Indie Teaching

Build Out

How do I bring my design to reality?

As part of your design, you created a matrix with the major topics that you need to cover in your MVP along with what elements in the learning model you will address these topics in. This is the blueprint for your build out. You can make changes to the design as you continue, if you don’t find yourself not making linear progress. The goal is to get something to your audience, and you will learn more from that experience than your own thought experiments. Musicians do this all the time. They test songs with audiences and make revisions. Many bands have a sophomore album slump for this reason. The first album was usually tested and refined through many performances. The songs represent the best the band has created. The second album usually does not have the same time to be tested and improved. The key is that the testing happens with an audience and not in the studio.

The format (book, course, etc.) of your learning creation will also heavily influence the tools and processes you need for your build out. I will address some general approaches as well as some specific techniques.

The two primary components of your build out will be writing and creating virtual events, including online courses, webinars, videos, and podcasts).

What is usability?

Usability can be thought of learning ergonomics. This includes the design of the learning management system, but it also includes how learning is presented to the learner. Traditional learning is based on a model of the professor as the “sage on the stage” downloading content into the minds of the students. This approach ignores what we know about human learning. Learning requires transferring new information from short-term to long-term memory. Short-term memory is a bottleneck for this process. Research shows that the average person can hold 6-8 items in short-term memory at a time. An hour-long lecture will contain many more items than that, resulting in the loss of information in the download. Attention span is also a factor. The average adult does not have the attention span for an hour lecture. The answer to these problems is microlearning…breaking down learning into smaller, more digestible pieces. 

In writing, usability means using whitespace. You want shorter paragraphs with section subheadings to break up the text and make it easier for the reader to scan.

What is the snowflake method of writing?

The Snowflake Method of writing developed for fiction writers. (See

The idea is that while Stephen King can sit down at the typewriter and type out a novel, most people do not have this level of talent for writing. The snowflake method uses a structured process that anyone can use to write. In fiction, you begin by writing a one sentence summary of your story. Next, you expand the sentence to a paragraph. The third step is to create a one paragraph description that summarizes each character’s story. In step four, you take your summary and expand each sentence into a paragraph. The process continues through a total of ten steps. The snowflake refers to this process of starting small and adding in incremental steps to reach the final stage, developing a complete draft. Unfortunately, this model does not translate perfectly to writing for learning.

To apply the concept of starting small and then expanding to our writing, remember than when people want to learn, they are looking for answers. For there to be an answer, there must first be a question. You should have defined this in the ideation process. What is the key question that your learning experience answers? That is step one.

In the design phase, you created an outline or a mind map of your topic. Use this to identify what are the key questions related to your MVP? This can include prerequisite knowledge that someone needs to know before they can answer the main question. It may also include follow-up questions on what someone needs to do once my question is answered. Phrase these in the form of a question.

Write answers to each of these questions. As you do, additional questions might occur to you. You can do this in a presentation program like PowerPoint with one question and answer per slide so you can move slides around easily to create a logical order. I prefer to work in Word using a heading style for questions and normal style for answers. This also makes it easy to change the order of topics and to find specific topics using the navigation pane.

Your first draft is the collection of these questions and answers.

Edit the document for draft two. You will find that you may have used different language to describe the same concept or repeated yourself. Read the draft out loud. Speaking it will help you see where the language is clunky. If it does not feel good to say it, it won’t feel good to read it.

Edit this again for draft 3. It is usually a good idea to hire an editor at this point to give you an outside perspective and a professional idea.

After you have reviewed draft 3 and made any final changes, you have writing ready for production.

If you do not like questions, a variation is to use bullet points. My first book began life as a presentation. I used the slides to create written lessons in an online class. Finally, I merged the lessons into a single book. As you edit, you will elaborate on what you have, building out your snowflake.

What if I am a slow writer?

Another approach is to not type at all. This works if you are slow at typing or it might just be easier for you. You should create an outline or slides or use the mind map you created. Instead of writing, you will speak and record yourself. You can use software to transcribe your recording or hire a transcription service. Software is cheaper but less accurate. Microsoft Word has a built-in dictation function, and there are other applications for this purpose.

One simple approach to this is to create a PowerPoint presentation just as if you are preparing a lecture. Within PowerPoint, you can record yourself. It is best to use an external microphone or a headset. Once you have your PowerPoint with recordings, you can export the presentation as a video file. The video file you can upload to YouTube, and then let YouTube do the transcription. The quality will not be the best, but the price is free.

The key is to use the transcription to get an initial draft, which you will need to edit.

How do I use headlines?

Headlines are used for many purposes in teaching. Blogs have headlines for titles and subheadings. Books have titles and chapter titles (a headline by another name). Courses have lesson titles.

Headlines serve a variety of purposes. Cognitively, they tell the learner what they are going to find. The old advice of tell them what you are going to say it, say it, and tell them what you said means the headline is the first place you are going to tell them.

Headlines have an affective/motivational function. A good headline generates interest in what comes next. Used in subheadings, the headline keeps the reader interested and reading. The title of a book or a course can generate interest in the learning when done well.

Headlines are a navigational took to help readers find what looking for and in scanning. Especially online, most readers scan the text, and headlines not only provide a summary, they also help the reader find what they are looking for in a larger document.

