ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

How to Outline an E-Learning Product
The Basic Mechanics of Structuring a Project

By Tim Warner / March 2010

Print Email
Comments (4) Instapaper

How to Outline an E-Learning Product

The Basic Mechanics of Structuring a Project

March 4, 2010

Lonely learner, photo by Svenwerk Just as the quality of an automobile can be judged by its engine construction, so too can the caliber of an e-learning course be evaluated by its outline structure. An effective e-learning project starts with an effective project outline.

My suggestions for outlining an effective e-learning product are based upon both industry research and practical experience as an instructional designer.

Top-Down or Bottom-Up?
The first task in developing an outline is to determine what type of content developer you are. For instance, do you tend to approach product outline creation from a top-down or a bottom-up perspective?

The bottom-up outlining method involves creating a skeleton and gradually filling in the rest of the content as you produce additional instructional material. A common justification for applying the bottom-up approach is that you may not know enough about the subject matter at the project's outset to produce a highly detailed outline. Therefore, outlining the project from the bottom-up lets the outline grow organically throughout the content-creation process.

The bottom-up approach doesn't work for all product managers, of course. Some editors require their content developers to include as much detail as possible on the front end of a project.

The top-down approach, on the other hand, involves developing the vast majority of the outline at the beginning of the project. Then, as you work through the content development process, you attempt to remain faithful to the initial design.

Train the Trainer
Although you might accept an e-learning development project in which you possess no initial subject matter expertise, it is nonetheless imperative that you gather the requisite background knowledge as early into the project as possible. To this end, you might avail yourself of trade books, as well as your competitors' products.

For example, in preparation for a computer-based training (CBT) course on Microsoft Publisher, you might purchase from Microsoft Press, and the e-learning product Publisher 2007 Essential Training from

Between perusing the Microsoft Press book and studying the CBT product, you should be conceptually up to speed with Microsoft Publisher. You should then consequently be in a great position to undertake some quality teaching in your e-learning course.

Why reinvent the wheel? Leverage what has already been done in the marketplace and use it as a springboard to create a product outline.

Take again the Microsoft Publisher example. You might compile your initial outline by patching together the best parts of several related printed and electronic products. For instance, you might take a strong lead from two or three sections of the Microsoft book, a few more sections from the course, and one or two sections from yet another title.

As convenient and helpful as this patchwork outline construction method is, it is crucial that you be aware of (and avoid) copyright infringement at all costs. This can be done easily enough through reorganizaton and renaming.

Reorganization. Your e-learning product outline should be ordered in such a way that it makes the most sense to you and, ultimately, to your students. Similar to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, you should rearrange the sections that you borrowed from other sources and make additions where necessary and appropriate to fill in any conceptual gaps.

Renaming. Never repurpose someone else's content verbatim. Start by renaming the section titles that you want to borrow from. Just as importantly, you should strive for grammatical parallelism throughout your outline.

Here is an example of an e-learning outline snippet that contains poor parallelism:

02 Getting Help with Microsoft Publisher
  • 0201 Ask a Question
  • 0202 Using Office Assistant
  • 0203 Help Settings
  • 0204 Microsoft Online
  • 0205 Repairing Your Installation

Here is the same example, revised for parallelism:

02 Getting Help with Microsoft Publisher
  • 0201 Using Type a Question for Help
  • 0202 Asking Office Assistant for Help
  • 0203 Configuring Help Settings
  • 0204 Accessing Microsoft Online Help
  • 0205 Repairing Your Installation

Many students prefer e-learning content outlines that focus on practical activities (illustrated inthe above example through the use of verbs ending in "ing") rather than on potentially dry or boring concepts.

Make it Your Own
The final step of the outline development process is to personalize the outline. There should be no indication that the outline began as a pastiche culled largely from other sources; consequently, this step goes beyond simply reordering and renaming borrowed content.

If you use a bottom-up method, you will doubtless find yourself tweaking the outline as you create content and as your knowledge of the subject matter increases. Over time your product outline will become more robust, and you should periodically take a cognitive step back from the outline to ensure instructional quality, internal consistency, and logical cohesion.

If you use a top-down method, then you will as a matter of course find yourself tuning and adding material to your outline as you progress though the content-creation phase of the project.

Check for Flow
Speaking from the "see the forest for the trees" point of view, it is critically important that you scan your outline from a bird's eye view periodically in order to validate its logical schema. Does your content flow cleanly from section to section?

Moreover, when you analyze a particular section in your outline, ensure that all the tasks are logically sequenced and scaffolded. Do later modules allow the student to apply and build on skills gained in earlier modules? Do any modules bump up jarringly against each other, or do they transition smoothly?

These fine touches often make the difference between a merely decent e-learning product and an outstanding one.

About the Author
Tim Warner is a technical trainer and freelance e-learning developer who also writes on adult education, instructional design, IT certification, and IT industry issues.


  • Thu, 23 Sep 2010
    Post by Seanán Kerr

    Hi just wanted to point out a spelling error, you've miss-spelt the word "plagerism" as "synthesize"

  • Mon, 15 Mar 2010
    Post by Mary Beth Harrup

    I enjoyed this article - It was interesting to see which style applies to what we do.

  • Wed, 19 Oct 2005
    Post by Bob Fraley

    The author''s thesis is that better definitions are needed, as the previous response shows. Without better definition of terms, Distance Education doesn''t seem the best choice for a general term, as some might interpret it as including learning from a textbook (at a distance from the author) or excluding learning from a course on DVD in my non-networked laptop (which some eLearning definitions include). Rather than bickering over the current definitions, it is better to work towards improved terminology that has wide-spread understanding.

  • Mon, 03 Oct 2005
    Post by Charles van Duren

    The editor-in-chief writes that "There are many terms that are synonymous with e-learning or that differ in poorly distinguished ways, such as "Web-based training," "distributed learning," and "distance education." Wrong. Distance education is the general philosophy, while e-learning is just one of the approaches used by DE.