The Building Blocks of Online Learning Design & Development

The following are items to be considered when designing and developing an online course for adult learners. Andragogy, founded by Malcolm Knowles, discovered the 5 assumptions of adult learners: self-concept, learner experience, readiness to learn, oriented to learning, motivated to learn. There is a lot that goes into online course development, it is not as simple as assembling information. From an academic perspective, it is a very thorough process that can involve an expert team to fulfill all the demands. I have synthesized a brief overview of what is involved when designing and developing online learning for adults. This is my best practices check list (is subject to change and grow) to ensure that key elements are present while also keeping future clients informed on decision making.

The below items can be blended and augmented however I feel the principles need strong attention. I have compiled this to simplify the academic standards for the outsider who will not know what is involved and why it is used. When choosing to design and develop a course, it’s important to begin with who the learner is and what approach to use – Andragogy (adult) or Pedagogy (child) as the two involve very different approaches. My work centres around adult learning.

Theories – understand the learner

  • Behaviouralist – learning through behavioural patterns by linking stimuli and response
  • Cognitivism – learning is internal and a result of processing and organizing new information
  • Connectivism – learning influenced through digital age technology based on accurately sourcing and accessing of information
  • Constructivist – knowledge is constructed by adapting new information based on previous experience
  • Experiential – learning through life experience, through observation and conceptualization
  • Transformative – learning through change which happens reflectively and holistically

Models – process of development

  • ADDIE – analyze, design, develop, implement, evaluate. A non-linear comprehensive model used by large organizations for company training
  • Backwards Design – setting goals first consisting of 3 stages: identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence, plan learning experiences and instruction. Good for story telling learning contexts and ESL learners
  • SAM – successive approximation model is designed for quick turn around focusing on progress over perfection, has 3 phases: preparation, iterative design, interactive development. Often used for training in IT sectors
  • 9 Events of Instruction – a linear model that predates the digital age but applies to current learning standards. Can be organized into 3 larger chunks: before, during and after the learning. See example here. Suitable for eclectic learning contexts

Principles – design enriched learning

  • Accessibility – universal design standards, cultural, ESL
  • Adult learning – involvement, experience, relevance, problem-centered
  • Assessment – performance-based, diagnostic, formative, summative
  • Content – chunked, clear, mini-module, flexible, varied media
  • Engagement – peer to content, peer to peer, peer to instructor
  • Learning Styles – individual, social, auditory, visual, concrete, abstract, logical, sensual
  • Motivation – self-directed, independent, intrinsic (personal), extrinsic (professional)


Bowen, R. (2017). Understanding by design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Fairbanks, B. ( 2021, September 09). 5 educational learning theories and how to apply them. Phoenix Blog.

Gore, E. (2022, January 4). The SAM (successive approximation model) approach to eLearning.

Gulbahar, Y., Alper, A. (2011). Learning preferences and learning styles of online adult learners. Education in A Technological World: Communicating Current and Emerging Research and Technological Efforts.

Lin, J. (2020, July 5). Quickly implement eLearning from what you have: ADDIE model in practice. eLearning Industry.

Loveless, B. (2022, March 29). 15 Learning theories in education (a complete summary). Education Corner.

Pappas, C. (2013, May 9). The adult learning theory – andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles. eLearning Industry.

University of Colorado Boulder. (n.d.). Office of the undergraduate education – backward design.

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