The Rapid Elearning Blog

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

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48 responses to “Create Engaging E-Learning Courses You Can Be Proud Of”

Good examples and reminder that there are many ways to teach people.

The sphere bullet demo was passively cool and I will actively try to replicate it.


Great distinction between active and passive. I agree that straightforward info delivery has a place, but I wonder if that place is an online course and not, say, a standard web page.

For example, the info in the passive presentation on remittance processing could be presented on one HTML page on the corporate intranet, maybe incorporating a flowchart to show who does what when. As a web page, it would be easier to keep it current and easier for learners to use it as a reference than if it’s in an online course somewhere in the LMS.

I think elearning’s great strength is its interactivity. If we’ve decided that we just need to present some information, it’s likely more efficient to use other media, leaving us time and money to put our elearning tools to their best uses.

Thanks, Shane. There are a lot of cool things you can do in PowerPoint as a simple graphics program.

Cathy, I used to make the same argument at other places of employment. Sometimes all you need is a simple web page or doc/pdf rather than an elearning course. I actually prefer not reading screen after screen of text…unless it’s my blog:) However, in the case of something like the remittance example above, if the SME gave me a PPT file, I could create the output in 45 seconds and have what you see on the screen. Repurposing that in a simple html file would take more time and effort. I take it the remittance example isn’t making your list of elearning courses.

Hey, I like reading screen after screen of your blog, too. But I’m feeling stubborn about this efficiency thing. While you could quickly convert the SME’s ppt to the sample course, I think that the overall efficiency for the organization wouldn’t be as great, especially if the info is something people need to access more than once. It might take 15 minutes to put a page on the corporate wiki or intranet with the info, but that info would be more quickly accessible to a lot more people than a course would be shut away in the LMS. It would be searchable, easily updated, bookmarkable, easily forwarded to others, blah blah blah. And I’m afraid you’re right, your remittance course didn’t make my list of elearning examples. Maybe if you add a banjo. Every course is improved with the addition of a banjo.

October 23rd, 2007

These web pages you share are a great example for remembering both cases, passive and active are possible.
What is imporant to keep in mind is learner’s style and type of content it will be produce online.
By the way, is that your voice in “engaging passive content” example? if so, I finally can sort of guess how old are you! 🙂 (This is only for reference, to see how much I need to keep working in my projects!).

Carolina, thanks for the comments. Hopefully I sound younger than I am. People tell me that I have the voice made for miming. I grew up on Oingo Boingo and Parliament so that should give you an idea of my age.

Cathy, I completely agree with you, however, I think the reality is that for many people what you see with the remittance demo is typical of what a lot of training groups have to produce. That’s what makes a lot of elearning challenging and one of the reasons why I do this blog. I want to offer alternatives to creating that type of training.

I love your blog. Being relatively new to the learning field I find it informative and very easy to understand.

Debbie, thanks for the feedback. I’m glad the blog is helpful. If there’s anything you’d like to see covered in the blog, let me know.

October 24th, 2007

Hi Tom,

Again – thanks – great stuff!
I’m curious in particular about a couple of things and wondering if you can shed some light on them re: the Ergonomics sample.

1. Were slides 4 and 5 developed only using PPT? I’m wondering how they were able to create the effect of the body moving back and forth.

2. What Engage tools were used to create the question about wrist movement, with the fly over answers/responses?


October 24th, 2007

I need some guide on craeting 1st. e-learning and I got full Articulate software
Can you help me or guid me how to get full information or there is any training course I can take
Thank you,

Margaret, I didn’t create the course. It was done by Prometheus. However, it looks like it’s just a matter of using the PowerPoint animation effect. The movement is two images. One fades out while the other comes in. It looks like the timing is slightly different to give it that ghosted transition.

The wrist movement is one of Engage’s labeled graphic interactions. Basically, what you see is an image that has the three wrist options on it. They put labels on top of each image. What’s cool about the way they used Engage is that instead of just presented with information, the learner has to interact with it and make a decision.

Sherali: hopefully this blog will help you learn more about elearning. Since you’re using the Articulate products, I recommend that you join the user community. It’s a great resource for help and ideas. You can click on this link for access to more formal training if you like. I recommend to get started that you find some assets (.wav, .flv, .swf) to use for practice and then create a PowerPoint slide. Go through each menu option and see what happens.

