The Rapid Elearning Blog

Archive for October, 2007


Everyone wants to build good elearning courses, whether for sharing new information or changing workplace behaviors.  While not all elearning objectives are the same, there are things you can do in your course design that help your learners recall the information and use it in the real world. 

To do this, you need to understand how the learner’s brain processes the elearning course content.  In this post, we’ll do a quick overview of cognitive learning theory and how it relates to your elearning courses.

Learning is the process of taking new information in your working memory and integrating it with existing knowledge in your long-term memory.  Once it’s in long-term memory you can recall it and transfer the knowledge to the real world. 

Here’s some basic information about working and long-term memory:

  • Working memory:  Your working memory is good at processing information, but it can only hold so much at one time.  All of your active thinking happens in the working memory. 
  • Long-term memory:  Your long-term memory is your storage center and holds your existing knowledge.  In the learning process, you are connecting the new information to prior knowledge.  As you actively process information, you are swapping it between working and long-term memory. 

Think of it this way.  Your working memory is like a white board where you can do a lot of calculations and diagramming on the fly.  On the white board, you need space to both write down information (temporary storage) and do your problem-solving (active processing). 

The problem is that you only have so much space.  As the white board gets cluttered with information, you run out of room to work.  That means you need to record the important information and free up space to do more work on the white board. 

One way to capture the information is to create post-it notes (long-term memory) to record the information on the white board.  Once you you have the notes, you are free to erase the white board and do more work.  And, if you needed to recall what you did earlier, all you have to do is look at one of your notes.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: Working memory and long-term memory 

Design E-Learning for Working Memory

As you go through an elearning course, what you see and hear enters your working memory where it is temporarily stored.  Your brain actively processes the new information and integrates it with what you have stored in your long-term memory. 

So, your brain is doing these things:

  1. Receiving new information
  2. Actively processing the information
  3. Integrating the information with long-term memory

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - How learners process elearning content in working memory

Here’s your brain’s challenge.  Most of us can only hold and process so much data.  For example, it’s not easy solving a math calculation like 219 X 473 in our heads because we have to store information at the same time as we process it.

Your working memory has limited capacity and can only do so much.  This is called the cognitive load.  If you load your working memory with too much information, then there’s no room to process it, which makes it more difficult to recall the information later on. 

This is where your elearning design skills come in.  Instead of just dumping information on the learner, you have an opportunity to guide the learner by structuring your content by how our brains process information. 

Basically, these three things have to happen:

  1. Organize Content into Small Chunks.  Structure the new information in small, related chunks so that it is optimized for working memory.  Don’t overload the working memory with irrelevant content.  The brain is sorting and organizing the information.  If it’s not relevant, or there’s too much of it, it interferes with the learning process.
  2. Build Upon Prior Knowledge.  Create processes where the learner can practice using the information in a context that integrates it with prior experience.  Case studies and practices exercises are good because they can be structured to combine the new information with the learner’s current understanding.
  3. Provide Real-World Context.  The goal is to get the learner to pull information out of long-term memory and transfer it to a real world context.  Create exercises and real-world scenarios that help the learner apply the new information into a workplace context.   Problem-solving scenarios help develop thinking skills that can be transferred to the real world.

If you want your learners to learn and use the course content after they’re done with the course, make sure that you create the elearning courses to be memorable.  Consider how much information you share and how you present it to the learner.


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.

Everyone wants to create e-learning courses that engage their learners. Yet there’s a lot of debate about what exactly engagement means. So I figured I’d boil down the different ways to engage learners and see how we can use them to make our elearning courses better.

rapid e-learning blog - passive and interactive navigation

To keep things simple, there are basically two ways we engage our learners with elearning course content. Either it’s a process of providing information from the course or it’s about having the learners use that information to make decisions in the course. The first mode is passive engagement while the second is active engagement. Both types of engagement have their places in your elearning courses.

Passive vs. Active Engagement

Here are two quick examples that show the difference between passive and active engagement. The first is a typical example of passive engagement since it just shares information. The second one demonstrates active engagement because it requires that you actively use the information from the course.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of passive learning interaction

Passive: Click here to see passive learner engagement.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - example of acitve learning interaction

Active: Click here to see active learner engagement.


