The Rapid Elearning Blog

Last week was a tough one.  I’d been feeling a bit sluggish since getting back from the ASTD conference in Washington Dc, but figured it was just old fashioned fatigue.  However last Saturday everything came to a head with a full blown kidney infection.  I started to feel a bit queasy and by Sunday was lying in a pool of sweat, shivering with an extremely high fever. 

I’m not quick to go to the doctor because I don’t have the patience for sitting in the waiting room for an hour and then sitting in an empty exam room for another 45 minutes.  Fortunately, my wife insisted that I go to the urgent care clinic because had I waited an extra day, I’d probably be dead or laying in a hospital fighting for my life.

In either case, I did go.  I got my meds and after a few days of bed rest I’m feeling much better.  So there’s a lesson learned for me.  Don’t go to Washington DC.  It’ll make you sick (probably more so now than ever).  🙂

The Rapid E-Learning Blog  -Tom's sick stunt double

Actually, during my down time I got to spend some time reflecting on things.  So I thought I’d share a few of those reflections.

1. When You’re Interested in Something, You’re Motivated to Learn

Right now, my son is into the Lego Bionicles.  Because of this, he’s motivated to do all things Bionicle.  That means that he’s reading the comics, the mini novels, and playing on their website. 

I find it interesting to watch him learn to do something that he’s interested in.  This is especially true as he tries to navigate some of the web sites he likes.  He’ll do things that I could probably not get him to do if it were a “school” project, like reading difficult words or follow instructions.  If you’ve built some of those Lego models you know that they can be quite challenging.  It’s encouraging to watch him force himself to read words he doesn’t know and try things he’s not quite sure of because he’s motivated to do so.

I have to chuckle because I can watch this 8 year old click all over the screen to figure out how to navigate the games and puzzles.  And he seems to have no issue with it.  It’s just all part of the process.  Yet, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had adult learners freak out because they didn’t have explicit instructions on what the left and right facing arrows mean on the play bar.  As if the arrows were self destruct buttons or something.

In either case, there’s a lesson here for us.  What will make the course that you build interesting to them?  What is going to motivate your learners?  How can you tap into that motivation?   

2. Learning = Being Prepared to Try

A few years ago I was working on an essay about learning organizations.  I was wondering why it is that some people seem to do a better job learning.  Going to the previous point, children seem to be better at trying new things, which enables their ability to learn. 

Check out the TED video where Sugata Mitra talks about his “hole in the wall” experiment.  I love to see how the kids start slowly and then soon they’re teaching each other.  However, it all starts with that initial risk of trying something new. 

Too often, adults are reluctant to try for fear of negative consequences.  Who wants to look stupid or say the wrong things?  I’ve watched adults sit and stare at the computer screen because they weren’t sure what to do, afraid to click on a button, not sure where it would take them.  Or worry too much about whether the answer was right or wrong rather than enjoying the process of learning something new.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog  - confused adult learners

When we build our elearning courses, it’s important to create a safe environment that encourages "trying.”  Part of this involves giving the learner clear objectives and an understanding of what’s expected.  Another part involves letting them learn privately where they can fail without humiliation.  Does everything need to be a test or scored assessment?  Are you giving the learner the freedom to go back and try other solutions?  Are you letting them explore on their own and not locking down the navigation?  There are a lot of things you can do to set the stage that prepares your learners to try.  When they feel free to try, they’re then enabled to learn.

3. Being Biased Makes It Hard to Learn

Lying in bed and unable to read, I spent some time watching the political television shows on cable.  I’m a notorious channel surfer so I’d watch a little from the left and then watch a little from the right, then switch back to the left, and then back to the right.

What I found interesting is that there’s a lot of talking, but not a lot of listening.  Regardless of the political position, each had their talking points supporting why they were right and their points trashing the opposing views. 

This isn’t exclusive to political television shows, either.  It’s a reality for most of us.  We tend to form opinions and then do everything we can to draw in those things that agree with us and support our opinions.  Most of us don’t do a lot to step outside of the things we already believe.

I recall a professor who engaged us in conversation about a controversial topic and then began to trash our opinions on the matter.  I asked him if he had ever read any research to support the other side and he acknowledged that he hadn’t.  So I sent him a 30 page research paper, and about 10 minutes later I got a detailed email about its flaws. 🙂

Too often we approach things as an either-or proposition where we spend our time arguing for or against the things we believe, rather than exploring ideas posed by others.  While I love to learn, in many ways I’m also the worst student because I’m quick to be critical which can easily shut off exploring new ideas. 

