Collaborative Design: The Secret Sauce of Successful E-learning

The best dishes often come from a kitchen buzzing with collaborative energy, and the same can be said for course design. At Course Kitchen, Inc., we believe that collaboration is the secret ingredient in crafting courses that resonate. Drawing from the expertise of educators, multimedia designers, and subject matter experts, we concoct a learning experience that’s both informative and engaging. Dive into our collaborative process and discover how the combined insights and talents of a diverse team can produce an e-learning masterpiece.

Adapted from Budd (2016a, 2016b) 

In a 2016 article, Daniel Christian names two challenges to his own recommendations for embedding learning experience designers (LXDs) in course teams for the production of excellent online courses. First, he suggests that course teams can often be unwieldy and inefficient, becoming “a bottleneck to the organization” (Christian, 2016). Second, he wonders whether faculty members will accept the contributions of LXDs (or others) in the creation of learning experiences. To be sure, these challenges are real and experienced in many institutions of higher education engaged in the work of offering online and blended programming. Faculty are often reticent to invite people outside their discipline to participate in their curriculum and course development efforts, and in cases where course design teams are in place, inefficiencies can become commonplace. 

In response to these and other challenges, I formulated a particularly collaborative design framework with former colleagues at in the Teaching and Learning Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The 5D framework encompasses the collaborative work phases of discovery, design, development, delivery, and debriefing. 

Why the 5D Framework? What About ADDIE? 

When communicated and managed effectively, this framework can yield tremendous efficiencies and foster trusting partnerships between faculty, Learning Experience Designers (LXDs), and other stakeholders. And, when applied specifically to a learning experience design project, the 5Ds can enhance the well-known ADDIE model (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation). 

ADDIE emerged from corporate and military contexts where instruction must be developed consistently and at scale, and it is often used to explain the work of designers. Entire books have been written about how to perform and strengthen competencies around each step of the model (Bozarth, 2008; Chaplowe & Bradley-Cousins, 2015; Jonassen, Martin & Wallace, 1998). While there is value in breaking down the phases of the design process in this systematic way, the ADDIE approach is primarily effective for designers who work independently with materials from a subject matter expert (SME). Taken out of that context, this model tends to overstate the direct role of the LXD while failing to address the constraints and cross-functional nature of the work inherent in other LXD positions, such as those in academia. 

By contrast, the 5Ds depend on a collaborative approach, Herein lies one of the most significant lessons for those who have made their career in learning experience design: We need not be excellent at everything; we must leverage the expertise and contributions of stakeholders at every step of the way and seek out unexpected opportunities for collaboration. An effective, team-based approach yields efficiencies, promotes faculty buy-in, and leads to the creation of excellent learning experiences. 

Discovery Every project begins with a thoughtful, inquiry-based process of discovery in which the needs and opportunities around a project are outlined. This phase often engages media, technology, and design teams along with SMEs, learners, and other stakeholders including finance, marketing, and administration. Together, we ask our guiding questions for discovery. These questions are like the “Analysis” step of the ADDIE framework, though they emphasize the inclusion of multiple partners and stakeholders. While the LXD’s contribution to this phase may certainly include an in-depth task and needs analysis, it is further extended to include expertise in the learning sciences and emerging trends that may inform the project plans. These contributions are held in tandem with all the other aspects of determining the feasibility and priority of the project. With some collective thinking around these questions, an informed decision is made about whether and how to proceed with the project. If it is to be pursued, the team moves into the design phase. 


Though we have “design” in our title, LXDs are hardly the sole source of ideas when it comes to the creation of online learning experiences. The best designs depend on a tight collaborative relationship between LXDs, SMEs, learners, and others. In addition to coaching the team to craft clear and measurable goals for understanding and performance, and to align these goals with activities and assessments throughout the experience, the LXD helps the team consider our guiding questions. These questions arise from several embedded assumptions about how to create excellent online learning experiences for adults. 

  • Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogy lays out four key principles that designers of adult learning experiences should bear in mind: they must involve the adult students in the design and evaluation phases; they must take the adult learners’ lived experiences into account in the design and delivery phases; they must create experiences that are centered around real-world problems rather than focused on the content itself; and the experience must have direct relevance to and impact on the learners’ lives.
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy is an indispensable tool for formulating learner-centered objectives targeting different levels of cognitive processes based on the content, context, and audience.
  • Important learning theories such as behaviorism (Skinner, 1964), cognitivism (Piaget, 1964), constructivism (Vygotsky, 1980) and connectivism (Siemens & Conole, 2011), allow the LXD to frame the experience in terms of specific outcomes and strategies.
  • Deci and Ryan’s (2002) Self-Determination Theory (SDT) posits that intrinsic motivation can be maximized when three basic human needs are met: autonomy (a sense of choice and self-agency), competence (a sense of confidence in one’s abilities), and relatedness (a sense of belonging with others). Selecting teaching strategies, tools, and technologies to enhance support for these three needs can help to increase the intrinsic motivation of adult learners throughout the experience. 


