The Rapid Elearning Blog

One of my favorite parts of designing elearning courses is coming up with some treatments or ideas that we can present to the client.  I’m always playing around with ideas.  Most of them are kind of goofy and not always appropriate for the client’s project.

However, it’s okay to come up with dumb ideas.  The process of playing around and thinking about different ways to approach the course will ultimately help you come up with some pretty cool ideas. Besides there are enough boring elearning courses to provide balance to the occasional dumb idea. 🙂

At some organizations, we’d regularly schedule a session where all we did was spend about an hour or two coming up with ideas for courses.  Then we’d narrow it down to about twenty good ones that we could pull out of the hat for our client meetings. 

There’s a lot of value in this.  It’s a great way to jump start your next project.  You also get your creative juices flowing and learn to think about things in different ways.  In addition to all of that, it’s usually pretty fun and a great way to build camaraderie (unless of course, one of your team mates is the elearning equivalent of Nurse Ratched).


In today’s post, I thought I’d offer some ideas that I was thinking about this week.  You might like them, you might not.  The point isn’t so much that it’s an idea that will really work for you.  Instead, it’s a springboard to help get some ideas flowing.

Magazine Cover

The other day as I was getting a glass of water, I saw a woman’s magazine on our kitchen counter and noticed a headline on the cover.  It read, “10 Things Men Want Women to Know (But Won’t Tell Them).”  Realizing that this was an important topic and one my wife might want to know about, I opened the magazine and scanned the article.

They tricked me because the article was actually about the 10 best husbands in the country or something stupid like that.  Not only did they all look fake with their six-pack abs, nice hair, and thin bodies, their advice was also lame.  I’m not sure they represented men well.  Based on their advice, it’s as if they were either Stepford husbands or eunuchs. Now that I think of it, the misleading title was probably a ruse to entice husbands to read it.

Regardless of that article’s intent, they did a great job getting me interested in exploring more of the article.  In fact this is a common approach for magazine covers.  We could learn from that.  Why couldn’t you design your elearning course to have a similar look and feel?

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Magazine cover mock up for elearning

What you do is break all of your content into chunks.  Then design your course to look more like a magazine cover with enticing headlines.  The learner clicks a title and it takes them to that chunk of information.

Find a Cure

There’s always a performance-based element to your elearning course.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Your either sharing information to keep the learner informed or you’re teaching a skill to do the job better.  Most of the times, the course follows a very linear process where everything is laid out a certain way.  And then we walk the learner through the content from A to Z.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Medical investigation approach to elearning

Change things up.  Flip the course around.  Start as if the person is sick and being rushed to the Emergency Room.  The learner’s goal is to diagnose the problem and come up with a cure.  This could be a fun way to present the course topic.

Panel Discussion

Too often in an elearning course everything is a one-sided presentation and doesn’t do a good job handling objections.  This is really true for soft skills training where the learners can usually come up with a bunch of reasons why the approach taught might not work.

Why not create your course as if it were a mock panel discussion with “experts.”  You can use the experts to share your course content and also deal with objections or potential issues.  Or instead of a panel discussion, make it look like a news talk show.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Present your elearning course content as a debate or panel discussion

Create a moderator and some characters.  The moderate moves the content along by asking questions.  And then you share the course content via the characters as they debate the subject. 

One of the characters could be a foil who throws a wrench in the conversation.  It’s a good way to deal with the objections learners might have to some of the information.  If you have the time, break out your video camera and use video clips instead of clip art or stock images.

So there you have it, three simple design ideas for your next elearning course.  If they work for you, feel free to use them.  If you do, let me know.  I’d love to see what you come up with.

If they don’t work for you, that’s fine.  The intent here is not to give you the world’s best ideas, but instead to get you thinking about different ways to present your elearning courses.  As in all brainstorming sessions, some ideas are better than others.  However, all ideas are good because they can spawn even better ones.

What are some other ideas that we can add to this list?  What can you share with the rest of us?  Share your ideas and suggestions in the comments box.

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27 responses to “3 Brainstorm Ideas for Your Next E-Learning Course”


What you wrote in the “Magazine Cover” section hits the nail on the head. It reflects the approach I’ve taken in the last year creating sales training courses for a large retailer.

I’ve tried to incorporate the principles of effective copywriting into my recent courses. Marketers and Ad professionals have a certain respect for their audiences that we as learning designers/developers should learn from. Marketers realize that their audiences can easily walk away, change the channel, turn the dial, etc. We sometimes think we hold our learners “hostage” and don’t respect that autonomy.

There are many sites dedicated to effective copywriting… I’d like to see you explore this more in your blog. It’s done wonders for the quality and effectiveness of my courses so far.


Here is an idea I once had that came to me in an unusual way. I was working on a course for a rather confusing new banking application. I had many SMEs who, along with myself, were on the project to build this application. Each SME headed up a very specific aspect of the project. I was constantly gathering information and learning for each SME as the project evolved and the application was getting closer to launch.

