  • Questions should serve to evaluate learning efficiency and course quality;
  • Questions should evaluate achievement of learning outcomes.


In this post, we explored the main activities of the online content development process. The process itself is complex, and it involves experts from different areas. We discussed the contribution of the SME to the course content development and the typical structure of a storyboard and the main elements of the lesson.

We analyzed the importance of instructional techniques and their impact on quality of online courses. We discovered that examples facilitate understanding of concepts and application of strategic principles, and media elements are used to illustrate the content. Practical exercises and assessments facilitate the achievement of learning objectives.


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