The Rapid Elearning Blog

performance vs information

Information isn’t the same as understanding. Many e-learning courses are designed to just share information. In some cases, that’s fine. But, there are many e-learning courses that are performance-based and in those cases we need to change how the learner thinks and acts rather than just regurgitate facts.

One evening I was working late and we had a fire drill. Everyone did what we learned to do in our safety course and we made our way to the exit. However, the exit was a sliding door that shut down during the drill.

Since the training didn’t provide information on how to open the sliding door once power was lost, we just sat there waiting for someone to come by and open the door for us. What struck me was that no one really knew what to do once we were presented with a challenge that wasn’t part of our training.

This was a reminder that there’s a difference between passing a site safety course (information) and really knowing what to do in the event of an emergency (understanding).


The safety course was typical of many e-learning courses. They’re designed to share information, but don’t usually go beyond that. Information sharing doesn’t work for courses where the learner is expected to take action or complete tasks. In those cases, the e-learning course needs to be designed to go beyond the facts and move towards creating new levels of understanding.

How Do I Create Understanding?

When we teach others we’re not looking for them to just know information. Instead, we want them to use information in context to make good decisions.

The challenge when creating e-learning courses is knowing how to build an environment where the learner can process the information and place it in the appropriate context and through that demonstrate greater levels of understanding. This all starts with some fundamental ideas around course design.

1. Establish clear learning objectives.

For the e-learning course to be successful, you need to establish clear learning objectives. This seems obvious. However, I’ve been involved in enough training programs to know that that’s not always the case.

Without clear objectives, you’ll have problems reaching your goals and you’ll probably not engage the learner. Like the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, most likely you’ll have no problems getting there.”

2. Determine what evidence proves understanding.

Once you establish the learning objectives, you need to determine how you’ll know they’ve been met. What evidence proves that the learner is able to meet the goals?

This goes beyond just creating a multiple choice quiz. What you really need to shoot for is evidence that demonstrates understanding not just how to do something but why.

3. Build the course to provide information AND create a learning experience.

Once I determine the right type of evidence to prove the learner’s understanding, I can build the experiences into my course that helps the learner get to the desired level of understanding.

I want to measure the learner’s grasp of the facts and I want to put the learner in a situation where she can use the facts and apply them to the nuances of real life decisions. This helps me see that not only does she get the information but that she is able to use the facts in an appropriate manner to make performance-based decisions.

4. Create the ability for learners to reflect on the information.

E-learning courses are good at sharing facts and information. The goal is to help the learner pull all of the information together and make good decisions. A step in the direction of creating real understanding is to help the learner reflect on the new information.

So often we share information and then move on assuming that the learner understands why the information is important. By reflecting on the information, you put the learner in a position to take abstract and disconnected facts and place them in an appropriate context. Here are some ideas on how to build reflection as part of the learning process:

  • Ask questions to hook the learners and get them to think about the information in a context that is important to them.
  • Have the learner’s review scenarios or case studies so that they can take the information out of the course and put it into the real world.
  • Create some sort of learning journal where the learners have to think about the course’s information and write out their thoughts. This helps them personalize the information and make it more than just a bunch of facts.

5. Create a way for learners to explore.

The other day I was out walking and I saw a skateboarder practice jumping in the air with the board. In the time I observed him, he must have jumped unsuccessfully at least twenty times. What intrigued me was that each time he jumped, somewhere in his brain he was making minor adjustments to his technique that will allow him to eventually become proficient at jumping.

How does this translate to e-learning? To get a learner beyond rote facts means that you have to create a place where the learner can make those “minor adjustments.” Learners need the ability to explore, to have a place of “what if’s” to see cause and effect.

  • Take a cue from Google. Free up the course navigation and give the learners the ability to click around and explore like they would online or if using a search engine. Present a challenge and have them look for an answer rather than just giving them the information.
  • Create scenario-based branches that allow the learner to make a choice and get feedback specific to the choice made.
  • Build an environment where the learners can modify variables to see the cause and effect of their decisions. Create interactive visual models where the learner can play around with “what if” scenarios.

To create an e-learning course that empowers the learner to make good decisions means that you have to create an environment where the learner gets important information and has time to reflect on its meaning and where it fits in the learner’s world.


