The Rapid Elearning Blog

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In your elearning design, what word trumps all others and why should you care?

I begin this post reminded of an old Jack Handy line:

“The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face.”

If you’ve ever spent time with a small child, you’re familiar with the constant bombardment of “Why?” questions.  “Why are trees green?” “Why does ice melt?” or “Why can’t I have it?”   You’d think you’re living with Detective Columbo.

As children learn, they’re in a continual process of drilling down to a root level of understanding.  They want to know why something happens and how it’s related to everything else.

In the same way children dig for understanding, we need to ask the questions that get to the root cause of an issue.  This is especially true if we want to bring real value to the elearning courses we produce.

Learn from History

I put together a little module inspired by a classic case study outlined in the book, Permission to Forget: And Nine Other Root Causes of America’s Frustration with Education.

The granite at the Jefferson Memorial was crumbling. However, none of the other memorials had the same problem.  So the question was, “Why?”

  • Why is the granite crumbling?  It is hosed off more than the other memorials.
  • Why is it hosed off more than the other memorials? It has more bird dung.
  • Why does it have more bird dung? It has more birds.
  • Why does it have more birds? There are more spiders to eat.
  • Why are there more spiders? It has more flying insects for spiders to eat.
  • Why are there more insects? The lights are turned on too soon at the Jefferson Memorial, thus attracting the insects.

Solution: The lights were turned on later and the granite stopped crumbling.


 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Jefferson Memorial Demo

Click here to view the Jefferson Memorial Case Study

The Jefferson Memorial case study is an excellent example of how it’s important to drill down to the root cause of a problem.  The initial problem and source of complaints were not easily fixed with what appeared to be the most obvious solution.  The managers had to keep drilling down to get to the right answer.

I augmented the case study by adding the elearning angle.  While it’s a little exaggerated it’s not that far off from what tends to happen in our world.  We’re presented with a problem and we immediately jump to some solutions.  And because of this, many times we either build the wrong, or even unnecessary, elearning courses.

Step Away From the Solution

Elearning is a means to accomplish the client’s goal.  It’s a solution.  The first step in the process is to step away from the solution and try to find the root cause of the problem.  You want to make sure that when the client says, “We want an elearning course,” that an elearning course is the right solution.

Looking at the Jefferson Memorial example, the initial issue appeared to be a maintenance problem.  They asked, “Why?” a few times and were able to figure out that the timing of the lights was the cause of the problem.  The solution to the problem wasn’t apparent without the extra round of questions and digging for a root cause.

You don’t want to build an elearning course that doesn’t help solve real problems.  Part of your role as the “elearning expert” is to make sure that the elearning course you deliver is a value-added product.  Learn to ask, “Why?”

Ask the Right Questions

Asking questions can be bothersome and time-consuming.  You might be tempted to cut corners and get the elearning project out the door without digging a little deeper.  However, by learning to ask the right questions you can bring real value to the organization because you’ll deliver the right type of learning (or avoid it altogether).

To clarify your customer’s needs and find the right solutions, you’re always on the right track if you stick with the standard, “Who, what, where, and why?” questions.

Here’s an example of how asking questions might go.

“Our customers are complaining about our service.  We need an elearning course to reinforce our mission statement and keep our staff focused on good service.”

Some might be tempted to satisfy the customer’s desire and create an elearning course focused on the organization’s mission to deliver quality service.  However, by asking some questions, you can narrow down the areas of focus.  It might look something like this:

  • What type of complaints are you getting?  How many have you gotten?
  • What do you think we could be doing different that would address these issues?
  • Why do you think that approach would address the issues?

These types of questions are obvious, but many times the obvious questions are ignored.  Sometimes we ignore them because we don’t want to give the appearance of not knowing.  I’ve been there before, where I’m at a meeting and didn’t know what the heck the client was talking about, and I sure wasn’t going to let him know that.  Get over it.  Better to ask clarifying questions than to make the wrong assumptions and a mess of things down the road.

Look for Evidence

When you ask questions, you’re trying to find evidence that supports the need for an elearning course.  The good thing is that when successful, you also have a means to measure the impact of the elearning course.

If the client says that they need to focus on customer service, you want to ask questions that help clarify what the desired level of customer service is and how they measure that.

  • Do you have some examples of poor customer service?
  • What are you doing currently? And, what changes do you think will help? Why?
  • How will you know when you’ve improved customer service?

Again, these types of questions are obvious, but it’s important to get to real evidence and away from opinions or generic statements.

Once you collect the evidence, you can build the right type of course.  You also have some tangible measurement for your course’s success.  This becomes a good way to report the value of your elearning.  Of course, if nothing’s changed just tell them how many people took the course and the completion rate.  🙂

There are some who will say that all of this is outside the scope of designing elearning courses.  That it’s the client’s job to determine their real needs and after that commission the training.  There’s some truth to that.  However, here’s my perspective.

Success isn’t only measured by your success creating an elearning course.  Ultimately, your success is measu
red by delivering valuable solutions to the organization and helping it meet its objectives.  You’re a partner in that process.  That’s why I always advocate your need to be a performance consultant so that you not only deliver elearning courses, but you deliver the right elearning courses.

