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The Rapid E-Learning Blog - desert island reading for the stranded elearning developer

Back in the ‘80s there was a music magazine that published a list of desert island discs.  People would write in and share the ten records they’d bring if they were stranded on an island.  I used that list to find people who had similar tastes and then checked out the bands they’d recommend.  That’s how found a lot of new bands like Milli Vanilli.

I get a lot of questions about book recommendations from people just getting started with elearning.  So for today’s post I’d like to do something similar to the desert island discs.

Let’s suppose you are on a desert island and in between catching fish and talking to volleyballs you have a deep desire to learn more about elearning. You can only bring three books. Which books are they and why?  I’ll get it started.

Elearning 101

Here is what I see as the three core elements of a successful elearning course.  I shared a little about this in this post on mapping out elearning courses.

  • Visual design: Is the course visually appealing and use effective visual communication?
  • Content: What content needs to be in the course?
  • Learning activities: What will the learner do with the content?The Rapid E-Learning Blog - three core elements of course design

If we broke those into three areas of expertise they would probably be something like this:

  • Visual design & communication
  • Instructional design
  • Interaction design

Here are the books I’d recommend to those stranded elearning developers who are just getting started and want to build their elearning skills so they’ll be prepared when rescued from the island.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - desert island elearning book recommendations

  • Design for How People Learn. It’s important to understand how people learn because it will help you build better learning experiences. Unfortunately most people I talk to don’t have a formal education in instructional design. This book is probably the single best book for the person who’s just getting started and wants to know more about instructional design and how people learn.
  • White Space is Not Your Enemy: A Beginner’s Guide to Communicating Visually through Graphic, Web and Multimedia Design.  Good visual design combines courses that look great with good visual communication.  Unfortunately there’s not enough focus on that for elearning.  Anything you can do to help you get there is a win.  This book is a good start.
  • Beyond Bullet Points.  Many elearning developers overlook this book because it’s about presentations.  But here’s why I think it’s a must-have elearning book.  Most elearning courses are closer to online presentations than structured learning activities.  This book is great at helping you craft a message that has meaning and impact.  In addition, it also introduces the same cognitive load stuff that you’d find in Multimedia Learning and E-Learning & the Science of Instruction (both good books, by the way).

The links to Amazon books may produce a slight commission.

Obviously there are many good books from which to choose, but for now, these are the three I’d recommend.  Which three books would you take and why?  Feel free to share your recommendations in the comments section.


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36 responses to “Are These the Three E-Learning Books You Would Recommend?”

November 29th, 2011

Love these suggestions, I’ll certainly check them out.

I’d also recommend…..

Presentation Zen – Garr Reynolds (all round presentation guru!)
Great to help move towards “this is not a slide, this is a black space” type design

Brain Rules – John Medina – great and entertaining explanation of how the brain works

Slide:ology – Nancy Duarte, an expert on creating presentations which are visually interesting, lots of great ideas on thinking about and creating stimulating visuals

Thanks Tom, I think my tree books would be the Non-Designers Design Book, Presentation Zen and Slideology

I really enjoyed:

Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual – Timothy Samara

Great reference for someone new to graphic design.

Great recommendations, as usual, Tom. The three books I would take are:
1. Mager: Analyzing Performance Problems (to remind me that training or elearning is not always the answer).
2. Mayer: Multimedia Learning
3. Clark/ Lyons: Graphics for Learning

November 29th, 2011

Like Tom, I’d pack Better Than Bullet Points, then add Telling Ain’t Training and Michael Allen’s Guide to Elearning–or any of Mr. Allen’s series–they are all wonderful!

November 29th, 2011

I like E-Learning by Design by William Horton. It has a lot of examples and sample screen shots, and is based on sound instructional design principles.

By far and above all other books, I would take:

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction“, by Drs. Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer.

Even for those folks who feel they are in “e-Learning 101”, this one book will help them step off on the correct foot.

I’d also take Michael Allen’s “Guide to e-Learning“, my second favorite book on this topic.

I think that all of these books are helpful, but I’ve been looking for books that are specific to developing and teaching online courses in higher education and I can’t seem to find any that are just right. If anyone has some recommendations they would be greatly appreciated. I really want something specific to online development for higher education, rather than just the general learning theory or online development for corporate texts. Thanks!

Correction: MillI* Vanilli. 🙂

I would also vote for The World is Open by Bonk – it doesn’t have ‘e-learning’ in the title, but it’s still a great thought-provoker!

November 29th, 2011

Great suggestions!

I second the recommendation for “e-Learning and the Science of Instruction.” I also suggest “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams.

November 29th, 2011

For design I would reccomend Garr Reynolds’ “Presentation Zen” and “Presentation Design“.

I also like William Horton’s “E-Learning by Design” and Nancy Duarte’s “Slide:ology“.

I know that’s 4 but I couldn’t choose 😀

Great suggestions from everyone! I would second Horton’s e-Learning by Design and add slide:ology (or Resonate) by Nancy Duarte as well as The Learning and Development Book by Tricia Emerson.

Before I even read your list, i was thinking of ‘Beyond Bullet Points.’ I’d also add ‘Don’t Make Me Think!‘–it’s about Web Pages and navigation, but it has helped me consider the USABILITY of my eLearning. Michael Allen’s book is my third; he’s a master at eLearning solutions.

@Leah: I was thinking of Mill Vanilli. They were the band famous for lip syncing Milli Vanilli’s lip synced songs.

I second Samantha’s suggestion of Presentation Zen – that book has totally transformed my sense of how to communicate information visually.