Many of our learners come into the courses with certain predispositions.  If you challenge them, they can be quick to reject what you present.  How do you deal with this?  What can you do to help open the learner up to explore different ideas and broaden their understanding?

Bonus: Remember Quality Control

If you’re going to write a blog post on five common mistakes, you better not have three typos in the first paragraph (especially if your readers are all educators of sorts).  With 40,000 readers you can believe that the sort of miscreant who did commit this foul would be sure to get his share of hate mail.   

The Rapid E-Learning Blog  - Tom the typo king

Truth be told, I actually did catch the typos, but I forgot to save the changes in my haste to get it published.  Of course, I was dripping sweat and suffering from a brain swollen by a raging fever. 

On a side note, if you catch a typo, please feel free to let me know.  But please be graceful.  There’s no need to insult my intelligence or act as if I was the literary equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spilling oil all over the place.  It’s just a typo.  The world won’t end.  It’s not like you’re going to lose your equilibrium and can no longer drive.

So that’s it.  Remember that a good course starts with things like no typos and good grammar.  After that, make sure that you’ve found the right motivational hooks and created an environment that facilitates learning.  They’ll make your courses that much better.


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52 responses to “Three Things I Learned About Learning on My Deathbed”

Tom, I hope you are feeling better and back on your feet real soon. Even on your deathbed you still write a good post. Thanks.

In regards to “make sure that you’ve found the right motivational hooks and created an environment that facilitates learning,” this is so, so important. I have see too many people not put enough focus on learner motivation and instructional design. Without which courses can become nothing more than data dumps.

For learner motivation, I am a big users of Keller’s ARCS Model (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction. It works well within Gagne’s 9 Events of Learning too. Here is a quick overview of ARCS –

June 30th, 2009

Good stuff Tom. Sorry that you got so ill after visiting our “fine” city ;)…but good to see you there nonetheless. And Bionicles rock!

June 30th, 2009

Thank your wife for us — we’d miss you if you turned into ooze.

Im sorry to here you got pummelled on a couple tiny misteaks. I’ve actually always bean impressed that you’ve bean writing this blog four a few years, and those we’re the first mistakes I’ve seen. I cringed knowing their were people who would go on the attack. That’s sad, and you don’t deserve it. You do such a grate job!

Now, drink plenty of fluids and get some sleep! 🙂

June 30th, 2009


Glad you are feeling better and back to helping all of us. You have been a true source of motivation to make things right.

Be well.


Nice post. Glad you’re on the mend! I had a similar experience recently when some pain meds I had been given caused my brain to swell and nearly put an end to me.

I think the big difference between your son and the adult learners in our market is that your son has not yet learnt that it is shameful to be uncertain, to try and fail. Somehow, the education system with its results-obsessed approach leaves no room for creativity and have-a-go-ness. I hope that having you for a Dad will mean that he never learns that paranoia.

I expend a great deal of energy trying to empower my users, but I always have to build in that ‘how to use this material’ section for those who miss the safety of the back-and-next-button-tunnel.

I maintain that everyone loves to learn. Most of us have just forgotten that. It can easily be proved by producing a new example of something drawn from a field that really floats a person’s boat. Then just watch them go!

The trick is building that motivation in to a resource that covers stuff that we need to be able to do, but aren’t passionate about.

June 30th, 2009

I’m glad to see you are well. You have to take care of yourself so that you can continue to enhance our learning experience of eLearning. I’m glad your wife made you go to the hospital.

I agree with you: clarity and motivation are key for learning. There is nothing worse than starting a training and not knowing the purpose of it.

June 30th, 2009

As the one who’s expected to proofread everything that’s written in our organization (that’s just a side job – I’m officially the instructional designer/trainer/writer), I understand the urge to jump on every typo. But I’m learning to restrain myself and just enjoy what I’m reading without the distraction of looking for errors. After all, the purpose of language is to communicate, and if the message comes through, then you’ve done your job. I guess that’s the rub – if the reader gets all caught up in finding and mentally correcting errors/chastising the writer, the point may be lost.

I’ll cheerfully take it upon myself to gently point out the occasional typo so your other persnickety readers don’t have to suffer.

Hope you’re recovering and will soon be yourself again. Your blog stimulates a lot of thought and discussion here in our little company. I often send excerpts to clients when I’m trying to get them to let me use a more engaging training concept.

Getting sick is like going to the dentist…it is never a good time. I second what Heather said and thank your caring wife for booting you out of the house to go to the clinic. Of all the celebreties who have passed recently, we certainly don’t want to hear of another!