So, for the course the participant entered the course as a project team member and was introduced to each SME and their role in developing the app. The participant’s job was the same as mine, to interact with each SME and learn as much as possible about this new application. The SMEs were represented as cartoon characters and through the course I even added phone calls and e-mails that the SMEs sent the participants with important info about the application. The participants really liked the search and find aspects of it, plus they learned a little bit about the process the back office has for developing new systems.

I’m currently working on a short, live session that will be videotaped and then turned into eLearning. It’s a pretty familiar topic: goal setting (including the SMART formula). We’ve decided to do it as a game show – Reach That Goal!

In the qualifying round our MC will talk about the importance of having a vision that’s detailed, then our 3 contestants will share their visions and the audience will select the two contestants who will go on. In the eLearning module the learner will make the choice and get feedback if they don’t agree with our studio audience.

In the Challenge round we’ll work through the SMART formula one letter at a time by giving criteria, then having the contestants explain how their goal fits them, and having the audience vote on which contestant’s goal fits the criteria better (we have little wireless voting pads and software that tabulates them for a real game show feel, but we could just as easily give them cards to hold up and count the vote). For the eLearning, this will give the learner a chance to make their selections and they’ll get some feedback about them. At the end of the Challenge round we’ll add up the scores and one contestant will go on.

In the Bonus round we’ll look at creating a plan. We’ll define milestones, deadlines, obstacles, strategies and reviews then ask our contestant to share an example from their plan.

Our final skill testing question asks them which of these 3 words will NOT help you: Persist, Persevere, Procrastinate? A correct answer takes us to the Celebration slide and then we say once again, it’s time to play Reach that Goal because goal setting never ends.

We’re all pretty excited about this idea. We looked at other ideas: a dialog with a guru, a comedy sketch, a talk show interviewing a famous historical figure, using a familiar process like making an egg salad sandwich, or taking a vacation in Tuscany, but none of them really grabbed our imaginations.

This promises to be fun, lively, exciting and motivating.

I like this as a starting point. Here are some other ideas:

1. Create a menu and the learner has to choose the items for success
2. Create a survival kit where the learner stocks the kit by completing sections of the course.
3. Have a mock interview. You interview the candidates and choose the one that best matches the criteria of the course.

July 21st, 2009

I like the emergency room idea. We created a course where you built a house. As you completed a part, you added to the house.

We’re working on one right now where you have to travel through a city. We’re experimenting with providing alternate routes so that there’s not only one way as much as there are places to go to get information. An experienced learner can go the shortest route and a new employee can take a longer one.

July 21st, 2009


Great suggestions. I’ve used similar presentation approaches for many years now. One in particular that I like is the “Wally and Beaver Clever method”. That is, an older, more experienced mentor is showing the young, nieve, newbie the ropes. The youngster asks all of the lead-in questions and the SME tells him/her all about it. I’ve even developed immersive interactions where “The Beav has figured it out and demonstrated that he can perform task X, now it’s your turn to show that you can do it too!”

If you are designing elearning in an environment where you have some creative freedom, it’s great to give your characters a personality and write in a style that suits that mental image. I’ve used personalities such as: John Wayne (easy going, unshakeable) teaches Marty McFly (hyper, gregarious) or James Bond (refined, articulate) teaches Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo cartoons (needs to be told what to do every step of the way). Not only do my learners have fun trying to figure out what the personalities of the characters are, but it’s a lot of fun to write in a manner that helps to define a specific character, pilgrim….

Hi Tom and Community of Commentors:

Great ideas from everyone!

Like Al, I’ve used the Mentor/Newbie approach, and it really works. This approach helps the ID to creatively address the Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes (KSAs) that the team identified during the Gap Analysis meetings with the CLO and the SMEs.

Another idea: Create a focus group scenario for software skills training. (I haven’t tried this, yet, for soft skills.) I’ve facilitated several focus groups over the years, and really valued the feedback we received.

A focus group scenario could really open the creative flood gates when you design and develop your course. And, it’s somewhat similar to what @Jeffrey designed for his project as he describes above.

In addition to your (Tom’s) idea of borrowing from magazine cover designs, I’ve used ideas from Web sites. For example, one of Apple’s Web pages caught my eye a few years ago, and the mockup I created worked well for my project.

July 21st, 2009

I love the magazine idea! I also really appreciate Steve’s comment: “We sometimes think we hold our learners “hostage” and don’t respect that autonomy” [to choose to do something else]. A big part of understanding adult learners is realizing that they have all sorts of other responsibilities competing for their time and attention. I have had lots of conversations with Nurse Ratched types who don’t believe you should have to make a course fun for learners because “they should do it because it’s their job.” Well, okay, they make take the course because it’s their job and they’ll check it off their training plan and get a nice certificate… but will they learn anything?

Regarding the mentor/newbie scenarios, those can be very useful but they are so often used that they have real potential to become old hat. If I remember correctly, Tom wrote a post about ways to vamp up this type of scenario by using conflict, making trouble for the characters, etc. What happens if the newbie does something the wrong way, for example?

Thanks, Tom, for another great post!

