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Many organizations are starting to really ramp up their online training programs. And that creates a lot of conversation about online training and what makes it effective.

In a previous post we looked at whether or not you’re building the right type of elearning. Today, I’d like to expand on it.

Where’s the Learning in Online Training?

We have a definition problem. Not everything we call “elearning” is about learning. We buy an “elearning” application to build our “courses” so we end up calling everything an elearning course. But the reality is that the elearning applications let us build interactive multimedia content that may or may not have the objective of learning.

For example, many of the courses I’ve had to build in the past were more about concepts and information. The information was important, but it wasn’t tied to an immediate or specific performance expectation. In that sense, the course I built was really more like a multimedia ebook than a course intended to train somebody.

On the other hand, I’ve also built courses that had very specific performance requirements. Those involved crafting real-world experiences and helping the learners make decisions similar to what was expected in the real world.

In both instances, we called it elearning. But the reality is that they weren’t the same. One was more like e-marketing or e-information and the other e-performance.

My remedy is to break the types of “courses” or multimedia content into one of two buckets. To me, the course is either content to support performance or it exists to change performance.

Performance Support:  These are mostly information courses that support performance requirements.

For example, the organization has an online training program that trains new managers on the organization’s bonus plan.

A performance support course goes over the specifics of the bonus plan. But it doesn’t really ask the learner to do much more than acquire the information. There may be a simple quiz at the end, but that doesn’t really measure much more than general knowledge. It doesn’t effectively measure the person’s understanding. That’s OK because in this type of course is more about sharing information than changing performance.

Many compliance courses and those created by subject matter experts fall into the performance support bucket. The information is important to the learning process, but it’s not always tied to actionable performance.

Performance. A performance course is actionable and asks the learner to assess a specific situation and make decisions that mirror the decisions required in the real world. This forces a consequence and the means to provide relevant feedback.

In the case of the bonus training program, a scenario where a manager has to assess the employees and determine who’s qualified for a bonus makes more sense than a bunch of information about the bonus program.

Understanding the type of course you build helps you determine whether it’s effective or not.

Online Training: Effective Performance Support

Performance support is mostly about the information and appropriate content. Here are some ways to determine its effectiveness:

  • The right content at the right time. I was in a store once and asked the sales person a question. He pulled out a tablet, looked over some material, and offered an answer. In that sense, he didn’t need to take a product training class to meet my needs. He just needed a means to get the information at the point he required it.
  • Able to easily find and access the content. A lot of online training is mostly existing content repackaged so it’s easier to find or understand. In that sense, performance support is about providing context to existing content and then bundling it to it’s easy to locate and use.
  • Efficient creation & distribution of the content. Even simple courses used to cost a lot to produce. That’s no longer the case. So the effectiveness of a performance support course could be evaluated by the cost to create and distribute the content compared to how it used to be done. Going from classroom to online training is one example.

Online Training: Effective Performance

Performance-based courses are designed to change performance or behaviors. The ultimate measure of effectiveness is how well the performance goals are met.

  • Content relevant to the user’s experience. You can impact performance when courses are meaningful and relevant to the learner’s needs.  
  • Mimics real-world decision-making and consequences. If you’re trying to get someone to do something a certain way, then you should design the learning experience to mimic what it is you desire.
  • Measurable impact. If the customer says they need to create a course to improve sales, and it was determined that the course is the means to accomplish it, then increased sales is your sign of effectiveness. If you didn’t increase sales, you didn’t meet your goals no matter how good the course appeared to be.

If you’re focused on changing behaviors, then a course that helps a person change behaviors makes sense. It’ll complement the expectations required in the real world. In that way, the course is effective if you can measure changed behavior.

On the other hand, if the course is merely a means to bring attention to some information, then the effectiveness is better measured at cost and time effectiveness coupled with access and use by the learners.

What are your thoughts?


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15 responses to “How to Build Effective Online Training”

I think it’s also really important to be a practioner – to be doing elearning – you learn so much about what works and what doesn’t by being an actual student. I wrote a blog about it here:

@Andy: good stuff. That’s actually one of my beef’s about our industry. There are a lot of people who talk about elearning and what it is or isn’t; but most of them don’t actually build courses. And when they do, they’re not any different than the things they criticize.

“The right content at the right time.” Simple, yet I see many instances of learning/training objects that have content that is poorly organized/constructed and not sequenced effectively.

This blog has great material that could be crafted into a mini-checklist. The measurable impact is important in my world (higher education) and really in every accountable situation.