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15 responses to “Go Beyond Information Sharing – 5 Ways Your E-learning Courses Can Create Understanding”

Reflection is an important part of learning. We’re so busy that we forget to stop and think about what we’re learning and why.

Great points, Tom. Clear objectives really are vital, including a clear business goal, which is something that can get lost in the elearning process. Having a clear business goal helps us create more action-oriented elearning.

Say, for example, that our business goal is “Increase widget sales.” We might be tempted to say a learning objective for the sales staff would be “Know the features of all our widgets.”

But that wouldn’t support the business goal nearly as well as “Be able to identify the most appropriate widget for each customer.” And that second, more action-oriented learning objective will also inspire us to develop interactions that help learners use their knowledge in the real world.

That’s exactly right, Cathy. Learners are also more engaged when the goals are linked to results that are relevant to their daily success.

Hi Tom

Just wanted to say thanks for a great resource. I get a lot of emails that I skim quickly (or at times hit the delete button even quicker), but I find myself absorbed, engaged and inspired by the information that you share in each post.

Much success to you.

Warmest wishes

Shelley, thank you for the kind comments. Feel free to let me know if there are any topics you’d like to see covered.

Love your work Tom.

Especially…”to create an elearning course that empowers the learner to make good decisions means that you have to create an environment where the learner gets important information and has time to reflect on its meaning and where it fits in the learner’s world.”

Tom – just wanted to add that I enjoy reading your blog. Your information is easy to follow and especially helpful to those of us who are just beginning to get our feet wet. I see that you attended Brandon Hall’s conference – are you presenting or attending at Learning 2007 (Masie’s conference later this month).

Thanks for the feedback, Karen. I’ll be at Masie but not presenting. I did facilitate a session there last year. I’m hoping to do more presentations going into next year. What conferences do you go to?

Tom – So far I’ve only attended Learn 2006 and will attend Learn 2007. I’m thinking of trying something different next year. Any recommendations?

I depends on your focus. I like them all. My favorite is probably Masie’s. If you are focused on elearning, the elearning guild conferences are good. ASTD is good, too, but a little broad. The Seattle area ASTD chapter had a nice conference. It was also inexpensive. Unfortunately I was at Brandon Hall. I think that there’s a lot to be said about hooking up with peers in your community more so than spending money on big conferences especially if you have limited funds.

[…] Go Beyond Information Sharing – 5 Ways Your E-learning Courses Can Create Understanding […]

Very Good points are shared in a very friendly manner as if you are talking to us in person..I never miss to read your newsletter..
Thanks a bunch for going beyond information sharing Tom…

Very Good work. The effort of posting valuable information, and its updations is much appreciated.

Hi Tom,

The strategies that you have presented in this article seem especially important in order to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from short-term memory (STM) to long-term memory (LTM). This is especially true of tips 4 (“Create the ability for learners to reflect on the information”) and 5 (“Create a way for learners to explore”). I am currently reading a book on learning theory by Ormond, Schunk, and Gredler, and they stress that in order transfer new information into LTM, learners should make connections to prior knowledge and therefore make the new information “meaningful” to them (2009). Besides accomplishing this goal, your tips help ensure that the “elaboration process,” is harnessed (which is the “process of adding to information being learned in the form of examples, details, inferences, or anything that serves to link new and old information (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 85)). By allowing learners to explore on their own rather than being stuck with one source of information, you allow the learner to take control of the learning experience and seek out the information that will most interest them. Another advantage is that they have some responsibility for the quality of the learning experience—if they are bored with what they explored they can only point the finger at themselves! I’m getting this trick taught to me first hand by the instructional designers at my own university—they’ve assigned us to find some great blogs on instructional design instead of just reading our textbook (thank goodness I’ve stumbled across your site!).
By the way, I’m currently working on my M.S. in Instructional Design and Technology at Walden University. I love your site and have already created my own altered graphics using your tips on ungrouping Microsoft clipart. Thanks!

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

Nice demostracion with the Articulate and Powerpoint.But to me it more easy to deal with powerpoint . I real get mess up with the Ariculate program because my pc erases the program.And Please sent me the Program of E learning to go to the next lesson.I dont know what lesson come next.And outline of the theme so I dont get lost by moveing from one place to another.I think that is why Iam allways lost in here..This was not my work .I been a teacher in art forso many year and this is the first course I have take on line.