4 Key Questions to Ask Before Creating an Online Course

Jill W.

When it comes to creating eLearning, there are a few things you need to know even before you start writing a course outline. You need to determine if eLearning is the right learning solution for your client. The client may think so, but you are the expert. There's nothing worse than going to your first meeting with a Subject Matter Expert (SME) and discovering that he or she thinks that they will be delivering an in-class course or that what they want you to produce are PowerPoint decks for the learners to read.

In this article, I'll cover 4 questions you should ask before creating an online course. The answers will help you create a better course that is appropriate to the learners' requirements and deliver the training that your clients want to deliver.

The Questions

1. Does the Client Need eLearning?

If you work for an eLearning development firm, this question was probably answered in the needs analysis stage of the project. But, if you are an independent instructional designer, the first time this question might be asked is in your initial meeting with your client. They may have decided that they want eLearning without considering:

  • How their training was delivered in the past - Was their previous training in-class or blended delivery? Employees may expect classroom sessions and be resistant to eLearning. When their expectations are not met, learners can become bored, disinterested in learning or simply refuse to learn. Your client may have to do some internal marketing or change management to bring the learners onside.
  • The success of their training - As the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" You need to know how well the training went. Were the in-class or blended sessions successful? What was the pass / fail rate? What kind of feedback was received from learners?

What you find out will help to determine if you are developing an online course, a blended delivery course or an in-class facilitated course.

2. What Training Materials / Content Already Exist?

Aside from your SME, your most important resource in course development is existing training materials. If the proposed course is new, the client may not have any materials, but thanks to the Internet, you can always find enough information to supplement what the SME provides.

You and your SME will have to look at the existing materials and determine if they can be adapted to online delivery. While topics such as policy changes are easily presented online, competency-based training may involve a different approach as it typically involves a physical demonstration of a skill. Blended delivery, where the theory is taught online and the physical demonstration of competency in the skill is done in a classroom or workplace setting, is usually the best way to go with this type of training.

You also need to know how much of the existing materials is relevant. This is especially important in compliance training where changes to rules, regulations or standards that govern an employee's job can mean anything from minor revisions to starting from scratch.

3. Who is the Learning Audience?

Another consideration in developing an eLearning course is the intended audience. Two key factors are:

  • Computer literacy levels
  • Average age of the learner

Computer Literacy Levels

Computer literacy is something that most people take for granted. The Government of Canada -- Employment and Social Development lists computer use as one of nine essential skills that "people need for work, learning and life". But there are people who work where computers are not often required or required at all (e.g. car wash detailers, farm field hands, labourers). Asking workers in such occupations to complete WHMIS or workplace safety courses through eLearning may present challenges that these learners are unable or unwilling to face.

Average Age of the Learner

I am 61 years old. My 10-year-old great-niece recently asked me what computers were like when I was her age. When I told her that we didn't have computers back then, the perplexed look on her face was priceless.

Millennials (those born between 1978 and 2004) have grown up with computers and are more at ease with eLearning than previous generations. They regularly use their laptops, tablets and mobile phones to interact with the world, so mobile learning is a natural fit for this audience. They appreciate the benefits of gamification in eLearning and do well when learning content is delivered as "microlearning".

On the other hand, if the intended audience is older, they may be more accustomed to facilitated training and not be as receptive to eLearning.

4. How Large is the Audience and Where is It Located?

Audience size and location are also factors that help determine the suitability for online course delivery. For example, if your client has 50 employees located in the same city and delivers 1 course per year, the client will be hard-pressed to justify the expense of online course delivery as opposed to running two or three facilitated sessions.

On the other hand, if the client has 50 employees disbursed over a large area of the country, eLearning may be the way to go. Factor the cost of bringing employees to one or more locations, lodging and meals, renting a facility in which to run the sessions and the cost of a facilitator and materials for the sessions and online course delivery may be the more practical choice.

For larger and widely spread audiences, online delivery makes sense for training that does not require physical demonstration or testing of skill competency.


Many of us who write and design learning materials prefer to do so for online delivery simply because it's more enjoyable than developing facilitated courses. Let's face it, writing an eLearning course that features games and branching scenarios is a lot more fun than developing a PowerPoint deck and a participant manual. But the client's needs and requirements come first and it's up to you to deliver.

If your client is adamant that they want an online course even though everything you have learned about them suggests they don't need one, don't argue. Give them what they want and give them the best course you can develop for their dollar. But, if your client can't decide or does not know if an online course is right for them, ask the questions we've discussed. The answers will help you help the client make the decision.

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.