Awesome post! The examples are really good, especially the powerpoint passive course and the active edheads knee replacement surgery. Thanks for the links.


Hello Tom,
Thank you so much for taking the time to make this wonderful and helpful blog… I really appreciate it.
I have the entire suite of products by articulate and I love what you did in the example. Can I create everything you created in the Kearney-Abrams presentation just using the articulate products? Did you use other software? You were really creative with engage… can I do that in engage or did you use some other method? Thanks!

MDee, thank you for the feedback and glad that the blog is helpful. I didn’t create the Kearney-Abrams course. That was created by Articulate’s gold medal gurus, Prometheus. I haven’t seen the production files, but from what I can tell almost all (if not all) of it was created in PowerPoint and with the Articulate studio. The opening sequence might be a custom flash animation (but could be done in PowerPoint) and the flashing icon on the sore back might be a flash animation. Other than that, it looks like it was all done in PowerPoint and with the studio.

Tom -I love your blog; the newsletters are fantastic. We are starting to incorporate e-learning here at my work. Can you tell me what you use to do your narrations in your presentations? We must be using the wrong kind of mic with our presenter software.

Thanks for the feedback, CK. For the presentation above, I recorded inside Presenter. I did just buy a Samson USB Mic and that has really improved the quality of the audio compared the mic I was using before.

Tom, that was awesome! I loved your eLearning information, as usual, but I LOVED your passive demonstration item on creating the shiny, shadowed balls in PowerPoint!!! Awesome!

This has solved a problem I’ve been having with the restrictions placed on me by our internal branding ‘police’ – I was only allowed to use a grey button to launch our online demonstrations – now I have a lovely, ‘shiny’, shadowed ball!

(I know this is probably not the right sort of feedback, but it was great for me!)

Thank you!


Hi Tom,

How did you make the box click activate animation? I am assuming it is very easy to do and I am pretty good with ppt, any help would be appreciated or if you can guide me to a previous post.


OK, i am an idiot, I am struggling with this one, please help if you can.

Kevin, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this. I’m going to do a post soon on building branched navigations where I’ll explain this in more detail. For now, I’ll do two things. First, here’s a link to download the original PowerPoint file. You can pull it apart to see how I built it.

Here’s a quick explanation: the earthquake demo has four slide. Master and 3 duplicates for each question. I create all of the content on the master and then build hyperlinks to the answer slides. Then I copy and paste all of the master slide stuff onto each answer slide. Then make slide-specific adjustments.

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Nice site. I do agree that the only way to learn is to just just by sitting and reading massive paragraphs of information but also engage the users to practise what they have learn at the same time that they are reading that information.

Great demos, I felt active just by continuing each screen and I loved the visuals.

this site is awesome!

Hey Tom, really nice article. it has really given me lot of information and it was really a combination of active and passive learning. Can u share some more information on how should i decide on the time i want the student to get engage on the activities and how will those activities enhance his learning?


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Your movie examples were interesting. Making a presentation so affective as the active one or the passive is something for me to strive towards.

June 25th, 2010

Thank you and very good examples but i still think that more can be done to make the presentation more interactive and i think thats the whole purpose of e-learning. Learners working on online courses need not just watch the computer screen but respond and input as much as they can for the e-learning to be effective.

@Stephen: the examples on the blog are simple. The challenge for many people is balancing time to develop, resources, and the course needs.

July 14th, 2010

Excelente forma de comparar y presentar lo pasivo y lo activo. Es enriquecedor encontrar estos recursos en un solo sitio. Thanks

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Loved the example e-learning projects – very useful in getting the point across!

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June 9th, 2011

Hi! In the Ergonomics presentation, under self-assessment tools: how does the author do that “next tool” part? I see that it is several types of engage interactions, but I can’t figure out how to have them all like that together… and it looks great how he has the “next tool” button…

Can you help with this? thanks!

@Erika: you can change the label in the “next slide” button

@Erika export the audio from Presenter, then bring it into the ppt file (I’d make a duplicate file so you don’t break the original).

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Tom – Love your posts ! I’m trying to get through many of them in the next few days…thanks again and please don’t ever stop blogging!

New thoughts on Passive & Active learning. Very useful, examples were helpful.

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