The Rapid Elearning Blog


Building an e-learning course can be time-consuming and costly.  Because of this you don’t want to waste your resources by making your e-learning course more complex than it needs to be.  Instead, your objective is to create the best e-learning course you can with the limited resources you have.

Identify the Course’s Purpose

The intent of most e-learning courses is to change performance.  However, the type of course that’s usually built focuses on sharing information rather than performance improvements.  This happens because most people focus on delivering content rather than on changing performance.

Your first step is to get your client focused on the real performance goals and then guide them to the right type of intervention.  Sometimes it means they don’t need an e-learning course.  In that case you save time and money by not building the e-learning course.

However, if they still need (or want) an e-learning course, then determine what type of course they need.  By identifying the type of course you are building, it’s easier to determine what resources you can commit.

Understand the Type of Course


E-learning courses typically focus one of two things: sharing information or changing performance. And, within that framework, there are basically three types of e-learning courses.

  1. Communicate information with no performance expectations.   Information-based courses communicate new information but have no built-in expectations of changed performance.  A good example is a course that highlights new features of a software application.  You learn about the new the features but you aren’t required to do anything with this new information.
  2. Give step-by-step instructions that have specific outcomes.  These courses are focused on procedures and how to do something.  They’re made up of repeatable tasks that are very close to what the learner will do at work.  A good example is showing someone how to complete a worksheet or use software.
  3. Share guidelines to help the learner solve problems.  The most challenging courses to design are those where you teach principles or guidelines versus repeatable steps.  You really have to understand the nuances of the learner’s situation and how the principles can be applied while respecting the fact that each application is somewhat unique.

All three types of courses can be as simple or complex in design as you want to make them.  Keep in mind that the more complex the course is, the more time and effort it will take to build it.

Your best bet is to minimize the complexity and free your resources for the projects that are going to make the most impact.

To build good e-learning courses means that you have to know what type of course you’re building and get the most out of your resources.  Learn to differentiate between information and performance based courses.  Then move your resources to those courses that are going to have the most impact.


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24 responses to “Are You Building the Right Type of E-Learning Course?”

A lot depends on the interactivity level of the course too. I wanted to present guidelines for customer interaction with a real-time example. But the information in the example needs a scrollable/clickable Level 3 animation.

However, since the client wants a Level 1 course i have presented the examples in just a click and see interaction. So, instead of moving from example to concept, i am moving from concept to example.

In another principle-based course i had to clean up introductory learning animations for a screen into click-and-view stuff. This was to reduce the number of screens as per client request.


January 8th, 2008

Hi Tom,

I am really enjoying your blog, there is so much useful and practical content.

I work in the UK, mostly in the financial services sector where corporate responsibility for training is reinforced with regulation. Whilst I utterly endorse the principle of ‘teaching people to find information rather than giving it to them’, my e-learning projects often need to leave a very clear learning activity trail for both internal and external auditing, demonstrating that content has actually been consumed. Unfortunatley, this can become a bigger issue than developing the right type of course from the learners perspective.

I guess what I am saying here is that in some situations, the learner is not the only customer. It would be interesting to get your views in a future blog on satisfying the different customers in an e-learning project.



I love getting the Rapid e-learning clips in my email inbox. The brief, common sense-based articles provide me with additional support when trying to persuade upper management on specifics for our e-learning tasks.

Why do you characterise using software in with completing a worksheet? When we use software we often have to make some very complex choices indeed. Those choices often influence how other people will work with our information.

As an example, I once worked with a group of people who said they needed help learning about Lotus 1-2-3 (it was a few years ago). It seems they were having a lot of trouble with word wrap when they wrote letters with it! Apparently the first person who created their form letters knew how to use a spreadsheet but didn’t know enough about word processing to use a mail merge. So from then on, everyone struggled with creating letters in a spreadsheet.

Using software effectively often requires decision making, and some of them can be very complex as well.

My $.02 cdn

Thanks for the comments and feedback.

I think Anitha’s comment reflects the need to be flexible.

Simon, your point is exactly what a lot of elearning idealists lose sight of. Sometimes the course isn’t about the learner. I discuss this in the ebook and have touched this in a few other posts, as well. I tell people that we are the bridge between the client and the learner. Both have distinct needs.