Headlines should use keywords identified in your keyword research especially when used as a title.

Headlines that start with “why”, “what”, “when,” “who,” “where,” or “how” are usually effective, especially when framed in the form of a question.

Questions can also be used without using one of these words. For example, “Do you…” is another way to start a question.

“Why” can be used in a statement headline. “Six reasons why…” is an example. This also illustrates the power of using a number in a headline.

Headlines should be less than 8 words in length, if the meaning can be captured in that few words. More words than that and the use of the headline for scanning starts to break down.

How do I create videos?

Learning videos can be expensive to create, using a studio and a production team, or they can be quite inexpensive done on your own. Years of YouTube have changed expectations. In the past, the expectation was for higher production values because that was what everyone saw in movies or television. Today, people are used to home produced videos.

The easiest way to create a video is to record a narration to a PowerPoint presentation. This can be done within PowerPoint. The resulting video can be uploaded to YouTube or another site. YouTube videos can be made private, so your creation does not need to be viewable by the world, unless that is what you want to do.

The limitation to this approach is that the learner never sees your face. While you can include a static photo in your presentation, this is not the same. Being able to see the presenter is important for building rapport. Computers, tablets, and smart phones have cameras that can be used to capture a video recording of you.

The challenge is in combining these two videos. The easiest method is to create an intro video of you speaking. You can welcome the learner and introduce yourself, the topic, and provide a summary. Then subsequent videos can be voice over PowerPoint.

The other option is to use software that allows you to record both what is on the computer and what is on the camera. You can switch views or have your face minimized while the presentation is on screen or have the presentation small while you are the focus. There are several applications to do this, but the most popular is called Camtasia. It is not cheap, but if you are a teacher, professor, or student, you should be eligible for educational pricing.

How do I create audio files?

If you have a face for radio or just want to create a podcast or audio recording, the tool you want is Audacity. It is free and works well. You can use that to record yourself as well as edit the file. For an interview, you can use Skype to record a conference call.

How do I create tests, quizzes, and exams?

Objective test items that have a clear correct or incorrect answer are a useful way for learners to assess their learning. That also provide a tool for the teacher to reinforce key points.

The overall quiz/test/exam should be aligned to the associated learning outcomes with a selection of items for each outcome.

Common test item types include:

  • True-false: Student make a designation about the validity of a statement. Also known as a “binary-choice” item because there are only two options to select from.
  • Multiple-choice: Student selects a single response from a list of options. Can be used effectively for any level of course outcome.
  • Multiple-answer: Student selects one or more responses from a list of options.
  • Matching: Student identifies connected items from two lists. Useful for assessing the ability to discriminate, categorize, and association amongst similar concepts.
  • Ordering: Student puts a list of items into a logical sequence such as chronological order or the steps in a process.

Several programs will allow you to offer objective tests online. The cheapest option is Google Forms, which is free. You can also use Forms for surveys.

How do I create performance-based assignments?

A performance-based assignment is an activity that a learner will do as part of the learning experience. The performance should be a real application of what they are learning. If the learning is how to build a web site, have them build a web site. Often the performance will involve some sort of problem solving. The performance can be in whole or in part a writing assignment.

The first step in creating a performance-based assignment is to identify the purpose. State the topic clearly. If appropriate, describe who the audience is for the assignment. It might be that the learner is the audience. It might be that you are the audience. It might be a third party. Just be clear.

You will need to provide a prompt or series of prompts. For example, if you are teaching a course on starting a business, you might have an assignment of writing a business plan. The prompt might be “write a business plan,” or it might be a series of prompts such as “describe your business concept,” “detail a marketing plan,” and “provide financial statements.” You might also require or suggest a template or tool. For example, “prepare a business plan using the lean business canvas.” This might be a template that you create and provide or refer to a third-party resource.

Provide any instructions on requirements including format, length, and other considerations.

Generally, it is best to break long assignments into stages or a sequence of small assignments.

How do I create discussion questions?

Discussion questions are used in online discussion forums and can also be used as prompts for performance-based assignments. To generate discussion, they should be open-ended and have more than one possible answer.

Questions that require analysis such as “why did this happen” or “what causes this to happen” or “explain how this happened” are one form of discussion question. Questions that ask the learner to compare and contrast two (or more) things are also effective.

Learners can be asked to take a position and provide supporting arguments. “What is the best way to do this and why?”

Brainstorming is also an effective group technique: “brainstorm reasons why this happened” or “brainstorm potential solutions.”

Asking learners to respond to other learners with why they agree or disagree is an effective tactic for generating interaction, which is the point of discussion.

How do I provide feedback?

Feedback will come after you have learners that do something that triggers feedback. However, during the build-out you might want to think about building rubrics. A rubric provides a framework for the learner to understand what a good product includes, and it also provides a framework for you to provide feedback.

To create a rubric, first identify the components or outcomes of the assignment. These will be the rows in the rubric. Next determine a scale. Usually there are 3-5 levels of performance. This provides the columns. Finally, within each cell add a description of the criteria for that component and that level of performance.

A simpler form of a rubric is the checklist rubric. This is a simple list of components or items to be included in the assignment with a checklist for indicating whether that item has been met. Checklists are valuable resources as learners can use these on their own.

This article is part of the Guide to Indie Teaching