Think about it this way, the authoring tools are only going to become easier to use.  Just about anybody will be able to create an elearning course.  When that happens, what value will you bring to the table?

By learning to dig for the root cause of an issue and finding the appropriate solutions, you’ll bring value to your organization because the elearning courses you develop will meet real needs.

What questions do you ask?  What do you do when your client doesn’t respect your attempts to drill down to the root cause?  Feel free to share your ideas and experiences in the comments section.


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28 responses to “The Single Most Important Word in Your E-learning Design Arsenal”

Another good article. I liked the case study.

Regarding the inclusion of “why” in any course of training, or in the analysis of a perceived training need: We sometimes omit an explanation (“why”) because our client believes it is not “need to know” information (“people just need to know how to do their jobs”). However, don’t assume that your decision means the work group will dismiss their need for an explanation. Instead, someone in the group will create his/her own explanation. You’ll have no way to detect when that explanation emerged, but once it has been adopted, and has acquired “pride of authorship,” challenging its validity will become very difficult. Inferences made on the basis of the work group’s explanation may, instead, be used to dismiss the validity of your recommended procedures.

you said: “… just about anybody will be able to create an elearning course. When that happens, what value will you bring to the table?”

No fair! You make me confront a question I push out of my mind every day! Nonetheless, you’re right.

A spiffy e-learning course makes everyone look good now. But if it doesn’t fix the business problem it was supposed to fix, it’s wasted money. It will come back to bite everyone in the *** who had advocated it.

We all complain about being asked to do more with less. The right questions are key to doing just that. Lets make sure we are building the right interventions. Over time our customers will come to recognize and seek out our “root cause” expertise.

I have heard the Jefferson Memorial story a number of times in context of problem solving. Does anyone have a primary source for this story?

February 26th, 2008

Once again Tom, great article! I really liked the case study as well.

Wouldn’t you say that this takes us back to the first step in ADDIE (analyze)? Typically, with any training (e-learning or instructor led (ILT); I conduct a needs assessment to determine the “who, what, when and why”. These questions are very important and can be helpful to the success of a training project.

However, in some cases you may not have time to conduct a thorough needs assessment. For example, if the client is installing a new database system. And the client only wants you to develop enterprise level e-learning. If this is case, what I try to do is schedule a simple meet and greet. In the meeting I’m looking for critical information that’ll help me develop the e-learning project -such as what resources are available to me, has instructor led training already been developed, what stage or phase is the project in and…

That’s my two cents

Good elearning software does not good elearning make. Elearning software does not design elearning any more than CAD programs design buildings. Building design professionals do that. For the most part software does not care whether it produces sound learning (or buildings) or even learning (buildings) at all. The heart of training design is then, as Tom points out, developing the right solution to the REAL problem. That is not always a training solution. Toward that end, I concur that performance management is the bigger picture training design professionals must see.


Liked the case study but found the background music intrusive and distracting. Silence can be effective.

February 26th, 2008

Once again, a thought provoking article. I would add that not only do you need to ask why, but you need to validate somehow that you asked why of the correct person. If the managers want to have a conversation amongst themselves, then clearly they are not close enough to the problem to successfully answer why. In their mind, they had answered it.

Regarding the ease of use in development tools, it parallels the development of web tools. Now that they are ubiquitous and easy to use, anyone can put up an excremental website. We still will be needed.


February 26th, 2008

Great article, Tom.

Two comments:

1. “Why” should be the most important word in any learning intervention, and
2. as Allen said a learning intervention be it eLearning or face to face is not always the correct or most appropriate course of action.

Interesting story in 25 rapid clicks (way too many!). Who is the target audience? Is it IDs acting as solution providers? Is it managers looking for e-learning solutions to their problems?

The story is great. However, the potential has not been exploited as the environment has not been built up. Storyboarding lacks emotions and feelingsis as the drama in wasted effort, time and failed e-learning attempts have been ignored.

Re Dan Irwin’s comment – staff members who are taking part in an e-learning programme might ask “why are we doing this?” There needs to be a good reason for people to want to change how they do things or else it’ll be a case of “Who Moved My Cheese?”

I would imagine that a good e-learning programme not only needs to tell staff how to do things differently – but why they’re being asked to do things differently.


Great discussion and feedback. Just a couple of follow up points. It’s important that the courses you build properly motivate the learner. Much of this can be done by building a context for how the course is important to the learner. For example, if I am doing training on an organization’s policies, instead of giving them information about the policies, perhaps I can create a scenario that is real world and helps the learner see the need for the policy and their compliance.

I had the same question about the validity or origin of the Jefferson Memorial case study. I’ve never found a real source other than from other people who use it for case studies in books and videos. I haven’t seen any of the videos, but none of the books cite a real source other than another book.

I’m in the midst of a Six Sigma/Lean Manufacturing course. One of specific problem solving tools we’re teaching them to use is the “5 Whys” — a way of drilling down to get to the actual root of a problem.


I quick rundown of those 5 Whys may be instructive.



It’s good. I have always been wanting to do the same. But sometimes due to the shortage of time or the size of the audio, we intend to drop such elementary questions that can put a thinking cap on child’s head.