Good point, Julie. In the blog I was distinguishing between two types of performance-based courses. In the first type, you are teaching repeatable tasks that are consistent across the board for learners. Software is typically this type of training.

The other type of performance-based course is the type where the circumstances are going to be unique for each learner. Interacting with customers is a good example. I can teach you principles, but how you apply them might be different based on your customer interactions.

Going to your point, this doesn’t minimize that learning still requires complex decision-making.


How can I get Articulate run on a Mac computer?

One of our customers did a nice write up on how he uses Articulate with his Mac.

Thanks for your latest email. After 17 years of teaching experience, I agree completely with your advice. Focusing on the learner outcomes improves instructional design. I refer to Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe.

Understanding by Design is a really good book. It’s a shame that many in the corporate world aren’t familiar with it. I actually built a case study around that book a while back. I reworked an elearning program design into something that was blended and focused on more of the social aspects of learning.

January 8th, 2008

An excellent write-up, as always! I really enjoy your informative mails!

However, I do think that courses for sharing information are needed as much as courses for changing performance. And while information can easily be read offline, in any electronic format, building it in a e-learning course (which, essentially, is a movie), makes the experience mopre lucid, content organization more eaier to understand, and in the form of click ineractivities, more engaging.

Secondly, although I agree that many of times our clients do not need e-learning courses as solution, and as learning consultants we need to provide the true advice to our clients, I am not sure we can convey the same message to our clients. Because, this would only mean a loss of business for us, which, I am afraid, no one in the business can afford in this competitive market. Moreover, the training organization of the client organization has often its own target of quota of creating e-learning courses, and therefore, even if they accept such suggestion for one project, they would certainly look for another vendor for the next project.
I see this as a serious dilemma, and is looking forward to your views on this.

Hello Sandipan. I think you make some good points and bring in a perspective many people face at work when it comes to building courses. I am reminded of a place I worked that took on the task of being performance consultants so much so that they consulted themselves out of work:) They found a way to make every project a non-training project. Eventually clients quit coming to them because they knew they wouldn’t get their training done.

With that said, while there is a risk of losing work, I think that you increase your value when you’re able to move clients away from work that doesn’t have to be done. At least that has been my experience.

When it all comes down to it, organizations are looking to meet the goals efficiently and at a good cost. If you help your organization meet its goals you bring value. If you don’t, you risk being unemployed. Elearning can contribute to the organization’s value or it can be an extra expense that pulls employees away from productive work.

When I talk about steering a client away from elearning, its because its not the right solution for the client. In the same sense, information based courses can be delivered a number of ways. You bring up good reasons why they can be done as full fledge courses. On the other hand, if there’s a less intrusive way to deliver the information, then that might be the best options.

Ultimately, there are no hard rules. It’s what works best for you and your needs.

January 9th, 2008

Hi Tom! Thanks for your prompt and detailed response. I do agree with you that providing the best advice certainly increases our value, and helps in the long run.

Hi Tom, great post, as usual refreshing and I do like those graphics you come up with!

Just one thing I wanted to say. I quite agree with your distinction in various courses, but to me target audience should also be built into that equation.

Building a course for one specific type of audience is tenfold easier than building a course designed for people in different positions, etc.

Take decision-making for instance. You may need to train people working in completely different areas (e.g. maintenance staff, lab technicians and physicians). If you are on budget-restrictions (who isn’t?) it may cost you less to build a single course with “optional” extras than to build three separate courses for each level of understanding/detail. (Also this may simply be a user requirement).

Just wondering what your take is on this and whether you would build this into an Articulate presentation or use a different means of training.

BTW, I like your idea of “coursels” (reminds me of information mapping), it definitely links in well with that approach, and obviously increases reusability, etc., etc.

Good question, Elinor…and good fodder for a future post:) A way that’s worked for me in the past is to offer one core course with multiple paths. For example, I could do a pre-assessment that takes an experienced person one way and a novice another. I could build a courses that has a core path. At each section, I offer the essential info, then I can offer two other options, a more info and show me, for example.

The learner gets the essential info, yet has the option for more remedial instruction. Just some ideas. Thanks for the question. I’ll create a more detailed post on this later.

[…] Are You Building the Right Type of E-Learning Course? – The Rapid eLearning Blog (tags: elearning instructional_design) […]

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your speedy response!

