The Rapid Elearning Blog

The difference between effective and ineffective elearning is how you design the learning process.  In this post, I’ll do a quick run through of some ideas centered on instructional design and three things that you want to consider when building your courses.

Focus on meaning and not information

We tend to equate learning with sharing information.  Typically if there’s something we want to change, we think about how to get more information to people.  In fact, most of the elearning courses I see are focused exclusively on sharing information.  While sharing information is part of the learning process, it isn’t THE learning process.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then the following point won’t come as a surprise.  To build better elearning courses, the solution is to focus on the learner and not just the information.  In fact, most disagreements we have with our subject matter experts and clients is usually because they tend to focus more on information and less on learning.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - sharing information is not the same as learning

We need to take the information and then package it in a way that allows the learner to use it.  That is when the learning happens.

When I was a young (and thin) video producer, I had to submit my projects for a peer review every Friday.  I wasn’t allowed to explain the intent of the project.  Instead, I had to play the video and then listen to what people got out of it.  One of the goals of this exercise was to see if those watching the videos got the message I intended.  In most cases they didn’t.  Usually, the reason was that my videos were designed for me and not my audience.

Through those peer reviews I learned that my job wasn’t to give people information.  Instead, it was to craft meaning out of the information.  This applies to instructional design, as well.

The e-learning course is just one part of a complex process

As humans, we’re always in learning mode.  We don’t turn learning on or off.  In a sense, learning is like an ecosystem.  We’re continually influenced by information, our social interactions, and experiences.  These shape who we are and what we know.  And this ultimately determines how we act.

We don’t learn just because someone gives us information or tells us that today we’re in a “course.”  We learn because that’s how we’re wired.  So when we do happen to take a course we fold it into our learning ecosystem and make it part of how we understand the world around us.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - our courses fit into a larger learning ecosystem 

While we invest a lot of energy in building our elearning courses, those who take them aren’t as vested.  To them, the course only represents one part of a larger process.  How a person learns and builds understanding involves more than just taking a 30 minute elearning course.

Instructional designers are intentional

An instructional designer takes information and presents it to the learners so that they can develop context.  When it’s done right, it can expedite the learning process which can save time and resources.

Here are a few simple examples.  Look at the text below.  It’s information.  But what does it mean?  Is it in reference to a storage bin?  The sport of boxing?  A shape?

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - box

In the example above, the meaning of the information is up to the learner to decide.  But who knows what they’ll come up with?  Since you could have multiple meanings, you end up having to correct perceptions that run counter to what you are trying to teach.

Now, let’s look at the next image.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - box image and box text

You see an image of a box and the word.  However, you’re not quite sure of the relationship, if there is one.  This again forces the learner to think through the information.  They might or might not see a relationship. And in turn, might draw the wrong types of conclusions.  Just like the first image, if they draw conclusions that are not consistent with what you are trying teach, you’ll have to spend additional time and resources bringing more clarity to the information.

In the image below, because the box and the word are close together, you have an implied relationship.  This brings clarity to the learner.  You don’t need to explain as much because of the way the image is designed.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - relationship between image and text

When it comes to instructional design, everything you put on the screen serves some purpose.  In the example above, we started with the word “box.” By itself it can mean many things.  Without some intentional design the learner can be distracted by irrelevant information or assumptions.  In some learning environments that might be fine and exactly what you want.  But in many it can be a waste of time and resources.

Adding the image of the box made it a little clearer.  However, the final example with the image and text together brought meaning to the word.  When you design your courses, think less about the information, and more about the relationship the pieces of information have to each other and most importantly to the learner.

While the above examples are simple, they do represent something essential to instructional design.  You take information and present it in such a manner that the learner is able to see its relationship and context.

As an instructional designer, you want to focus on meaning.  How is the information important to the learner?  In what context?  Considering that the elearning course is only one part of the learning process, what other ways can you support that learning happens?  Is there a way to leverage the learner’s already existing learning ecosystem?

Finally, can you expedite the learning process by building the right types of relationships between the pieces of information?  Are you using the right images, text, and multimedia?