Passive Engagement Give Us Access to Information

We read books and newspapers. We watch TV. No one would suggest that these are ineffective as a means of learning. These are good examples of what I call passive engagement. We get information but we aren’t doing anything with it, at least not actively.

Keep in mind, passive doesn’t mean ineffective. It also doesn’t mean that you have to stick with bullet points or just text like my example above. Just because the learner doesn’t have to do anything with the information at that point in the course doesn’t mean that you can’t add variety in how it’s delivered. Here is an example of passive engagement that is more than just bullet points.


Click here to see engaging passive content.

Active Engagement Helps Us Process Information

Active elearning courses are decision-based. Learners are given information and then have to make decisions. The navigation is typically designed in a non-linear fashion. However, that’s not always the case.

You can create active engagement using branched decisions like my earthquake example above, or you can even create a linear process like the Ergonomics demo below.

You’ll notice that in the "Self Assessment Tools" section you’re asked to make active decisions, yet it doesn’t require branched navigation. 

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - ergnomics elearning course example using active learner interaction

Click here to see ergonomics demo.

There’s a Time and Place for Passive and Active Engagement

Passive engagement is about delivering information. What makes it effective is when the information is timely and relevant. Think of your last successful Internet search. You needed some information and found it. In a similar sense, the elearning course is like the information online. It’s a resource available to help you at your time of need.

And as you can see, you’re not limited to boring screens of text and bullet points. With some creativity, you can construct very powerful pieces of information that motivate change. You just have to know how to touch the learner.

Active engagement is great because it allows the learner to immediately apply the information or understanding and get feedback.

The key to designing good active engagement is understanding the essence of the course content and purpose and then place the learner in an environment that replicates it.

For example, if you want to learn about knee replacement surgery, you can go through the National Library of Medicine’s elearning course with good information on knee replacement, or you can actively perform knee replacement surgery in the elearning course here at

What’s interesting is that both courses are effective in their own way. The EdHead course is definitely more memorable and engaging. However, the other one probably could serve better as an ongoing resource (with some tweaks to the navigation).

Regardless of the type of engagement you choose, the key is to create a way for the learner to get the information and training they need. As you can see, sometimes that means passive content and sometime it means active. It’s not an either-or decision; it’s all about what’s best for the learner and what will help you accomplish your goals in a timely and cost effective manner.


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.

performance vs information

Information isn’t the same as understanding. Many e-learning courses are designed to just share information. In some cases, that’s fine. But, there are many e-learning courses that are performance-based and in those cases we need to change how the learner thinks and acts rather than just regurgitate facts.

One evening I was working late and we had a fire drill. Everyone did what we learned to do in our safety course and we made our way to the exit. However, the exit was a sliding door that shut down during the drill.

Since the training didn’t provide information on how to open the sliding door once power was lost, we just sat there waiting for someone to come by and open the door for us. What struck me was that no one really knew what to do once we were presented with a challenge that wasn’t part of our training.

This was a reminder that there’s a difference between passing a site safety course (information) and really knowing what to do in the event of an emergency (understanding).


The safety course was typical of many e-learning courses. They’re designed to share information, but don’t usually go beyond that. Information sharing doesn’t work for courses where the learner is expected to take action or complete tasks. In those cases, the e-learning course needs to be designed to go beyond the facts and move towards creating new levels of understanding.

How Do I Create Understanding?

When we teach others we’re not looking for them to just know information. Instead, we want them to use information in context to make good decisions.

The challenge when creating e-learning courses is knowing how to build an environment where the learner can process the information and place it in the appropriate context and through that demonstrate greater levels of understanding. This all starts with some fundamental ideas around course design.

1. Establish clear learning objectives.

For the e-learning course to be successful, you need to establish clear learning objectives. This seems obvious. However, I’ve been involved in enough training programs to know that that’s not always the case.

Without clear objectives, you’ll have problems reaching your goals and you’ll probably not engage the learner. Like the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, most likely you’ll have no problems getting there.”

2. Determine what evidence proves understanding.

Once you establish the learning objectives, you need to determine how you’ll know they’ve been met. What evidence proves that the learner is able to meet the goals?

This goes beyond just creating a multiple choice quiz. What you really need to shoot for is evidence that demonstrates understanding not just how to do something but why.

3. Build the course to provide information AND create a learning experience.

Once I determine the right type of evidence to prove the learner’s understanding, I can build the experiences into my course that helps the learner get to the desired level of understanding.