Three happy cheers for these wonderful book suggestions. From the online preview, “Design for How People Learn” seems much more accessible than some of the textbooks I’ve had the “pleasure” of slogging through. Another vote for the Non-Designer’s series by Robin Williams and Presentation Zen. I tend to be wordy (really!?). I appreciate all the help I can get to develop my graphical skills.

@Kelly: I think you only recommended the Zen book because he’s from Oregon. 🙂

November 29th, 2011

What a great discussion Tom! I loved Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. It provides great design tips that are easy to understand and apply. I think Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte is wonderful for design and turning words (thoughts) into pictures / interactions. Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath is an easy read, listing out the 6 key qualities that make an idea (training) stick. Beyond Bullet Points, Presentation Zen, Telling Ain’t Training, are good reads also. I will be checking out e-Learning and the Science of Instruction.

Awesome suggestions and a great way to get the conversation going!
I second “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug. 🙂

Another book that really changed the way I think about designing learning – making it learner centered – is “Creating Significant Learning Experiences” by L. Dee Fink. It does not talk about e-learning specifically, but how to make learning super relevant to the learner, which you can then transition into powerful elearning with the help of the great books that Tom recommended.

Take care!

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Hey Tom,

Thanks for the kind words! If anybody is interested in learning more about the “Design For How People Learn” book, there’s some additional information and free sample chapter here:

So pleased you like it!

– Julie

@Julie: it’s a good book. You did a great job making what could be a difficult subject digestible. Plus, it’s aesthetically pleasing which makes the book approachable.

November 30th, 2011

Thanks for the suggestions! I’ve added them to my Amazon wishlist & will be picking them up over the next few weeks. I AM a newbie in this area and have found the following books to be fantastic guides:

Great Webinars: How to create interactive learning that is captivating, informative and fun by Cynthia Clay;
Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown & James Macanufo; and
The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media by Tony Bingham, Marcia Conner & Daniel H. Pink.

Another vote for e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Clark and Mayer. Invaluable in presenting the evidence base for what to include (or not) and why. And very readable too as evidence-based textbooks go.
Also another vote for Robin William’s The Non-Designers Design Book but I’d suggest getting the deluxe version which also includes his Typesetting book – and is imaginatively titled The Non-Designers Design and Type Books Deluxe Edition.
Slide:ology by Duarte is also great but if I really was limited to only 3 books I suggest Flawless Consulting by Peter Block which also has an accompanying Fieldbook for more help in how to apply Block’s ideas. A bit of an outlier and not directly relevant to design but it is a fantastic book for helping you to manage the relationship with your clients /internal customers /sub-contractors. You might create the most fantastic eLearning materials known to man but if you’re trying to make a living from this, how well you can manage the relationship with those you work with and for can make a huge difference.

Nice article and comments! Just bookmarked it for deeper research on each recommendation.

My suggestion is:

Performance consulting: Moving beyond Training, from James and Dana Gaines.

Keep doing the good work.


Great list! Classics among those noted, to be sure, and the titles listed cover theory and development, so I’d add “aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning” (available via which focuses on developing a strategy for an elearning curriculum. It’s widely read by consultants — especially those working with (or trying to make inroads with) nonprofits and associations, which operate differently than corporate clients. It’s written for people who aren’t elearning professionals but who — nonetheless — have to make some critical and expensive decisions about elearning.

December 1st, 2011

Wow, what a lot of book choices everyone! Thanks. Here are my votes:

1. Read and study Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning. Absolutely. For me it is like the Bible of e-learning and provides solid ways to think about a course before committing a plan to paper.
2. Beyond Bullet Points. Shows you HOW to make your presentation interactive.
3. The Non-Designer’s Design Book. Clearly shows how to think about space on the slide with simple illustrations, compare and contrast activities, and solidly explained principles. So many books, so little time!

P.S. Tom it was great meeting you yesterday in Olympia!

[…] Most people have heard of sites like Groupon or Living Social.  They’re social buying sites that have some sort of “deal of the day” where you can make discounted purchases as you recommend them to others.  It’s really not much different than the desert island disks I mentioned in last week’s post. […]

A great start to build your confidence in developing e-learning courses is the book “Making Sense of Online Learning: A Guide for Beginners and the Truly Skeptical” by Patti Shank and Amy Sitze. I loved the tongue-in-cheek converstational style.

December 6th, 2011

This message is for Beth requesting relevant books for e-learning in Higher Ed. The first book addresses instructional design. I am not sure if you already know the following books, but I find them very helpful in relation to the teaching and learning component. I would recommend the following:
1. Vai, Marjorie and Kristen Sosulski.2011. Essentials of Online Course Design A Standards-Based Guide. New York: Routledge.
2. Ko, Susan and Steve Rossen. 2010. 3rd ed. Teaching Online A Practical Guide. New York: Routledge.
3. Boettcher, Judith and Rita-Marie Conrad. 2010. The Online Teaching Survival Guide. Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

I just ordered the “Design for How People Learn” from Amazon. Thanks Tom for what I know will be a great book. I also love “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs”. Love Steve or hate him he was great at getting his point across in simple, easy to understand ways. And while not a book on e-learning there are certainly a lot of tips that we can all apply to our Articulate courses.

[…] of good book recommendations from blog readers in the comments section of the recent post, Are These the Three E-Learning Books You’d Recommend.  Some of them I haven’t read […]

December 13th, 2011

My thought was that it could be useful to list the top-vote-getting books recommended in this discussion. Here are those that received at least 3 votes.

1. Presentation Zen (6 votes)
2. Slide:ology (5 votes)
3. The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams. (5 votes)
4. Beyond Bullet Points (4 votes)
5. Michael Allen’s Guide to Elearning (4 votes)
6. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (3 votes)

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