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The importance of learning design for online courses

In this post Matt Jenner, a learning developer at FutureLearn, talks about how learning design is crucial when building courses - whether they’re offline or online.

In this post Matt Jenner, a learning developer at FutureLearn, talks about how learning design is crucial when building courses – whether they’re offline or online.

The language of design is often most used by people in industries like graphics, fashion, technology or interiors. It’s a shame, design can be so valuable in other areas too, especially education. From running thousands of courses on FutureLearn, one thing has become clear – a defined phase of learning design early in the course development process makes a big difference in the overall experience.

What is design?

Broadly, design is the opportunity to visualise something before it’s been built. A design stage is an exciting place to be; things remain malleable, creativity (hopefully) flows, changes are quick, testing happens early, and ideally, often.

There are plenty of established design processes, varying across industries. In our design processes we put the user at the centre (when it comes to making courses this might be learners, educators or even FutureLearn staff). Usually you’ll have multiple iterations of a design during the process and with each iteration the design should get stronger and closer to the final thing you’re hoping to create.

Although this process takes time it’s worth every second because you end up with a more robust solution which saves time in the future. Design helps you mitigate any issues before travelling down the much longer, one-way, road of development.

Design for online courses

Design is just one stage of a larger course creation process, with each stage informed by the last:


These five steps are quite established in education and learning design. The model above is an adaptation of the ADDIE course design model (Analysis > Design > Development > Implementation > Evaluation) and this is used by instructional designers and training developers to create online and blended courses and training packages.

Designs must be flexible

A good course design isn’t rigid. lt should remain flexible enough to accommodate change in future, it’s never a finished delivered product because inevitable variation between cohorts of learners means it must be able to accommodate change. Say your course design seems sound, but analysing learner data might show you one step where everyone is skipping over – your design needs to be flexible enough to rethink that step.


Make time for design

Courses obviously don’t just happen, creating them is a coordinated team effort. Prioritising a course design phase means the whole team can have time to explore ideas, make mistakes and refine their thinking. Skipping the design phase and performing it ad-hoc means you often end up with a course that’s either jumbled, and confusing for learners, or disappointingly unengaging, so learners get bored. You simply cannot afford to skip the design phase.

Learning design at FutureLearn

At FutureLearn we work with our partners to create high level course designs, especially for new courses. We ask educators to consider the following key areas for each step of their course:

  • What is being covered conceptually by the step?
  • How will learners engage with the learning?
  • Why is it important to the course and their overall learning journey?
  • What discussion prompt will you set?
  • What’s the expected duration for this step?

These open prompts should lead to the creation of a course overview which goes into just enough detail to explain what’s happening (and why) but still retains enough scope for refining ideas, identifying gaps and moving things around. High-level designs can then be used for quality assurance and to help mitigate any issues before producing the course.

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