Designing Effective Digital Training through Backwards Design

So now that you’ve decided upon a Learning Management System (LMS), you’re faced with the task of designing effective training content. To make sure that your staff and volunteers are well prepared for service, here are a few guidelines to design the most effective digital training course possible.

Set Clear Learning Outcomes

What do you want your online training participants to know and be able to do? Asking this question before you begin designing your training will ensure that each of your required activities are tied to a specific desired outcome.  Often referred to as “backwards design”, this approach keeps the end in mind.

Write down a list of specific desired knowledge & skills. For instance, if you want your volunteers to know your organization’s mission, vision, and programs, be sure to include this information in your training. If you want your staff and volunteers to be able to communicate the mission, vision, and program overview to others, include an assignment that requires learners to explain this important information in their own words, either through writing or video.  If you want your staff and volunteers to know about proper volunteer attire, include an activity where they must demonstrate this knowledge. If you want your volunteers to be able to safely serve food using the latest food safety standards, design your training so that they will demonstrate they have learned this skill.

A good reminder before launching your training is to double check that every assignment, question, reading, or video is directly tied to one of the learning outcomes you have set. Avoiding superfluous material will save you and your volunteers valuable time.  

Create Relevant & Diverse Activities & Assessments

Once you’ve set clear learning outcomes, continue to “work backwards” by designing the activities and assessments that will demonstrate a learner has acquired the skills and knowledge to complete their volunteer and/or staff role.

Include a variety of question types that gauge the learner’s comprehension of the material. Depending on the complexity and depth of understanding you’re hoping your volunteers achieve, you’ll want to design assessments that help to reach your goals. 

Generally speaking, there are two types of questions: objective and subjective. If possible, include both types in your training.

Objective Assessments

These questions have one correct answer. Think true/false, matching, and multiple choice questions. These types of questions are pretty easy to deliver online and can provide immediate feedback to trainees. The challenge is to create quality questions that accurately measure knowledge & skills. Think about what makes a response correct versus incorrect to avoid confusing your volunteers. Always keep your goal in mind when crafting these questions: what do I want my volunteers and staff to know and be able to do?

Subjective Assessments

These types of questions may have more than one correct answer, such as essays, short answer, and oral questions. While providing a much better indicator of what the learner is truly comprehending, subjective assessments do take more time to review.

“One factor to consider about subjective assessments is the amount of time it will take you to provide feedback to the learners, and scaling your process to meet the number of students in your course… consider developing a peer review process where learners assess each other’s work.” (MIT-OEIT)

Advantages of this type of questioning is that it provides you with an authentic and more expansive understanding of each learner’s knowledge of a subject. This will help you assess the depth of learning that is taking as described by Bloom’s taxonomy below.

Depth of Learning with Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (knowledge-based learning) can help you think about what types of activities would be appropriate for your training. Do you want your volunteers to simply remember material so they can recite what they’ve learned? Or is your goal to reach deeper levels of learning such as understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, or ultimately to create their own product? Referencing this Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy guide can help you design the right kinds of activities for your digital training.

Design Engaging Lessons

The beauty of digital learning is that there’s ZERO space for the more traditional (and often boring!) lecture-based education. When designing lessons, always put yourself in your trainees’ shoes. Would you want to sit through an hour video of someone talking at the camera in a monotone voice, going over slides in the background? Absolutely not. While the possibilities of designing engaging digital lessons are nearly limitless, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Tip #1: Keep it Short

Like, really short. Consider checking out University of Pennsylvania’s 60-Second Lecture Series to get inspired about how much rich and effective content can be boiled down to a minute (or two)

Tip #2: Props are Powerful

In one of the 60 second lectures mentioned above, Paul Hendrickson assembles a fly rod during his minute lecture “Why Fly-Fishing is a Zen Experience” and demonstrates his point beautifully, fully pulling the listener into his presentation.

Tip #3: Stories Entertain & Illustrate

After falsely warning his village four times that a wolf was breaching the town boundaries, Peter was ignored when he was screaming frantically while being chased by a wolf in the outskirts of town.

It is important to always be honest so that you will be believed when it is most important.

Which one of the above statements is more entertaining while also getting the point across?

Point made.

Tip #4: No Need to Reinvent the Wheel

Repurposing and/or adapting ready made content and materials can save you time and sometimes improve the quality of your training.  Keeping in mind content licensing laws, there are many venues to access and share open materials. The Creative Commons offers an extensive, searchable database of media with flexible licensing. 

And of course it’s a good idea to brush up about licensing so that your organization understands the legal parameters surrounding the dissemination, re-posting, and re-mixing of ready-prepared content. Loads of resources are readily available online for lesson creators (such as this)… and perhaps consider asking that your staff and volunteers understand this information as well.

Tip #5: Take an online training course (or two, or three)

With the explosion of digital learning, there are sooo many opportunities for you to learn something new, while also immersing yourself in a variety of approaches for digital course design. Pay attention to what is effective and what feels excess. Notice what brings you in and what turns you off. Is the lesson too long? Are the questions too confusing? Becoming a student yourself will perhaps be the best way to ensure you are being the best teacher.

Here are a few great nonprofit support organizations offering some digital trainings. 

  • TechSoup Courses: Expert-led tech training designed for nonprofits and libraries (Fee-based)
  • Nonprofit Bootcamp: A program of Wallace Center at Winrock International geared towards food-system based nonprofits but applicable to almost all nonprofits
  • Nonprofit Ready.org: Unlimited Access to Over 500 Free Learning Resources on Essential Nonprofit Skills: Engaging courses, helpful videos, and downloadable guides to support the most common jobs in the sector 

What are some sites or digital learning lessons that you find to be especially effective?

Some of the content included in this post was adapted from the Online Course Design Guide, produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (MIT-OEIT), in collaboration with the New Media Consortium (NMC). We encourage you to check it out!

Courtney Baines is Content Specialist for ServeHub. She has over 10 years experience in the nonprofit world, serving as a Founder, Program Director, and Executive Director for a variety of organizations. With a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, she specializes in curriculum design, nonprofit success, science literacy, and interdisciplinary education.