Avoiding Death by eLearning: Four Key Strategies

Avoid Death by eLearning

A new eLearning initiative is exciting—it’s new, and fresh, and has the potential to add value by solving organizational problems and meeting needs. It’s not merely another data dump of knowledge that’s as practical as snow chains in the sub-tropics. It’s a new hope for something that learners can connect with. Until…

We’ve seen it—what’s fresh becomes old; one ancient writer said that there’s nothing new under the sun, and learners can begin to feel that way. In one of my eLearning development initiatives, I was with a company that had never used eLearning, and everything I rolled out seemed fresh and exciting. Later, as compliance training modules were heaped on, learners began to hate the word “eLearning.” This is always a challenge. eLearning can get old fast, and if we are not careful, it can become nothing but re-purposed PowerPoint slides with too many words, read-and-click slides with eternally long voiceovers read by Ferris Buhler’s teacher, just as live presenters read slides in PowerPoint presentations when they are filled with too many words and the presenters don’t know how to engage the audience—or don’t care to.

How do we avoid death by eLearning? It’s a constant challenge, but here are four ways that work for me.

  1. To avoid death by eLearning, have a trained instructional designer on your project team. This might seem obvious, yet in many situations, senior leadership merely utilizes people already on staff to develop courses, and the end result is often that no instructional design leadership and expertise exist on the team! Instructional design concepts and methodologies matter; it is important that what we produce is educationally sound. This is a topic for another post, but simply stated: Gagne, Bloom, and Kirkpatrick are people who should be informing your course design. I’ve been a Secondary and Higher Ed professional, and have a deep background in instructional design theory and practice. Without it, I would have produced mere data dumps: lots of information dumped on “learners” adding little value and not helping them become more competent in their jobs—which is, after all, the point.

Can anyone produce eLearning? The answer is NO; not without training and experience. Anyone can place content on PowerPoint slides along with some bad clip art that violates all kinds of copyright laws to be hosted on an LMS (Learning Management System) for compliance and tracking purposes. I would question if that is real learning. In fact, it is usually not called learning, but training (I feel another post coming on: another time).

A side note: I value educators, and have great respect for teachers. I appreciate Higher Ed style eLearning, and I believe that in many ways it is more engaging, especially in terms of utilizing Bloom’s Taxonomy for higher level skills in the cognitive domain. Yet, corporate eLearning has its place, and it is a very different application than Higher Ed eLearning; knowledge of educational principles is not enough to produce corporate eLearning that adds value to an organization, competence to the workforce, and management of its learning function. We can argue about whether this should be so, but it is. I hired an ID (Instructional Designer) from Higher Ed, and since I have been in that space I knew how to work with this direct report to quickly help him begin adding value, but there is a learning curve. Knowing about ADDIE, Madeleine Hunter, Bloom, Gagne and Kirkpatrick is important and still relevant, but much skill is needed to produce corporate eLearning that can provide engaging, sound, value-added content for your organization. Not to mention working effectively with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts—again, a different post).

  1. To avoid death by eLearning, do not equate “rapid development” with poor quality. There are some excellent rapid development tools available today (this is the subject of another post, in fact—how fast can eLearning be produced?), but tools must be wielded by skilled people to be useful. I have had plumbers in my home once or twice that didn’t bring the right tools to the job, and some that didn’t seem to use effectively the tools they already had available. Both are important. Simpler tools wielded by a professional can accomplish more than elaborate tools in the hands of a novice—which can be dangerous. One plumber told me the story of a homeowner that decided to rent his own electric snake to clean out a drain; the man ended up with the snake wrapped around his body, and he sustained some significant injuries! Of course, excellent tools in the hands of a professional can be a thing of beauty.

Today, rapid development tools are better than ever, but here are some things that they can’t substitute for:

  • Real learning objectives that inform and organize meaningful content
  • Appropriately sequenced learning modules informed by adult learning principles
  • Engaging, quality graphics that enhance the learning and support the objectives
  • Multimedia, including audio and video, in support of the learning
  • Content that utilizes cognitive levels beyond merely remembering and understanding
  • Assessments that accurately measure how well course objectives have been learned
  • Strategies to increase the on-the-job competence of learners
  1. To avoid death by eLearning, have learners DO things! No, not merely to have them doing things, but doing things in support of the learning. The following strategies are especially important in this regard.

Interactions: These can be as simple as requiring learners to click, select, consider a choice, fill in a blank, or listen to audio. Admittedly, this is not high-level interaction, yet engaging the learner even in simple ways does help, though we don’t want to make it overly redundant, or trite. Keep in mind that for safety, competence and compliance training, companies want to be able to prove that learners accessed all of the content; while we want to give learners choices, giving them the choice to skip content is often not appropriate.

We know that our learners will try to answer an email, take a phone call, or even have live conversations while a course is on screen. IDs become indignant about such distracted learners; so, while it is not admittedly high level activity, at times ANY activity can help keep learners involved with the course.