I am not bringing attention to the information, I need them to learn it and use it. They must demonstrate at a high level. I realize that some artifacts are purely informative, but I don’t create those kind of artifacts.

Thanks Tom!

I agree with your very clear definition of both types of eLearning. The term “performance support” is also used in a different context, having to do with helping the employee AFTER taking a course, by providing immediate recall of how to do something (learned in a course)at “the moment of need”, that is, just when he has to apply what he learned in the course. What do you think of this other kind of “performance support”?

I agree that the use of e-learning tools to compile and organize information is not necessarily a bad use of time or tools. Reference materials are an important support for learning, as you said, and in many instances (as in the salesman example you describe) a reference may be the best tool – learning the information is not required if you can easily reference it.

I think it confuses the issue greatly though to call an online reference document a “course”. Many of those who are not in the industry don’t see that there is a difference between the two types of online products you’ve described here. In many cases you can’t properly consider a reference document = to a learning experience, it is merely part of the picture. As a dictionary may be a support tool to an English class. It is not THE class.

A reference document is created differently than an online course, and one could argue that an e-learning platform is not the best place for reference information unless it is easily accessible by the user, and searchable.

I understand the conceptual difference between the two types of training you describe, but I disagree with calling the first type “performance support.” Performance support is not about training, it is about enhancing performance at the time of need by…

1. Reducing the complexity or number of steps required to perform a task
2. Providing the performance information an employee needs to perform a task
3. Providing a decision support system that enables an employee to identify the action that is appropriate for a particular set of conditions

Gloria Gery described the goal of performance support as “to provide whatever is necessary to generate performance and learning at the moment of need”

@Garry: I tend to agree with your thoughts on performance support. I can probably find a different way to describe those modules. Sometimes I call them presentation-based courses. Although I do think that it’s still appropriate to call it performance support because it supports the person’s performance and training and the required documentation/resource material is still part of the big picture. And many of those “courses” are for immediate or JIT consumption. For example, I’ve seen organizations create POS type modules out of Engage interactions. The organization called it elearning, but it really was a multimedia checklist for a specific task.

@Fiona: good comments; I tend to think of it all as multimedia output. The tools create an output. Unfortunately we have one or two words to describe the output. But those words are loaded with all sorts of meaning and interpretation. So one person may call it a “course” but another just sees it as a reference material.

Tom, I think what you describe as “performance support courses” is really just sharing information. In a way I understand why you call it that because it is hard to come up with a name for it – “sharing information courses”? I’m not saying these types of courses are inherently bad. But I have this impression that what’s going is that many instructional designers are developing “performance support courses” when what they really want to design and develop are “performance” courses. Personally, I feel a lot of pressure by our industry to develop performance courses but if that’s not what is immediately viable or even wanted in your work setting, then that’s the way it is at least for the time being – not saying this should be used as an excuse to not further one’s knowledge and portfolio and of course people can design and develop what they want in their personal time.

Great post, Tom! And I agree that the content of the course needs to be created and distributed in such a way that students used to classroom learning won’t feel bored or disconnected.

@Rachel: Good point. Another angle is that those information type courses can be used in a blended environment. For example, I developed a program once where they were training people in a production environment. We pulled a lot of the information into elearning modules and took the people off the floor.

They learned things like workflow and how the machines worked. We were able to compress the time to deliver that and save production time. Then they went back on the floor to do more of the performance-oriented learning. In that sense, the elearning modules supported the performance and the actionable part of training happened in the production environment. Both were key to the learning process.

@ Tom. Exactly. Most of the elearning courses I create at my job are used in conjunction with in-classroom training. I’m curious to know if this is the most common training or learning method utilized by instructional designers in employee training and development.

@Tom Interesting topic to discuss! I’m finding my role as an elearning ID is getting broader. Sometimes I’m asked to produce multimedia products that I see as being more in the comms and change management arena, i.e. multimedia stories and messages on business changes that are coming up. These products (rather than courses) are useful for creating awareness and motivitation towards upcoming changes as they happen in advance of any learning or performance events or courses. What would this type of product be, pre-performance information?

@Lorraine: I kind of see them in the performance support arena because the course itself isn’t focused on direct performance change but it is part of the content that supports the performance requirements.

Performance support is a loaded term so I need to use something different. I’ve used presentation-based, information-based, etc.

Online training is a good thing when developed efficiently and focuses increasing knowledge and performance. E-learning tools are a great way to engage the learner and present a lot of useful information quickly that the learner can handle at their own pace.