As for adults not understanding what an arrow button is or what it should do reminds me of a recent user I encountered. We have a Ning site setup internally and a new member called me they couldn’t ‘join’ without a profile picture. I assured them they could and add the photo later. He then went on to explain when he clicks ‘add photo’ a window opens to browse his computer. “But my photo is on my camera’s memory card.” ‘Nuff said.

Errors in writing (typos) are a normal occuarance ni writing. You can’t excpect ot catch them all. It builds character!

Sorry to hear of your illness and hope you’re feeling better.

We’ll allow you to be human just this once, but don’t let it happen again! 😉

Keep up the great posts and keep “working at perfekt!”

Oh sure Tom, blame your typos on the Death Plague. Wimp. 😉

Kidding. Glad you’re on the mend. For heaven’s sake, don’t avoid doctors because of waiting rooms. Waiting rooms are what iPods are for. The eLearning Universe needs you.

The concentration of government power in DC can fell the most hardy of men. Irrational thinking produces negative energy – and there’s enough irrational thinking in that place to create a black hole. You were lucky to escape without your head exploding. At least you weren’t infected with a severe case of the deficits. Fatal.

I’m in a remote outpost at the other end of the country and I still feel queasy every day. 🙁

“When you’re interested in something, you’re motivated to learn…”

SO true. I continue to be shocked by the amount of math absorbed by World of Warcraft players who normally despise math. (I’m not going to name names, but you know who you are.)

I came across an article recently about math teachers actually using real WoW examples in the classroom to engage and motivate kids, but can’t seem to find it again… will post here if I do.

So glad to hear you are doing better! Typos be damned. I really appreciate your blog–the only one I actually read consistently. Take care of yourself so you can keep sharing your great ideas.

I just wanted to comment that enjoy your posts and am glad you are feeling better!

I’m so sorry you’re feeling badly. I hope you have a speedy recovery! …and despite it all, I was glad you went to ASTD because I had the chance to meet you face to face and to thank you for all the great info on your blog!

These three things are great! Kidney infection, not so much, but relating your observations about how your son learns to the adult learning experience really resonates with me. I’ve got a four year old and I’ve seen some of the same things. Thanks for another excellent post.

I hope you feel better soon, Tom! Thanks for this great blog. Take care, Andrea.

I can’t agree more on the first topic. Back in the day of windows 3.1 I found myself training older stay at home moms. Moms who were entering workforce for the first time. I could not get them to pick up the mouse for shear fear of breaking the PC. Soon I learned if I put solitaire up on the screen and left the room when I returned they were mouse experts. True that I probably shot myself in the foot with that trick, but it sure got them motivated.
Gald you feel better.

Excellent. Good read…sorry you had to get sick to write it.

Great post. I often read your blog and have learned a great deal. As a person that has written boring technical training manuals for the last 7 years I am eagerly attempting to embrace my more creative side and keep my learners engage.

You do a great job and I’m so happy for you and your family that you are getting better.

[…] getting students engaged in the subject and curriculum. So, there is this pithy discussion over at Rapid eLearning Blog/ about learned lessons and reflections; I found observation #1 to be particularly relevant: 1. When […]

June 30th, 2009

Eli drives me CRAZY with those things, um Bionicles.Eli loves that he is (once again) in your post.

Just read what you learned on your deathbed. Good stuff.

More importantly: stay off your deathbed! I am glad you are feeling better. I’ve come to like your blog and the videos you make, so keep on feeling better.

I’m glad you’re alive and writing about elearning.

This article is excellent! Thank you for the important and relevant reminders. Keep writing!

Tom, glad to hear you’re feeling better; good luck with the rest of the recovery; and look what we all get to learn as a results of you being ill! Look for the good in every situation and you’ll be surprised what’s there.

June 30th, 2009

Hi, Tom

Some adults do learn the way kids do. That is they try, and don’t mind failing, and trying again.

Some adults stand by, look and judge. These are the obstacles to adult learning openly.

I hope you are feeling better today.

Miew Ling

Hey Tom:

Ah, that’s the role we wives play… make sure our husbands go to the doctor before they keel over and die. Glad you listened to her, but I’m sure you always do! 🙂

You wrote: “When we build our elearning courses, it’s important to create a safe environment that encourages “trying”.”

When I was teaching English as a Second Language, our adult-language-learning methodologies included creating an Affective Filter in the classroom. That means we created a very comfortable environment where the adults were not afraid to try out their new, second language. We had to be very creative, almost actors on a stage. We brought in objects from home to simulate eating at a restaurant (for example). We studied the ESL research to find what worked in the past and then we recorded successes (evaluations/assessments of student performance).

