Where do you start when designing online programs?

Where do you start when you’re developing online (or indeed any other) educational programs for adult learners? In Design for How People Learn (2012), one of my favorite resources on instructional design, author Julie Dirksen suggests asking, “Where’s the gap?” In other words, what do your adult learners need or want to learn? Do you know?

Often the gap is a knowledge gap. What information is needed? As educators, we assume that if we just give learners the right information, as we define it, they will achieve great things. Moreover, since we educators know a lot, we assume that offering more knowledge is even better. Our programs are chock full of information and therefore knowledge, right? But, do our programs address a gap for our learners? Is the content relevant to their needs or wants? Do our programs or resources include so much information that it’s difficult for learners to process the content into knowledge?

Providing information and knowledge is essential in developing in-person and online programs, but “you also want your learners to know what to do with that information” (Dirksen, p. 5). Just having information isn’t enough.

In Extension, we hope learners are able to take knowledge they gain and apply or use it. If that’s our intent, we need to design learning experiences that also address an identified skills gap, again based on learners’ specific needs or wants. Such learning experiences need to include both knowledge and an opportunity to practice new skills or behaviors. Dirksen uses the example of hiking the Appalachian Trail. You can memorize a guidebook, but you still need to acquire certain skills before you begin the journey. You want to know how to start a fire, treat water and put up a tent. Skills require practice to master. That practice should be part of the learning experience design.

Dirksen suggests that if we do a good job at identifying the gaps, we can design better learning opportunities. A good launching point is to ask, “What is it that my learners need or want from the programs I create?” Start there.


Dirksen, J. (2012) Design for How People Learn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders

Guest Blogger: Sharon Cowen, Community Development Field Specialist, Hillsborough County


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