These are just a few things to consider when building courses.  The key takeaway is that learning is complex and because you build an elearning course doesn’t mean that learning happens.  It involves an intentional act on your part and a commitment from the learner to apply what is learned.  The better you design the information, the more likely the learner is to commit to using it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Feel free to share them by clicking on the comments link.

Also, if you liked this article, you might also find these previous posts useful:


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31 responses to “3 Things to Consider When Building Your E-Learning Courses”

Hi Tom,

I was just thinking about this last week in the context of my company’s efforts to redesign our onboarding workshops. Debate is endless regarding the information that should be included in the instructor-led workshop and that which should be left for the employee to look up on the Intranet. But the truth is, the entire discussion is missing the point you make in your post – the objective of the onboarding process is not (or should not be) information transmission! Instead, the focus should be placed on transmitting corporate values, allowing people to speak to managers that are normally not available, and understanding how to go about finding corporate information and documentation when it’s needed.

One would think that at this stage in the game (the post Google, Wikipedia, YouTube age) training departments would understand that shoveling information is a waste of time.

Thanks for a great post that highlights some often-overlooked common sense!

Hi Tom,

Ditto what Anthony said above, and thanks for a back-to-basics blog post.

Instructional design is all about improving:

* Performance (on the job, if for employees).
* Business results (increase sales, for example).

And all about the transfer, and application, of:

* Knowledge
* Skills
* Attitude

That is, now that the learners see the box, what are they supposed to do with that information on the job (or, in life)? What results can they look for a few weeks or months down the road?

I hear what Anthony’s saying… sometimes we IDs design for the learner, but the powers-that-be (Marketing Dept., Legal, etc.) change our designs for their reasons. And, that’s only one reason why I love Articulate’s suite of products.

Why? Storyboard focus groups. For one very large, complicated course, I first designed a PPT storyboard with simple drawing shapes and text, indicating interactions as we navigated through the prototype.

Result? The stakeholders “got it”! (With Articulate Studio, it’s then rapid development on the approved design.) I find that a PPT prototype of a well-designed storyboard demonstrated in a focus group of stakeholders and learners reduces the shoveling of information that non-designers have in mind.

Thanks for the reminders, Tom!

April 14th, 2009

Tom, thank you for taking the time to write these posts. Your blog was the first I ever started to follow and I continue to find them useful in my work. As a new-ish instructional designer always looking to improve, you help me to keep my eye on the ball.

Great post Tom! As a big proponent of communicating with images, the juxtaposition of text/images can be a powerful way to extract the meaning of the context of the learning.

Similar to the box analogy, if I have an image of an apple it can be confusing of what the meaning is even if there is a paragraph to support it. If I place the text “apple” below the image the text/image assocation is clear. Now, if I place the text “New York” next to the apple we can associate the meaning by the city’s nickname, “Big Apple.” Finally, if I place the text “Keep the doctor away,” the meaning refers to healthy eating. All three examples using the same image, but simply adding text to an image we get three distinct meanings.

I love Monday’s now after following your blog…because I know Tuesday is coming next and I get to read your newest post 🙂

Thanks Tom!

April 14th, 2009

As Kevin mentions, I think the idea of context can’t be stressed enough. Its not just what does the box (or the apple!) mean but what does it mean specifically for the application of learning.

I think this is really critical when deciphering technical or process-related information from subject matter experts. So often, the context of a particular piece of information or step in a process is just implied. Its easy to forget that learners don’t have this implied information – some of the blanks may need to be filled in for them.

Like Tom explains, if we don’t give the learner enough context they will draw their own conclusions. There’s nothing worse than walking away from training with the wrong conclusions!


Spot on!

I’m currently reading Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath. Your post reminds me of two their principals for making ideas sticky.

Simplicity: How many presentations/seminars/webinars have you attended where the expert couldn’t break out of his professional language. Lawyers are particularly bad at this. Presenters/trainers must present/train at a level their audience can understand. They may be experts in their field, but unless they can translate their knowledge into something comprehensible, they may as well be barking dogs.