I was hoping to get by with just a quick, pithy reference. Tom essentially outlines the 5 Whys. It’s just question-asking tool. State the problem. Then keep asking why until you get to the real root. You may branch off in a few directions and find some dead-ends. The point is to keep exploring — to get beyond the symptoms and down to the real cause.

In the example I was working on for this course, we used a real scenario of a manufacturing line where bottles weren’t being correctly capped. With the first round of “Whys” the answer appeared to be that something was wrong with the caps, but as they drilled down deeper it turned out the problem was with the conveyor belt height.

You can find out more about this Six Sigma tool at wikipedia: 5 Whys

Yes “why” is the most important word – but the most difficult to get a client to look at. Clients assume that if it is an employee problem therefore training is the answer; worse if training is the answer, heck, let’s make it elecronic. We as learning designers need to have them step back and take themn through an analysis of their thought process and explore other issues – using performance technology. Training design and development has evolved into what it should be – performance management – what impacts upon the performance, why is performance impacted. More often than not more training is not a solution – other factors affecting performance must be explored such as environmental, compensation, availability of appropriate processes/resources, motivation – investigate these factors before deciding that more training programs are the answer.

I think this is a valuable option to those who can not use the traditional way of education!

The point was made about bringing something useful to the table.
Far too often we get told to make an online course just to “get on the web”.
Our school has a peer review process for online courses to try and improve course content and presentations.
If you can’t do the same subject better, it might be best to let the other course run until you can make a useful contribution.

March 25th, 2008

Here, here, Ken! Another instructional design ‘crime’ I see all the time in my industry (healthcare) is throwing a policy into a few hastily-made bulletpoint slides in order to meet regulatory requirements. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed elearning opportunities mercilessly gunned down by an assassin’s bulletpoints! I’m embarking on a one-man crusade in my workplace to stop the violence.


“Stop the violence.” I like that:).

This weekend I was catching up on some reading. I read an interesting article and it struck me that the person had used a number of bullet points throughout. Later, I was reading some blog posts, and noticed that the blog posts also had bullet points.

Why is it that we’ll read a text-laden blog post online and have no issues. But as soon as the text is packaged as an “elearning course” we complain about the bullet points. Someone suggested that perhaps it’s because the product is converted to Flash and that automatically means it needs to be more.

I’m not defending poor elearning design. I just wonder what it is that allows us to accept text in one format and not the other? For example, I read an article on interactivity and how to lose the bullet points. The implication was that the interactivity equated to better learning. The irony was that the article was online, it was meant to teach ideas, and it was not interactive.

So it intended to teach me about interactivity (as a hallmark of god online instruction) yet wasn’t interactive. The fact that I learned from the article despite the lack of interactivity made me wonder why we accept some form of text in elearning and not others. Is it just the flash angle? Or is that we’ve just come to loathe PowerPoint and the yoke of our experience with boring classes and presentations?

March 25th, 2008

There is an interesting book out entitled “Better Than Bullet Points” written by Jane Bozarth. She suggested very good points in her book about changing the behavior of death by PPT with bullet points. The latest trend is what Tom has brought forth to us in his blogs. Bullet points are boring and out dated. The most effective way of designing learning is with your typical images and chunked text. This is not to say that you completely get rid of your bullet points, however, you take the content and move towards a contextual learning.

Your learners will really appreciate it!

March 25th, 2008


I believe it has much to do with your last comment. Nothing wrong with PowerPoint, per se; but it is another, more seasoned, example of what we’ve been lamenting lately in this blog that learning tools make it easier for the uninitiated to churn out poor learning experiences. PPT’s claim to infamy has indeed been the dreaded bulletpoints, stereotypically the centerpoint of so many dull presentations and accompanied by the presenter’s monotone recitation of the very same points.

It also has to do with, as you mentioned, the inherent expectations we place upon a given delivery medium. Bulletpoints are wonderful in a printed report. And I’ve actually seen them used effectively in an online presentation that had background music but no audible narration. (It was a short presentation!) But I think it the exception to the rule that bulletpoints are well used in a flash animation, etc.


Jefferson Memorial case study was really good! Keep blogging…

April 20th, 2008

Interesting! I agree with this for the most part because it is true that the word “why” can uncover some things when conducting eLearning when not enough information exists. However, I also believe that words such as “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when” can lead to a more thorough analysis of the current situation. To ensure that all needs are met, I feel that it is necessary to cross all of your “T’s” and dot your “I’s” when delievering effective eLearning. “Why” in addition to the other words mentioned can make sure that happens.

@Philip: Good point. You’re right, it’s important to cover all the bases. While I focused on “why?” the essence of the post really is less about the approach and more about drilling down to make sure you’re solving the right problem.

February 22nd, 2010

You are so right on when you say that we need to be performance consultants. I do have one reservation about this – or a query, anyway. What do you do when you don’t have the authority to do anything but deliver what they have asked for? Some folks just don’t want our opinion. They want to tell us what they want, and for us to create it.

@Margo: the person with the thickest wallet tends to be the best instructional designer. Thus, I defer to the one who’s funding the project and keeping me empolyed. 🙂