Just wondering though. Don’t you find the first solution more or less equates to developing N courses for N levels of expertise? IMHO, trainers in corporate environments unfortunately often lack the time (and sometimes even the motivation) to insert prerequisites or build valid assessments to allow for dynamic learning paths.

The core path with links to additional training really appeals to me on the other hand as it seems simpler and less time-consuming to develop and also to maintain in the long run.

Thanks again for reading and sharing, I am definitely looking forward to reading that future post :-)!

– Elinor

January 17th, 2008

Hi Tom,

I agree with Sandipan Roy’s comment that just having some learning documents instead of e-learning courses is not a good idea. E-learning courses provide learners with an environment that is conducive for learning. It motivates and attracts learners towards learning. This might not be true if the learners are provided just some pdf docs.

– Sushil Yadav

Hello Sushil and welcome to the blog.

I don’t see it as an either or situation. It really depends on the circumstances for your course and objectives. For example, in a corporate environment, many elearning “courses” are really not courses as much as they are repurposed content that is already available on the intranet.

If all the course requires is reading, then I advocate creating a process that better supports reading. I’ve had success creating blended processes, where part of the content was delivered one way (offline) and then another part delivered online (like the assessment).

The main point is not so much getting rid of the elearning course. Instead, it’s to create a solution to meet your goals. If you can meet your goals without a course, then that’s a good alternative.

[…] Are You Building the Right Type of E-Learning Course? […]

Hey Tom,

Can’t agree more!

I was given a contract fix the Call Centre induction for a large financial firm. It took new staff nearly 6 months to reach the minimum quality statistics (that’s if they stayed that long).

My analysis found that in induction they taught them: obscure pieces of knowledge on the off chance that they might get a call about it, products that had been phased out and accounted for less than 0.01% of all calls, seasonal knowlege all year rond, to refer to out of date training manuals rather than the up-to-date support tools, etc, etc.

Almost two thirds of what was being training was irrelevant. And they weren’t learning how to use the tools at their disposal.

I cut the training from 5 classroom based weeks to 3 weeks (almost half of that time was spent on-job to get a feel for the role). I changed the learning focus to the core things they needed to know and how to use the search engines. Through out most of the training manauls and replaced them with workbooks where they had to look up information in the online database. Every learning activity had a practical and measurable outcome.

By the 3 month mark – they had the best stats in the call centre (including quality). By the 6 month mark, several moved into more senior roles. By the 12 month mark, we had retained 10 out of the 11 trainees. Two had become trainers and the other 2 becaome Team Leaders.

Too much focus is spent on training people to recall minute pieces of information they may never use on job. We have to teach them how to fish. And the best news is that it’s so much easier, faster and effective to approach training this way.


[…] that move self-guided e-learning beyond the linear slide-based approach. It mainly depends on what type of e-learning course you want to design. Two interesting approaches we can refer to […]

[…] Are You Building the Right Type of E-Learning Course? “The transition from eLearning to mLearning proceeds through constant innovation and experimentation, and tools like Blueprint can help us get creativity started. Therefore, don´t be afraid to leave old patterns.” Using traditional instructional templates for mLearning or forcing old eLearning courses into mobile devices is like standing on the peak of a high mountain and just looking at the ground under your feet. […]

I am new to instructional design and I appreciate all the tips you post. I started out teaching myself to build courses, but found that I lacked knowledge about designing a course that met the needs of different learners. In my instructional design (ID) class, I am learning about how the brain learns and the need for instructional design professionals to use this knowledge when designing courses. I read an article earlier written by Dr. Bruce Perry that talked about the brain’s ability to stay focused for 4-8 minutes’ worth of factual information before beginning to wander (Perry, n.d.). I also read another article that spoke of mental fatigue and studies pointing to the specific area of the brain affected when the symptons (lethargy and slowness of thinking) are present (Publishers, 2012). With this information in mind, what do you suggest about how the ID professional should structure a course that is heavy on factual information? How do we get the important information to the learners before they check out mentally? I like the idea of the coursel (course morsel). I can definitely see how I could have benefited from receiving smaller chunks of information at one time. The only problem, though, is what if you have a limited time / resources to present the material?
Perry, B. (n.d.). How the brain learns best. Retrieved from
Publishers, I. (2012, December 10). Functional magnetic resonance imaging offers insights into mental fatigue. Retrieved from Science Daily: