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Six Principles for Assuring Quality in e-Learning

By , quality assurance specialist

Michelle KenoyerKenoyer

To the right is an approximately 70-year-old photo of my grandmother when she was in her early twenties. During World War II, she served in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps as a quality-assurance inspector. Based on her stories and recollections, her role required that she examine and recommend improvements for the safety and working conditions of U.S. Army facilities stateside. From time to time, she used a special tool to measure and test the safety and efficacy of hand grenades. It was important for inspectors like her to ensure that not only were the grenades safe for Army soldiers to transport, but also that they deployed properly when the pin was pulled.

I suppose this attention to quality runs in the family. While I cannot possibly compare the relative ease and comfort of working as a quality assurance (QA) specialist in the e-learning and training field to my grandmother’s more dangerous responsibilities during wartime, I do believe the role of QA in developing training materials, including e-learning, is critical.

e-Learning professionals like me likely do not put ourselves in dangerous situations like my grandmother and her fellow Corps inspectors did during World War II, but the quality and soundness of the e-learning courseware we produce can be life-saving. At Allen Interactions, our teams have delivered custom e-learning for a client whose goal is to eliminate deaths and injuries at railroad crossings. We’ve also developed sophisticated simulation-based courseware to prepare law-enforcement professionals to identify and respond to terrorism and gang violence in their cities. Truly, the responsibility of creating accurate, engaging, and interactive training materials for audiences whose vocations center on life-or-death situations underscores our company’s fundamental philosophy of developing e-learning that is meaningful, memorable, and motivational.

Learnability

e-Learning QA is somewhat different from―or rather an extension of—traditional Web-based QA. Quality assurance for e-learning involves the usual hunt for defects in functionality, layout, media, content, usability, accessibility/508 compliance issues, and platform, but also a unique learnability component. Learnability in an e-learning context means something different. Effective e-learning QA specialists will also evaluate courseware from the intended learning audience’s perspective. As Dr. Michael Allen observes in his book, Successful e-Learning Interface, do the activities provide an optimal interface that maximizes the impact of the learning experience? Specifically, he points out (and I’m paraphrasing), do the e-learning activities have enough challenge to instill a sense of confidence and accomplishment without being “too easy”? Are the activities themselves engaging and appealing? Is feedback given appropriate for both the learning context and the actions the learner chooses during the activities? Moreover, does any component of the e-learning present any obstacles that prevent learners from achieving their performance goals?

Learner Acceptance Testing (LAT)

Learner Acceptance Testing (LAT) taking place on a sample of actual learners from the target audience can uncover many of these learnability issues, as well as other quality assurance issues that may have been (unintentionally!) overlooked during the rigorous iterations of in-house QA. However, QA specialists need to be learner advocates on the frontlines to proactively lessen these issues. This allows the learners participating in the LAT sessions to get the most out of the experience, with fewer distractions and obstacles in their way. In fact, QA analysts who specialize in e-learning must be advocates for all learners, LAT and beyond, who engage in your organization’s e-learning activities and (hopefully!) reap the benefits from them.

When implementing and conducting effective e-learning QA as a learner advocate, keep these six basic principles in mind:

  1. Implement QA as a continuous part of the development process. Be active and attentive in QA at all phases of a project. More often than desired, QA for any Web-based product falls at the tail end of a product’s development. Worse yet, it sometimes doesn’t take place at all when projects run over schedule or budget, or if QA has not been implemented as part of the overall development plan from the outset.

    Michael Allen stresses that QA occur within each iteration of a project’s development. In Leaving ADDIE for SAM, he writes, “quality is best attained by giving it continuous attention rather than only near the end of product production.”

    In a client-facing environment, late-breaking customer input requiring revision (e.g. legal, Learner Acceptance Testing) can take place as late as Gold (Gold is final learning product delivery in the SAM process). That being said, it is still critical to...
     
  2. Start early. Work within a formal Quality Control process to ensure that any fundamental or wide-reaching structural or learnability problems are resolved during the early iterations of a project (e.g., functional prototypes, design proof, even the Alpha release – all deliverables in SAM) rather than in the eleventh hour.

    When the project is in its early stage, do as thorough an investigation of the e-learning courseware as possible, so that development attention can be devoted more toward fine-tuning and optimization during later releases (Beta and Gold).
     
  3. Have a game plan! Plans for e-learning QA can be as complex as a series of traditional test plans, scripts, and cases; or they can be as simple as checklists made in a spreadsheet or word-processing program. Whichever method fits into your organization and development environment, it is important to have a formal QA process to not only look for defects, but to abide by your organization’s style and design standards in all areas of your e-learning projects.

    More experienced QA personnel may know their process like the backs of their hands (and thus be more likely to take it for granted), whereas QAs who are newer to a team’s process will need more structure and guidance. Both levels of experience will benefit from a formalized QA game plan.

    If your organization is developing e-learning for a third-party client, you may also need to consider your client’s own standards and style guides as an added layer to your organization’s internal specifications.
     
  4. Have a standard method of documenting defects. Whether you use a third-party or an in-house defect-tracking system, make sure the development and QA teams are on the same page regarding how defects are reported―and in which form of documentation. This helps to eliminate duplication of defect reports, and also streamlines the back-and-forth communication among QAs, instructional designers, developers, and other team members during development iterations.
     
  5. Trust but verify. No matter which form of QA reporting you use, be sure to verify all reported fixes that take place from initial and subsequent QA iterations in the latest build. As with any software or Web development project, fixes to initially-reported defects might introduce new defects or even override other fixes in related areas of a project.
     
  6. Use version control! Just wanted to throw this in there. But seriously, before reviewing each iteration of a project, be sure you’re looking at the latest and greatest material. Especially during verification passes, having a systematic version control process will prevent unnecessarily re-opening comments/tickets/bugs/issues/etc.

This checklist of QA basics is not exhaustive; additional criteria and specifications can apply according to project, client, and learner needs. Also, your company may have its own requirements that vary somewhat from the points I’ve briefly outlined here. Hopefully, these quality criteria will help you as a baseline if your company does not already have a formal QA process in place.

In addition, the importance of QA as a continuous part of the e-learning development process cannot be stressed enough. Be sure to safeguard the quality, effectiveness, and learning efficacy of the courseware with a well-planned, soundly-executed QA process from your project’s kickoff till deployment.

In the end, your learners will appreciate a clean, obstacle-free course void of distractions from doing what you most intend them to do: learn. Assuring quality through your project’s duration can save your learners from problem-ridden e-learning—and may even help them to save lives, too.

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