I want to measure the learner’s grasp of the facts and I want to put the learner in a situation where she can use the facts and apply them to the nuances of real life decisions. This helps me see that not only does she get the information but that she is able to use the facts in an appropriate manner to make performance-based decisions.

4. Create the ability for learners to reflect on the information.

E-learning courses are good at sharing facts and information. The goal is to help the learner pull all of the information together and make good decisions. A step in the direction of creating real understanding is to help the learner reflect on the new information.

So often we share information and then move on assuming that the learner understands why the information is important. By reflecting on the information, you put the learner in a position to take abstract and disconnected facts and place them in an appropriate context. Here are some ideas on how to build reflection as part of the learning process:

  • Ask questions to hook the learners and get them to think about the information in a context that is important to them.
  • Have the learner’s review scenarios or case studies so that they can take the information out of the course and put it into the real world.
  • Create some sort of learning journal where the learners have to think about the course’s information and write out their thoughts. This helps them personalize the information and make it more than just a bunch of facts.

5. Create a way for learners to explore.

The other day I was out walking and I saw a skateboarder practice jumping in the air with the board. In the time I observed him, he must have jumped unsuccessfully at least twenty times. What intrigued me was that each time he jumped, somewhere in his brain he was making minor adjustments to his technique that will allow him to eventually become proficient at jumping.

How does this translate to e-learning? To get a learner beyond rote facts means that you have to create a place where the learner can make those “minor adjustments.” Learners need the ability to explore, to have a place of “what if’s” to see cause and effect.

  • Take a cue from Google. Free up the course navigation and give the learners the ability to click around and explore like they would online or if using a search engine. Present a challenge and have them look for an answer rather than just giving them the information.
  • Create scenario-based branches that allow the learner to make a choice and get feedback specific to the choice made.
  • Build an environment where the learners can modify variables to see the cause and effect of their decisions. Create interactive visual models where the learner can play around with “what if” scenarios.

To create an e-learning course that empowers the learner to make good decisions means that you have to create an environment where the learner gets important information and has time to reflect on its meaning and where it fits in the learner’s world.


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.


I just got back from the Brandon Hall Innovations in Learning conference.

In one of the presentations, the presenter talked about how ineffective PowerPoint was for learning. The irony of course was that he was using PowerPoint to teach this. It’s not the first time I sat through a PowerPoint session where the presenter was telling me that PowerPoint is ineffective for training.


PowerPoint is still the dominant tool of choice for many in our industry and for good reason. It’s accessible and easy to use. And since it is so widely used in most organizations, it’s easy to convert subject matter content into an effective elearning course.

PowerPoint gets a bad rap because there are a lot of bad PowerPoint presentations. Some of the blame rests on the default template settings, however more has to do with poor instructional design.

Here’s how I approach PowerPoint so I don’t fall into the bullet point trap.

Drop the Bullet Point Templates and Start with a Blank Screen


Look at the images above. Do you notice any similarities? They all have a blank screen.

Once you step away from the bullet point look, you open up all types of possibilities that extend beyond the typical PowerPoint slide shows. For example, you can create branched scenarios, flash animations, and even nice graphics. Click on the links below to see some quick examples.

Here is the PowerPoint file for you to download and see how it looks before publishing.

PowerPoint for E-Learning is More Than Just Online Slide Shows

There are a lot of people who are confused about using PowerPoint for elearning. Many still think it just means straight PowerPoint to Flash slide show conversion that gives you elearning courses limited to click-and-read, bullet point slides.

What makes an elearning course effective isn’t the authoring tool as much as it is the person who designs the course. That means a creative instructional designer can use PowerPoint coupled with a rapid elearning tool to build very effective elearning courses.

Today, good rapid elearning software can handle most of the multimedia that you can put in a course. Thus, it’s easy to step away from basic PowerPoint to Flash slide show conversion and instead create a very compelling multimedia experience. And you can do so quickly and at a reduced cost.

In fact, just to show you what you can do, I built this mini demonstration in just a couple of hours. I used PowerPoint as my authoring environment and included a variety of media. I was able to build this with no advanced programming skills.


Click here to launch the demo.

If this can be done in just a couple of hours, what could you do when given a project with clear objectives, the freedom to add more than just bullet points, and a dose of your own creativity?


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.