I recently created a Talk Show on Privacy topics for an annual compliance training complete with commercials. There were two segments with commercials separated by an infomercial. This allowed us to touch on the linear information on the three topics the SME wanted to touch on. By the end of the 10 minute course module, at the very least they knew what website to go to to find more information about Privacy. Knowing that the key is really training people where to look when they need the information instead of trying to force it into their long term memory. Once we had the script set – the development went very rapidly – using a combination of still photos, animation, and audio was fun and easy.

Dear Tom, it’s so nice to wake up (early Wednesday morning, in Sydney, Australia) to inspirational ideas for creating learning!

I especially like the flexibility of the magazine cover – this puts learners in control (though it is an illusion, as the designer has limited their options, so to speak)!!

Also, I really like the mock panel idea – sometimes feedback ( especially if it is critical in some way, and depending on the audience) can be a bit confrontational – so using a mock panel – and making it “funny” means that the message gets across and your learners need to think how this applies to them – great suggestions! Thanks so much!!!

Hi Tom,

These ideas are brilliant! Thanks for letting us in on some of your creativity. We’re always on the lookout for quirky ways to engage our audience.

Steve (in Toowoomba, Australia)

I’d like to add my thanks to those from others reading this early in the morning in Australia!

This post reminded me of an exercise I once designed for classroom training, for mortgage lending staff. After learning how to calculate borrowing power (the maximum amount the bank would lend, based on income, etc), workshop participants were placed in an ‘auction’ situation. They had to work out the borrowing power for their ‘customer’ and then bid to buy a property on their behalf. This morning’s post has inspired me to try and convert this idea into elearning format.

I hope that more people will share their creative ideas – it’s inspiring. Thanks, Tom, for your weekly posts – much appreciated.


Hi Tom

Thank you for your valuable info. I really want to try these in our elearning course.

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July 23rd, 2009

Great post Tom. I love the magazine cover idea. In fact, it is something I want to use right away, I have a concern though. Will it be too much to phrase sentences like 10 best ways to increase your monthly bonus (sales rep) or 7 secrets to impress your boss etc? Does phrasing the intended purpose of the course this way, give false ideas or set false expectations for the learners? This kind of “excited” phrases will definitely make sure they are eager to go through the course. My concern is saying things on the cover which do not fall through at the end. (Now that I read what I just wrote, its naive to think this way. But want to know your take on this)

@Deepali – I think you bring up a great point about expectations.

There’s a lot we can learn a lot from magazines and other media on how to create excitement around our elearning.

Your point about “energy” phrases is a good one in that “teasers” should be relevant to the content. It’s no different than aligning learning objectives to your content.

I think it’s a fun idea and a good example of how powerful framing can be in learning.

July 24th, 2009

Thanks David for the feedback. I think I am going to use the “teasers” and “energy phrases” as you call them. Learning from other types of media is what makes working on e-learning course so much fun. I can ‘borrow’ from other media, and yet make it educational and interesting.


Thank you very much for the fillip to our creativity. It is easy to fall into a rut because of the ever present deadlines.

I have two ideas to share –

1. we have once converted a goal-setting workshop into an eLearning course. We built in an online workbook for the participants to actually write (type) down their goals just like they can do in a workshop and save it on their system as well as online.

2. For a course on Foreign Corruption Prevention Act (FCPA), we reversed the sequence by conducting a kind of quiz first and based on the result, served the relevant content. The course was like a game with points and for the wrong responses, there was a choice – a hint, help in terms of resource links or complete explanation.

Thank you once again.

Hi Tom,
This is one of the cool ideas. Using characters to present a course like the one in Television Talk shows. In addition, you said that the writing style should be teasy and provocative.

I think the first idea comes from Television and radio production background. It is a pretty good as we have softwares to create characters for scenarios for the learners.
The second idea also sounds pretty cool as the writing in the media is dependent on the kind of story they are making and audience. We can use most of these writing techniques in the E-Learning writing depending on the kind of content.

Exactly true–creating content is an educational experience not only for the learners using it, but for the person who creates it. The preparation of learning material is an involved process. Just like preparing a semester’s worth of lesson plans, it doesn’t happen overnight, and the information doesn’t travel directly from the writer’s head and onto the online course.

Preparing a lecture or course material requires you to think more thoroughly about the subject than you normally would. Oftentimes, while collecting and organizing information, you find out there are some holes in your understanding. One’s efforts to fill these holes not only enrich one’s own expertise on the subject, but may be platforms for further research and learning.

Question: How do you respond to non-creative types (i.e. supervisors) that react to non-traditional (i.e. non-boring) approaches with,”Our audience is too [fill in the blank] for such a ‘cutesy’ approach.” ?

@Louise: I’d tell them they’re wrong. 🙂 Ask them to show you studies or any research they’ve done to show that it’s more than their opinion. 🙂

The key is not to make it cutesy, but to make it impactful and effective. You can probably get around some of their issues if you make the activities as real world as possible.

The other thing that’s worked for me in the past is to develop some treatments of various approaches. This way you can help them see alternatives.

August 20th, 2009

I am implementing an LMS within a large organization. We have a great discussion board feature and are having a difficult time getting people to use this feature. Do you have any tips?

Great post,
I am currently developing some eLearning products for training sales people. I will definitely consider some of your ideas and those in the comments section too.
Thanks Greg