Your blog post today reminds me of those ESL classroom experiences, and I’m going to think about how I can create that “Affective Filter” in e-learning courses.

You also wrote: “Remember that a good course starts with things like no typos and good grammar.”

When I send a course out for Beta Review (after Alpha) or for Final Review, I beg my reviewers to look carefully for typos, etc. I tell them that after 3 to 8 weeks working on a course, I don’t “see” the text anymore… that is, my eyes get so familiar with the content, that I can miss typos. I’m grateful for those extra pairs of eyes during the review process.

And, of course, there are those reviewers who revel in finding any typos! They used to let me know by clicking Reply All instead of Reply on my e-mail messages. LOL

Glad you’re feeling better! Stay healthy, Tom. Your 40,000 peeps need you.

~Jenise Cook
(A proud Mrs. Mark B. Crabbe)

@Judy Unrein: Where I live, a local museum has an exhibit of fine art inspired by WoW. 🙂 Visit:

@Heather: U R 2 funny! (Or, is that “funnie”?)

@Jeffrey Goldman: Great reminders and thanks for the URL. I also like to use Michael Allen’s Context – Challenge – Activity – Feedback.

Ugh… kidney infection! I too almost lost my husband to one because he too would not go to the doctor. He got his while we were in New York so you better stay away from there too! It took him well over a week to recover. Nasty stuff!

Thanks for your posts. We all read them here at work. Great stuff.

Hope you feel better soon!

Insightful even when you aren’t feeling well. Thanks Tom. I hope this finds you in better health.

Glad that you are feeling better and that you listen to your wife 🙂


Great you’re on your way back to OK again! We can’t afford losing our favorite e-learning blog guy!!

Truth all those thoughts on learning. Totally agree, there’s more than one way to get the rabbit in the cage!! 🙂

Get well soon,

June 30th, 2009

Good post. By the way, that stunt double is an incredibly good looking guy.

Hey Tom!
Glad you’re feeling better. I think Washington is more than our nations capital, I think it is the “cootie” capital as well. I came back from a trip to Washington with a lung infection and the worst case of empetigo I caught from someone in the transporting business.
RE: Those who beat up due to typos. It is amazing to me how some folks can beat up such a simple thing. It must be hard for them to be so perfect. They love to point out errors so they can feel good about themselves. It’s not easy being human.
Glad to see the acts of kindness and humility regarding your work and your health.
Keep on trucking…you are a much needed asset and virtual friend in this business. Most of us can read typo too 😉


[…] every couple of weeks and usually peruse them and then let them languish in my inbox. The current one, though, caught my attention since the author, Tom, had recently been in Washington D.C. (like me!) […]

Tpyos!!!! made me laugh.

I did a presentation and missed 2 typos, after the presentation my boss commented on those not the presentation. I said, whats the problem, you understood what I mean’t didn’t you….There was no reply! 🙂 Still waiting for the pay rise however!

Hi Tom

Great post. You have raised the most mind boggling question today – what motivates the learner? Very profound. It’s not easy raking up a curosity if you are designing / creating eLearning courses for adult learners.

I think scoring can be motivational – some folks really like it when they score a 100%. You talked about open navigation, well, it sometimes confuses, however, it is helpful if you are using the course as reference. Another thing that I found works for most is feedback – small notes explaining why the answer was incorrect and providing hint to the correct answer.

Take care and best wishes for a speedy recovery.

It’s always nice to learn that you are worth more to your spouse alive than monetary benefit of your life insurance. I, for one, am grateful for her decision.

It was so nice to meet you and spend some time in your seminars in DC. So sorry we made you sick. Washington does that to a lot of people 😉

Feel better,

Recently my HR group met with our eLearning developers and discovered there is no room for another WBT to be developed in the timeframe my customer is requesting it. The director of the group suggested “… how about a license to Articulate, we have one left…but we don’t have the resources to train you on it.”

Pros and Cons I have never developed past the storyboard and doing the voice overs, we typically hand off the synching and the importing into the LMS off to the eLearning team. I thought to myself…hmmm on the hot seat for creating a quality or standard thereof WBT if I take this opportunity to learn a new application. It’s a great opportunity, not wanting to give my customer a no audio PPS slide show, I am considering taking this on and having it complete by the customers go live date in October.

So realistically Tom, what’s the ramp up time to do a 20 min WBT with voice over? It would be nice to continue my learning curve in the industry….

Your humble fan
P.S. glad you are feeling better!

Hey Tom,
Glad to hear you are feeling better! I had a similar experience last year while on a business trip to Nashville (although I did not make it home without first spending 7 days in a lovely Nashville hospital!) Another great post as always. Thanks for all of your insights!

