Making eLearning is Like Making a Movie

You can think of developing eLearning as being like producing a play or movie. As an eLearning developer, you are the director and producer. Your overall screenplay defines what your movie will be about and how it will flow is your instructional design. Your script includes what the audio narration will say, and your script writer may be your subject matter expert (SME). The actors are the visual assets (photos, illustrations, bullet points, on-screen text, etc.) that will enter and exit the stage timed with audio as you specify. As a director, you need to select your cast (choose your graphics) and tell them when they will be on the stage. You also want to make sure that your graphics do not upstage one another and are not rushed in and out of view so fast that your viewer does not have time to notice and appreciate them.

eLearning Visual Flow Fundamentals

  • Graphics support the content: Ensure that high quality graphics are used and specifically support the content being discussed. Avoid using “eye candy” graphics that may look really great but have little to nothing to do with the content being delivered.
  • Visual timing flows with the narration: As you plan your audio/visual timing, avoid large visual gaps where nothing is changing visually on the screen. Conversely, avoid adding a lot of fast moving graphics coming in and out of view so frequently that the learner is distracted by the visuals and doesn’t absorb the content.
  • Animations make sense: Avoid “antsy animations” that constantly rotate, flash, or move around with no purpose. Animations should support the content (e.g., flow chart arrows, text fading in and out, etc.) and not simply continue moving for no reason. Antsy animations are like a child tugging at your shirt begging for attention while you are in the middle of an important conversation.

The Importance of an eLearning Storyboard
Before embarking on eLearning development, it is highly recommended that you plan out and document the visuals you propose to create and how these visuals will be supported by your narration, and create any other media notes to describe exactly what will be developed. This document is called a storyboard, and it serves many important purposes. First, a storyboard makes it possible to communicate to other stakeholders (your client, boss, etc.) exactly what you propose to build, and it gives them a way to give you direction, edits, and most importantly their “sign-off.” Once the project owner approves this blueprint, you can build exactly to these specifications and defend your work against “scope creep.” You can also distinguish between a change order (an edit request that is not documented in the storyboard and may be billable) versus a legitimate error fix request.

The storyboard also serves as a way to see at a glance how your audio narration matches your image and media notes. If you have a large amount of text in the narration area and very few media notes, that’s an indication that you will have a large amount of screen time passing without any new visual support.

Finally, the storyboard is essentially a blueprint that all participants in the eLearning development process can use to do their jobs. From initial script and visual concept construction through graphic design, final quality control checks and sign-off, the storyboard is the governing document that dictates what you will be constructing.

eLearning Visual Design Workflow

  1. Write a first-draft script: After your instructional design is done and your content is all gathered (including filling all content gaps), write a first-draft script. Include some visual ideas in this script. Also write any applicable analogies and metaphors that may help the learner better grasp the key concepts.
  2. Draft visual Ideas: As you read through your script, draw (to the best of your ability) a sketch of the kinds of visuals that may support your content. If you are having difficulty coming up with ideas, consider searching images on royalty-free image library websites. Additionally, review other online eLearning examples to see how others have approached visuals.
  3. Rewrite the script to take advantage of your visuals: The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a key to understanding the relationship between eLearning audio narration and supporting visuals. You may find after writing your script that an effective visual really drives home the point and very little actually needs to be said by a narrator other than to give some context to the image. It is recommended that you leverage visuals as much as possible and reduce the amount of spoken word when you can.
  4. Write your OST notes: You will likely include bullet points and other on-screen text to support the key narrative points. These elements should fade in (or otherwise be revealed on stage) as they are mentioned by the narrator and fade out (be cleared from the stage) once they are no longer needed. Your storyboard should instruct the course author and graphic artist as to what will be on screen and when. The artist will place these on the stage where they are most appropriate aesthetically, and your course author will synchronize the revealing/removing of visuals with the audio per your storyboard instructions.

The main takeaway from a visual design workflow perspective is that your visuals should support your narrative, but one does not have to precede the other. For example, you can write your narration first and then try to find visuals to support what you are saying. Conversely, you can look for or draw up visual ideas of what you want your narration to say and then build your narration around the graphics that you do have. Finally, the most effective eLearning developers constantly analyze their narration and their visuals and modify each as creative inspiration strikes them.

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