The development phase is where many LXDs are typically used to piling more hats onto our already crowded heads. Quite often, LXD’s will set off on their own to develop a learning experience with a variety of tools, including rapid development tools like Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate, multimedia presentation tools like Articulate Presenter and VoiceThread, learning platforms like Canvas and Blackboard, and/or other technologies.

Alternatively, the 5Ds encourage learning experience designers to leverage contributions from others in ways that can significantly enhance the final product. See our guiding questions to use in development. In this phase, the LXD identifies and guides all contributors through the development process with an eye toward integrating these otherwise disparate contributions into a coherent whole in alignment with the vision of the course team. Once the learning experience is developed and tested, the team collectively braces itself for the big event: launch! 


Through most of my career in design roles in various contexts (corporate, medical and academic), the delivery (or “implementation”) phase is often where my colleagues check out, leaving the experience in the hands of the platform (in asynchronous or self-paced online learning) and/or the facilitation team (in synchronous or facilitated learning). Then, the designer is only called back into the game when some technical issue is encountered. In my experience, this approach tends to underutilize and even demotivate the LXD. Rather than being primarily technology support specialists in this phase, LXDs are uniquely positioned to assist the delivery team with addressing teaching and learning challenges that may be encountered over the life of the course.

To this end, the “Learning Loop” concept, a series of meetings in which the entire course team meets at stated intervals (often weekly) during the first-run of a new learning experience, can yield significant efficiency gains. In these meetings, the team reviews feedback from learners and facilitators, identifies opportunities to make mid-stream improvements and/or iterative changes the next time the course is offered, and resolves new challenges around the facilitation model, technologies, or course structure. The Learning Loop model has proven to be an invaluable step in the process of creating and launching learning experiences because it keeps the entire team in touch with the course as it is being experienced by learners. It has also helped to set healthy precedents around continuous course improvement and ongoing engagement between LXDs and teaching teams. 


Once the learning experience has been planned, created and offered to real learners, it is time to debrief by gathering with the team and other stakeholders to answer our guiding questions for Debrief. These questions can be answered through analysis of quantitative and qualitative data collected throughout the learning experience as well as interviews and/or focus groups with various contributors. This is an extension of ADDIE’s Evaluation phase, which tends to focus primarily on the learner evaluations in terms of satisfaction, outcomes, results and impact, commonly referenced as Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation (Kirkpatrick, 1975). A thorough debrief with all relevant parties, including learner feedback, can help to uncover opportunities for continuous improvement for this project and, often, the rest of the portfolio as well. 


Taken together, the 5Ds encompass a process of collaborative learning design in which dedicated LXDs both drive and contribute to a cross-functional team of widely varying expertise. This framework provides a structure for project planning and management that promotes efficiencies. Timelines and milestones are mapped to each of the 5 D phases, working out from the anticipated launch date for the experience. By positioning the LXD as the bridge connecting various stakeholders throughout the entire process, leveraging the expertise of various professionals, cultivating a culture of reflection and communication through the Learning Loops and the Debrief stages, each team member is free to make their strongest contributions in the most effective ways. 


Bozarth, J. (2008). From Analysis to Evaluation: Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Trainers. John Wiley & Sons. 

Budd, B. (2016a). The 5Ds: A collaborative model for learning design (Part 1). The Evolllution

Budd, B. (2016b). The 5Ds: A collaborative model for learning design (Part 2). The Evolllution

Chaplowe, S. G., Bradley-Cousins, J. (2015). Monitoring and Evaluation Training: A Systematic Approach. SAGE Publications. 

Christian, D. (2016, June 20). Specialists central to high-quality, engaging online programming. The Evolllution

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. 

Jonassen, D. H., Tessmer, M., and Hannum, W.H. (1998). Task Analysis Methods for Instructional Design. Routledge. 

Kirkpatrick, D. (1975). Evaluating Training Programs. Tata McGraw-Hill Education. 

Piaget, J. (1976). Piaget’s theory. In Piaget and his school (pp. 11-23). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. 

Siemens, G., & Conole, G. (2011). Connectivism: Design and delivery of social networked learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3). 

Skinner, B. F. (1964). Behaviorism at fifty. Nursing Research, 13(1), 94. 

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

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