How to use an outcomes-based approach to design an online orientation

Creating an online orientation program from scratch is a large and complex project. Where do you start, how do you get organized, and how do you make sure you’re not skipping steps and needing to backtrack later? Using an instructional design framework can help you systematically design, develop, and deliver your program, and help your project progress in a good way.

There are many different instructional design frameworks; however, none seemed to quite fit our project. In evaluating learning design frameworks, they either included steps that were irrelevant for this type of online learning, or I felt like they lumped too many design-related tasks into one step. The outcomes-based approach outlined below combines elements of the ADDIE instructional design framework with key components of outcome-based education to create a seven-step process for creating an online orientation program.

Outcome-based education

Outcome-based education is a student-centred approach to learning that focuses on what a student should be able to do in the real world after they have completed the program. Education can often be quite content focused; we identify a topic we want to teach students about, and then we pull together some content that talks about that topic. Outcome-based education focuses on the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that we want a student to have at the end of a course, rather than what course content needs to be covered.

Designing curriculum using an outcomes-based approach takes a backwards approach to that used in designing curriculum the traditional way. Once learning outcomes have been determined, you first determine how learning will be assessed, the choose or build relevant learning activities and experiences, and then determine what content is required. All the while, the focus is always on helping a student achieve the learning outcome.

There are several benefits to taking an outcomes-based approach to designing an online orientation program.

  • It puts your students at the forefront of your design process
  • It helps narrow the focus of your program. Orientation is often a dumping ground for information, and it can easily become a catch-all. Defining specific outcomes helps set boundaries on what will and will not be included.
  • It makes it easy to say no. It can be hard to turn people away who want to add something to an orientation program, and those are often difficult conversations to navigate. However, when you’re using an outcomes-based approach… if it doesn’t help students reach one of the learning outcomes, it’s not included in the program.
  • It creates a common understanding among your team. While there may be varied understandings of the ultimate goal when you say you want to talk about academics or mental health, the goal is unequivocally clear once you have created learning outcomes.
  • It pushes you to think more about creating learning activities that require active engagement, rather than content that will be passively consumed.    

The Outcomes-Based Approach

Phase 1: Create a vision

Step 1: Do your research

Identify why the program is needed, who the program is for, and how the program fits into the bigger picture. This may involve conducting a needs analysis, creating student profiles, and mapping out all of your orientation and/or student success programming.

Step 2: Outline your vision

Identify the overall goals of your program. What are you hoping the program will achieve? Your vision should also include any core principles or approaches you plan on integrating into your program. After you have created your vision, you should share it widely; anyone who will be involved in the project should be aware of your goals and core principles.

Step 3: Identify your topics / buckets

Based on your needs assessment, identify the high-level topics that your online orientation will contain. What are the areas that your program needs to cover in order to be useful to students? It can be helpful to provide a quick definition for each topic area as well, so that everyone can be on the same page about what you are thinking. For example, if your topic is health, does that mean physical health? Mental health? All 8 dimensions of health? The scope and definitions of your topics may shift as you go through steps 4 and 5, but completing this step will give you a good place to start.

Phase 2: Design your learning activities

Step 4: Identify key learning themes

In my experience, we often go straight from a broad topic to defining specific learning outcomes, without taking the time to think broadly about all the possibilities. This step asks you to think about all those possibilities before creating your learning outcomes. For each topic identified in step 3, start by brainstorming everything you can think of that could be useful in relation to that topic, without making any judgements on the merit of the suggestion. This could be done independently, or with a group. Once all thoughts are on the table, you can begin to identify commonalities and themes, and have conversations about whether any items that have come up should be left out of your program. Repeat step 4 for each of the topics you have identified in step 3.

Step 5: Develop your learning outcomes

Pulling from the themes identified in step 4, begin crafting your learning outcomes. What do you want your students to know, do, or value about this topic as a result of completing your program? Consider the level of learning (as per Bloom’s taxonomy) that you would like students to have, and ensure your learning outcomes are measurable. It’s also important to ensure that that your outcomes describe something that a student will be able to do after completing the program, not a process or activity that they will do within the program. Don’t be afraid to spend a large amount of time creating your learning outcomes; developing strong learning outcomes makes developing strong learning activities much easier.

Step 6: Decide on your learning activities

For each learning outcome, determine what kind of activity students will complete to help them reach the learning outcome. Students learn best by actively doing things, and making meaning of those experiences, not by passively consuming content, so when deciding on your learning activities, think about how you can make them interactive. While some activities may cover more than one learning outcome, aim to create one activity for each outcome.

Step 7: Draft your learning activities

Once you have identified what the learning activity will be, it’s time to create a draft! It’s generally best to create a low-tech draft before you try to create the activity using a specific tool, so that you can focus on the content and pedagogy without being distracted by features of the technology. Drafting the learning activity may involve bringing together a group of people for another brainstorming session to help identify the major points that should be covered in the activity, and create a framework, before fleshing it out in full. Any content reviews should also take place during this step.

Phase 3: Develop the program

Step 8: Take a step back

Once you have drafted all your learning activities, take a moment to step back and look at the project as a whole. Consider how your different activities connect and work together, and revisit the goals and principles you identified in your initial vision. Does it feel like there are gaps in any topic areas? Are you still meeting your initial goals? Have you strayed from your initial principles? It’s easier to make changes during the draft stage, rather then wait until everything has been created in its final form!

Step 9: Create your learning activities

It’s time to take your drafts and bring them to life! During this step, you can take your draft content and turn it into a real-life activity using whichever software tool you have chosen. This step can often be quite time-intensive, especially if you are learning new programs or tools, but it’s also one of the most fun, because you get to see your ideas really come to life!

Step 10: Put the activities all together as a program

At this point in the process, you have a bunch of different learning activities and content pieces. Now it’s time to put them all in your learning management system (or equivalent), ensure they all function properly, and ensure that the structure and navigation of your program are intuitive and clear. During this step, you may also add visuals to some activities. Once everything has been loaded into the system and looks the way you want it, it’s time to test the program thoroughly. If you can, have multiple people go through the program, using a variety of different devices (computer, tablet, mobile phone) and browsers to ensure that everything works the way it should. Be clear with your testers on the type of feedback you’re looking for… now is likely not the time to hear that you should add additional content to an activity!

Phase 4: Implement and evaluate

Step 11: Implement your program

Open your program up to your students! While the course is open, make sure you are monitoring the course on a regular basis. Respond to any student questions, and keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t seem to be working as it should. While it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to make major changes while the program is live, it’s good to look for any activities that students don’t seem to be completing, activities that are taking longer than expected, etc., so that you can identify and fix any errors or problems. 

Step 12: Evaluate and make changes

Once students have been given the opportunity to complete the program, it’s time to evaluate how it went. Review any analytics and feedback to determine what worked well, and what may need improvements. Were your goals met? Identify any areas you may want to learn more about, and document any changes you may need to make in the future. In this step, you should also report back to any project stakeholders on how the project went, and your plans for the future.

Creating an online orientation program from scratch is not a simple process; there are a lot of steps and a lot of tasks involved. However, using the outcomes-based approach can help you streamline your approach, be intentional about the content you are including, and ensure your students finish the program with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that you want them to gain.


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Featured image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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