The Rapid Elearning Blog

instructional design for new century

I have an older Sega Master System. I recall spending hours and hours playing on that thing. It was cool 25 years ago. Then it was lame. But now it’s cool again. I took it out of storage to show my kids.

What struck me were the instruction booklets that came with the games. They seem so archaic especially when I look at how my son learns the games. He downloads them and just starts playing. What’s changed?

Back Then

  • The expectation was to have instructions. How else would you learn?
  • Video game consoles were still relatively new, so it made sense to have booklets to help new customers learn.
  • The Internet didn’t exist (or at least not for me) so getting access to information wasn’t easy. Thus an instruction book made sense. I also didn’t have any friends who had the console to offer counsel.
  • It was an analog age, thus having analog content was the norm. The idea of a digital instruction guide made no sense unless you were Marty McFly.
  • An instructional designer on the training team convinced someone that people will never learn to play the games without clear instructions.

instructional design manual for Sega Master System


  • Expectations have changed. Game players don’t expect detailed instructions. They just jump right in.
  • Instructions are provided just-in-time as you need them. I love the way it works with the Wii. Right before you do something new, they give you quick instructions and a practice option.
  • Game players are often connected to other game players and learn through their community of peers. They learn how to play and they learn the nuances and cheats, as well.
  • Who has time to read through manuals?
  • Game instruction is often predicated on simple, intuitive steps where the challenges increase with proficiency. Typically, the learning is chunked with the option to repeat when necessary. And you tend to pick up where you left off.

How does any of this relate to how we build courses today?

Most of the elearning courses I see aren’t overly complex. Yet they’re saddled with meaningless navigation instructions and all sorts of content irrelevant to the learner’s needs or the course’s learning objectives. In fact, the other day I was talking to a young man about the elearning industry and the career opportunities it presented. I showed him how the authoring tools work and then showed him a bunch of examples.

One of the first things he noticed was all of the navigation instructions and lead up to the course. And the other thing was all of the information. He asked how to move past it and when he got to the real action. Unfortunately, all of the examples were locked down and there was no action.

Here are a few tips I’d offer for today’s course builders:

instructional design starts with small bite-size courses

  • Keep the courses short. Shorter courses are more digestible. They keep people focused.
  • Break the content into single topics. This allows you to accomplish the first item above. And it provides freedom for the learner to get what they need.
  • Get rid of the navigation instructions. The course navigation design should be intuitive. If you need a course on navigating the course, something’s broken.
  • Provide just-in-time instructions. If you want the person to do something different or unique, then provide the instructions at the point when they’re needed. I like the way Rick added the instructions in his Hero Land module.

instructional design provides just-in-time contextual instructions

  • Replace instructions with exploration. Of course this works in context with the course’s objectives, but there are all sorts of mechanisms you can use to get the learner to pull in content, rather than you pushing it out.
  • Add activities where the person needs to collect information and then make decisions. That’s how you can leverage exploration.
  • Understand the learning happens. Just because we build a course doesn’t mean people learn. They’ll learn what they need. And often I suspect what we build interferes with their learning. This is usually the case when the branding folks and the legal department get involved with your projects.

instructional design knows that learning happens

  • Most of the learning happens outside of the course. Find ways to connect what you’re doing to what they do once they’ve completed the course.
  • Communities of practice trumps cumbersome manuals. In today’s world, part of training should include getting the community of practice connected to share tips and tricks and offer support.

Those are a few thoughts on what we can do to move our training forward. What tips do you have for today’s course builders? Add them in the comments section.


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9 responses to “Have Your Training Projects Entered the 21st Century”

November 15th, 2016

I agree communities of practice trump manuals. This is only true if communities of practice exist. In the environment I work with when I create eLearning, the learner only has the others in their location as a community, and I cannot control if they connect or not.

I can work at trying to change our culture, and have been, but it is going to be a while. It could be two to three years before we overcome the technical barriers.

I do see some ways to implement the concepts presented here and maybe doing that a little at a time could help overcome resistance. Should be interesting. Thanks for the ideas and examples.

Great article!

Good games are generally regarded as those that can teach their players how to play without the players knowing they’re doing it. Some of the best video games have incremental learning measures that teach you a new mechanic in a safe space (i.e. no spikes or pits below you) before leading to a more advanced/threatening area with that same mechanic (Ex. the old Mega Man games for Nintendo would give you a room with disappearing/reappearing blocks, but no threat in that room, and then the next room you’d have the same blinking blocks but there was no floor to land on if you messed up) – a very simple teach-practice-test method of learning, much like we use in our instructional courses.

The difference between retro games of the past and today’s games are that modern games rely heavily on tutorials and words, rather than pushing the player to experience (i.e. try and fail, then try again) the learning moments through just playing the game.

There’s a great book on these concepts that I think are extremely relevant to modern talent development, especially as we see “gamification” growing as a trend in T/D. “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” by James Paul Gee.

November 16th, 2016

I think e-Learning overall is evolving with the new age technology coming up. People are more hooked up to viral videos, short 3-4 minute concept videos, gaming.

As an Instructional Designer, we need to adapt to these new trends of learning as well and move towards more experiential learning. In terms of people doing their own bit of reading and coming together to build their knowledge through discussions.

A must read article

November 17th, 2016

@Jeffrey: it is still a challenge to get organizations to invest in community-based learning, but in the long term, it’s a great solution.

November 17th, 2016

@Michael: good points and agreed with Gee’s book. He’s written a few others on learning in the digital age.

November 17th, 2016

@Mansi: I like the trend to shorter, bite-sized content

Hey Tom, long time no see! Nice article! I think one of the reasons manuals were so comprehensive in the “analog age,” was because folks simply didn’t have a mental model for the rapidly emerging technology & tools.

I love the idea of exploratory architecture, but wondering if we should consider the context and nature of learner performance before we commit to any specific instructional approach?