Scenarios: Give your learners choices! Adult learners want this, or they feel insulted by dull, generic content that they could just as easily read from a book or the internet. Scenario-based learning requires a higher level of engagement. This is where Bloom can inform your course design and you can move learners to higher levels of thinking.

Scenarios that call upon learners to make choices similar to the ones they need to make in the workplace, utilizing concepts being taught in the course, make a difference. They utilize adult learning principles and keep learners much more engaged, increasing the odds that the content will result in real learning at deeper levels, even resulting in behavior change and better results on the job, after the learning.

Media: Today, sound is a part of our lives; music is part of our everyday experience. Why should it not be part of our learning, as well? Appropriate music clips during time allowed for reading slide content (only when such content is necessary) can put the learner at ease; it can be relaxing and, according to some studies, can enhance the learning environment. Video, as we know, is more engaging than text or even audio, though working with video in eLearning courses requires more skill, software, and company bandwidth. I am glad to make recommendations regarding this issue. Frequent screen freezes and course re-starts are not engaging for learners.

Voiceovers: Typically a part of corporate eLearning, voiceovers can be helpful, but pitfalls exist. Adult learners like choices, one of which is to read at their own individual speed, which is difficult if someone is reading the words to them. Voiceovers should not merely read the words that are already on the screen. Computer programs with voices for reading eliminates the need for humans to do the voiceovers, though they often sound unnatural and are more distracting than helpful. I like to get my SMEs to read some, and they usually love it (though they won’t often say they do. One of my SMEs sent me this message, months after we finished a course together: “Found a new voice worthy enough to replace my all-star, MVP caliber vocals, yet?”). In scenarios, you will need multiple voices for different parts that will need to be read in character. Voiceover talent can be hired, as well. Some voices are better than others.

  1. Finally, to avoid death by eLearning, include a little personality and a sense of humor in your courses! Why not? Life is too short to be serious all the time!

A great placement for humor is within scenarios; learners appreciate this, because there is often humor in the challenges we face in the workplace every day. We all tell stories about the interesting, funny things that happen on the job. Why not build it into your learning? No, we don’t want humor just for its own sake; it has to support our learning objectives. Still, some appropriately placed humor can liven up the learning and increase learner engagement, and even improve assessment scores.

Find interesting voices, with color. Use graphics that add a touch of humor—always supporting the learning and never inappropriate for the workplace, but still engaging. eLearning is a graphics-hungry media. You never have enough, if used well.

Don’t only produce compliance-related courses. Find topics and content that will support the business, add value, and improve the competence of the workforce in professional skills, as well. Topics such as emotional intelligence, leadership, and management principles are important, and they will round out your curricula and add variety while benefiting learners as well as the organization.

Be sure that everything in your course WORKS as intended. Humor won’t minimize the effects of clunky course functions, screen freezes, links that go nowhere, and so forth.

And finally…make it fun for the ID team, as well. Enjoy what you do, and have fun at the business! The end result will be more engaging for your learners and for yourselves.

To avoid death by eLearning, utilize these principles. When starting down the path of developing eLearning, especially in new initiatives, it helps to find a mentor and to be part of a team that all shares the same vision; after all, we are learners, too. We all have to add value to our organizations, and it helps when we can do it as part of a team. Most of all, enjoy the journey!

To join in the discussion, please comment!

5 thoughts on “Avoiding Death by eLearning: Four Key Strategies”

  1. Extremely informative for anyone who teaches or designs courses for adults in the corporate, private, or non profit sector. I would sum up by adding that having a clear objective, knowing the audience, and ensuring the course/training is relevant and cogent to the participants should be given the utmost consideration. Obtaining Input from leaders and sme would be wise to ensure the course is given or developed to offer value and is in line with company principles

    1. Thanks, Steve. I’m glad this piece resonated with you. I know we will be talking soon.


  2. I can see how this mindset is adapted in your classes. Sometimes I feel like professors see my writing style as unbalanced, unfocused or even unprofessional because I tend to use a lot of humor (not to mention all of the parenthesis). In five week classes, it is difficult to feel this out until the class is almost half way done or more. It’s almost like going on a first dates except, in the education world, you don’t end up with a string of unanswered calls and texts; you end up with a bad grade on your transcript and a bad experience in the classroom. I am writing a sermon for a friend’s church to be delivered in the next month or so and am trying to juggle a lot of the balls you describe here- humor, content, message and adaptation to each major learning style. How do you manage this juggling act?

    1. Richard,

      For me as an editor, writer and teacher, it’s not about right and wrong in writing as much as it is about what’s appropriate for the context you are navigating.


  3. As a contract instructional designer, I have been in several companies as they go through organizational change meant to implement rapid development. So far, they have all gone through a cycle of seeing their quality drop and then implementing more review cycles to check quality in the mistaken belief that that’s what it takes to improve quality. This might be part of the reason people start to equate rapid development with poor quality. I think the heart of rapid development needs to be collaboration between knowledgeable IDs who are skilled in using the tools available in the organization and subject matter experts who are available for that collaboration and consultation. I look forward to seeing more of your posts, Glenn!

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