Concreteness: When a learner is reaching higher levels of understanding, abstract concepts are, well, abstract. Trainers need to attach concepts to concrete examples. Proverbs, parables that have survived for a thousand years are full of concrete examples. Do they survive because they are concrete? Or did they evolve to become concrete because that’s what people remembered from previous generations, to tell to successive generations? It doesn’t matter. It proves the point either way.

Without these two concepts, one may as well be, as Anthony says, shoveling information.

Thanks for a great recap of training with the “end in mind”. I agree that we often focus too much on pushing out information and not enough on what the goal is for the user. Your examples were excellent.
Here’s the 4th big question to consider when designing e-learning courses. How long should they be? My attention span is pretty limited and that’s when I care about a topic. It’s worse when I don’t care or the concepts are new. Any recommendations?

I agree with Kevin – nice to anticipate reading your writings. It’s so nice to see a group of people that have an interest in learning and improving.

As stated in the past, colocating information and people does not learning make. Your posting today also opens the idea of the difference between education and training – getting people to think and getting people to do something a certain way.

Between your information and Kevin’s awesome example it should give those of us that design training activities a plethora of ideas on how we can improve our customer’s learning, retention, and overall final performance.

Thanks again!

Critical ideas, Tom. Thanks for sharing. In terms establishing the context for learning, I would really like your opinion on Roger Shank’s work on the Story-centered curriculum (SCC). This winter while teaching a class of 214 mechanical engineers, I tried SCC by writing a 40 page novel called “10-days with Greene Manufacturing Company.” Members of the 17 student teams role-played their job position (Project engineer, design engineer, marketing specialist, etc.). As the story unfolded students were exposed to a series of practical engineering challenges that were suggested to me by a local engineering firm. Learning in context instead of an artificial, contrived, synthetic situation seems to me to be a much better way for learning and remembering what was learned. In additon to collaborative problem solving, team members learned to work together, communicate, interact with peers and mentors from local companies they had visited. Would like your thoughts. Dell

Hi Tom, Thanks for the great insight. Similarly, to get to know the learners context it’s useful to observe and interview them before designing learning. In my latest project, we are training some design changes to the sales leads system. In order to fully grasp where my audience was coming from and what they would find relevant, I sat and observed three of them using this system and conducted a short 1/2 hour interview each. Guess what? Each used the system differently and I will tailor the design as such. Thanks again for reminding us that the learner comes first.

April 14th, 2009

This is ohhhh so true. A real challenge for instructional designers to think less about the ‘information’ and to consider its ‘relevance’ and ‘meaning’ to the learning. In times where we are all inundated with ‘information overload’ in work and personal lives, it is so, so important to focus on ‘meaning’.

Another great blog Tim, love your stuff! 🙂

My team and I are often challenged by our clients, who are our SME’s … its a different mind set and our key objective is to influence our designs of eLearning solutions, so that learners actually do learn … and as you say it is part of a larger learning ecosystem.

Thanks again Tim.

April 14th, 2009

Hi Tom,
As always, great post with very relevant information.
I have to prepare and deliver many presentations (one-directional e-learning?), and I find all of what you write in these blogs to be relevant and useful. I’m inclined to think these things are even more relevant in a presentation context because you only have one chance to get the message across. The listener has no direct interaction and he/she cannot go back to a previous slide to recap if there is any uncertainty.
Thanks again.

April 15th, 2009

All great input! I’m glad to hear I am not alone in my challenges! Communicating the difference between information dump and designing training as a catalyst for performance or behavior change is one of my biggest challenges as an instructional designer. Even in my own department (WW Sales Education). If I had just $1 for every time I heard “I have too much information I need the learners to hear to waste time doing those activities” ….I would be wealthy! But enough of that…

I wanted to add to the conversation a point that someone made earlier….in order for adults to connect new knowledge, skill or abilities to what they already know (a key principle for successful adult learning). My model of ID development that has been incredible successful always includes a reflect activity. So, after you have created a learning environment that is relevant and contextual, design activities in which the learners reflect on the new information, skill or ability they have gained and connect it to what they already know or do. These activities don’t have to be long or complicated; they can be simple and straightforward. In an elearning environment, it requires a bit more creativity but I have found with the variety of tools in Articulate…the options are endless!