June 30th, 2009

Hi Tom:

Glad to hear that you are feeling better. Great post as usual.

Keep up the good work and take care of yourself!

Hi Tom,

Glad to hear you’re on the mend. Look after yourself!


Thanks all for the kind words of encouragement.

@Emma: shouldn’t you be folding clothes?

@MaryLea: ramping up a 20 min course depends on how much customization you do. You can take a PPT file and add narration in just a few minutes. However, if you add visuals and animation, then it can take a bit longer. I’d say, if you have all of the content, you can get a 20 minute piece done in about a week.

July 1st, 2009

Good stuff, Tom.

I’m a fairly bad student as well. “Don’t you mean this?”, “In other words, if… …then…”, “Wait a minute… you can’t be serious”.

Fortunately, this constant critical thought process has bubbled over into my own idea and stance evaluation. The internal meatgrinder… I’m sure it’s not healthy, but the results are refined.

I, for one, would very much miss your words, ideas, strategies and just great information. Here’s a bit of my wisdom: ALWAYS listen to ypur wife when it concerns your health! She is your guardian angel here on earth. I’m very happy you recovered.

Dear Tom

In this public email, I’d just like to say that I LOVE how you turn everyday events, across your daily life, into fabulous “teaching opportunities” – even from your “deathbed”!!

Keep it up – reminding us all about the effective strategies for designing activities that are more likely to ensure learning!

Thanks again

July 2nd, 2009


Sorry to hear you have not been well and good to hear you are better – thanks of course to your wife!

It was at a funeral (of all the places to learn home truths) that the vicar spoke about times in our over-busy lives that we are forced to stop and reflect (when someone dies being one of them).

Your own situation reminded me of this – not that you were about to die (I hope) but that you had to step back a bit from the daily rush to produce. This to me is the vital point of your story since we all get into a rut and it is very difficult to change, unless we step back and reflect.

Last year I was working for a university producing e-learning. They refused to have anything but linear learn-test-learn courses set up in an LMS that was not the best from the learner’s viewpoint. Trying to change the course design was an uphill struggle, although I knew we could do better (I was taking an MA in e-learning at the time). Industry didn’t want to know although partnerships were available. And then at the start of this year, I was made redundant (through lack of funding).

It was only after I was made redundant (and was therefore forced to step back) that I found your blog with all the ideas that should be of interest to institutions as well as for developing work based learning.

Perhaps teachers are also afraid of clicking the wrong button?

Keep up the good work!

BTW having succummed to a similar infection in the past I understand that drinking plenty is recommended to flush out such infections. Perhaps a supply of cold beer would help? 😉

Keep well,


Two things: wow – typos. Harriet has it right, because no matter how often you proof read something, there will always be typos. Read the material and enjoy it first, then correct the typos. As long as the material isn’t full of them in it’s final form, the learner sometimes responds better when they catch one; almost a one-upmanship sort of thing.

Which brings me to my second thing: why do people get a kick out of finding the odd typo, yet feel afraid to explore the materials? Kids, in my experience, don’t do the first, but do do the second. So Tom’s point about setting the learner up to make them want to explore and feel about, and in safety, is crucial.

Thanks for some great points Tom, hope you are over your illness now and glad you got the correct learning message from your trip to DC. 😀

[…] Learning = Being Prepared to Try. And Fail. Posted July 6, 2009 Filed under: confidence, failure, learning | An excerpt from The Rapid eLearning Blog […]

July 7th, 2009

I have a question for you Tom, if you don’t mind, that was triggered watching the Miniature Earth video. Is there a rule of thumb for how long to display a slide containing text in a presentation-type video like this? There’s a slide at the beginning, for instance, that sets the scene (“If we could turn the population of the earth…”) – I haven’t timed it, but it gives me enough time to read it without getting impatient. Is there a trick to this? I’m curious to know whether you or any of the readers out there have a handle on how to time something like that.

Hey, Tom. Get better soon!

As to learning something new, I recently took up sea kayaking in the Pacific Northwest. I took the course through the Mountaineers and have learned how to capsize, wet exit, self rescue, read tides and currents and am going on longer paddles.

It has been so helpful to the training I do, both eLearning and Live, to be trying something that is new to me and hard at first. I recommend everyone find something to learn that puts them in the same situation our learners are in. We’ll be more empathetic and probably make better trainers.

@Linda: sounds like fun. Considering how hot it’s been up here, I’m sure kayaking would have been a nice reprieve.

[…] Three Things I Learned About Learning on My Deathbed: Motivated learners will learn.  It’s all a matter of being prepared to try. […]