April 15th, 2009

One of the great advantages (and challenges) of dialog is that the topic evolves so much. Now I want to hear more about reflection activities! 🙂

I’ve seen many software training programs (the vast majority, in fact) that use the design of the program as the design outline for the training. Always a disaster; information overload in the extreme. “Now let’s examine the Edit menu…”

It’s a perfect example of ignoring all of the principles in this post.

Really effective training on software:
– Has a tight focus on tasks performed
– Gets the learner into the real program quickly, either
doing or simulating the real job
– Starts with context (WIIFM, Conceptual foundation)

Are those the three points in Tom’s post? It constantly astounds me how often I have to be reminded of the basic foundational principles required. I not only never stop learning, I never stop rediscovering. Thanks for a great post and excellent commentary.

Hi Tom,

Of course there are much more than 3 things to consider when building an e-larning course. But the point you’ve raised (focusing on the audience instead of information) is key to the succes of an e-learning program.

Here, at out company, many of the trainees are low-skilled. We cannot build courses with complex navigation or technical language. Everything has to be carefully planned with appropriate language and design. So, focusing on the audience is essencial. We had some bad experiences in the past regarding e-learning. Nowadays, things have changed. E-learning is successful and everyone is engaged.

I wrote here and it did accept it .I only what to tell you that I have the Office 2007 and now I can work here.
Thank you

Nice data! I’m about to launch a large series of online courses and need to navigate the issues.

Use of color and font styles contributes to context. If the box had been a a drippy red, and the font had been gothic style… it would have seemed “out of context” with what I have come to expect from The Rapid Elearning blog. That would be a distraction…at least for me.

[…] artículo es una traducción del artículo “3 things to consider when bouilding your E-learning Courses”, lo podéis encontrar en el siguiente blog: “The Rapid E-learning […]

[…] 3 Things to Consider When Building Your E-Learning Courses – The Rapid eLearning Blog (tags: elearning articles design) […]

[…] in PowerPoint and how they stifle learning as well as conversations about flashy visuals and information overload in e-learning presentations. While it may not have been the intent of the director to overload me visually, that certainly was […]

[…] Help learners create meaning out of the information you share […]

Yes, Yes, Yes! e-Learning is not just taking content and cutting and pasting it onto a slide. But I’ve seen so many inexperienced organizations try to do it themselves and make this mistake leaving very ‘heavy’ slides with paragraphs of information for the learner to ‘read’ on the screen. Ineffective for sure.

The role of the Instructional Designer is not only to break down content into manageable chunks, but also to create the module breakdown, hence outline, and convert the content into e-Learning language based on the specifications of the audience. Most of the time the e-Learning storyboard is much more conversational than any other form of training materials.

I actually just posted some DIY ID tips in the Feb. newsletter for my readers. lol

March 8th, 2012

Hi Tom. I really love reading your articles. I have a burning question being debated right now with my team.

I’m very interested what people think about what is defined as best practise eLearning navigation.

Is navigational back/next buttons best practise? Or is navigational hotspots created within the defined imaging of the module better practise? I’m very interested on the end user experience and I find the over use of back/next just not a creative solution for navigating through content.

It’s a fine line between personal preference and what is navigational best practise these days? Thoughts…?

That’s a good question. I’d err on the side of context. Create a way to navigate the content that fits the context of the content and learning experience. At the same time, consider the norms and essential user experience design. No need to move the next button to a different place on the screen if it’s still a next button.

[…] Tom Muhlmann (2009)  explains how instructional design is critical to students’ success in an online […]

[…] 3 Things to Consider When Building Your E-Learning Courses The difference between effective and ineffective elearning is how you design the learning process. In this post, I’ll do a quick run through of some ideas centered on instructional design and three things that you want to consider when building your courses. Focus on meaning and not information We tend to equate learning with sharing information. Introducing Yourself in a PowerPoint Presentation Rotating PowerPoint Shapes, Pictures or WordArt using the Keyboard digg […]