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Articulate Rapid E-Learning Blog - Engaging e-learning courses can start with a case study

A few years back I worked for an organization that suffered through a number of workplace deaths. The company was fully committed to a safe work environment and already had sufficient training. However, they were concerned that people weren’t serious about the safety procedures which was the cause of the deaths.

So they put together some case studies where they told the story of how each death happened and how they could have been prevented. In all of the cases, the people disregarded the safety training and one person actually died right after giving a safety briefing and then ignored the precautions he just discussed.

To this day, I can recall many of the details and solutions that could have prevented the deaths because the way the cases were presented (and of course the emotional impact).

Here’s the point. Instead of building big interactive elearning courses to address the issue they created a series of case studies that were meaningful and real. Sometimes you don’t have time to build a big course. But at the same time you don’t want to get stuck with the typical click-and-read course. In those cases a case study is a great way to move past the information dump and create a meaningful course.

Engaging E-Learning Courses Are Relevant

A lot of elearning consists of mostly linear click-and-read courses. Those courses are fine for sharing information, but often they’re not very engaging or memorable. In fact, one of the things I’m asked most is how to get past the click-and-read course and make something more engaging.

My first rule of thumb is to make sure it’s relevant to the end user. If it’s not relevant, odds are you’ll resort to gimmicks to make it seem engaging.

For example, you may want to gamify it or build an interactive branched scenario. Those are all effective considerations when used appropriately. However those types of courses can also be frustrating if they are irrelevant and meaningless to the person taking the course.

So if you want to make engaging courses, first make sure that the content is relevant to the end user.

Engaging E-Learning Courses as Case Studies Take Less Time to Build

As we discussed earlier in the post on how to avoid boring courses one of the reasons why there are so many linear elearning courses is because they’re easy to build. With limited time, it’s a challenge to build an interactive and engaging course. It’s a lot easier to pull some information together and then publish it as a “course.”

But the reality is that those types of courses are more like electronic documents than they are courses. And that’s what we get—well documented (but less than engaging) elearning courses.

The good thing is that there’s a happy middle point—a way to transform the linear information dump into something more engaging without the time commitment to build a fully interactive course.

Engaging E-Learning Courses Can Start as a Case Study

If you don’t have time for a fully interactive course, and you don’t want to build an information dump, do the next best thing—transform your content from information dump into a meaningful case study.

Cases studies are still mostly linear (although you can make them interactive) but the content is framed in a way that provides context and meaning. Because of this, they get past the information dumping that plagues many courses.

A few considerations:

  • Find the relevant perspective. Courses don’t exist in a vacuum. Most compliance courses have some connection to the person’s day-to-day function. Find out what that is and then frame the content around that connection. A good place to learn more is by interviewing those who take the courses. Ask them when the information is important.
  • A case study is like a story. There are a lot of ways to tell a story. You can go from A to B to C. Or you can present it from a unique angle. The key is to tell a good story that is contextual to the person’s need. A common approach is the “day in the life of _____.”
  • Keep it simple. Don’t provide details that aren’t required. Not only does that take extra thinking to create but it could cause you to go on confusing tangents. Also, we’re not always the best story tellers so the simpler the better.
  • Flip the perspective. Tell the story from the perspective of the customer or someone other than the learner. Instead of telling the learner what they need to know. Show them how not knowing affects others.

If you’re stuck in a place where all you get to build is linear courses, on the next one try a case study. Pull your content into a story that is engaging and relevant to the end user.

A case study is still mostly linear, but I see it as a first step in an iterative process. It helps you move away from linear, click-and-read content to engaging and memorable content. The interactivity can happen later when you get more time, oversight, and technical skill. But in the mean time you are learning to reframe the information dump.

Have you used a case study approach to your courses? What’s worked for you?


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9 responses to “Want an Engaging E-Learning Course? Start with a Case Study.”

Hi Tom

This is a remake of a short video I saw years ago. It’s really powerful and not for the faint hearted I think it emphasises your point about making learning impactful – it would certainly make me think!

I used it in blog I wrote about learning objectives, and how in my view, you really need to get down to what it is you’re trying to get over/teach. Is it facts (knowledge/awareness), the ability to do something (skill) or maybe a change in the way we see something (attitude).

I think one of the reasons there are ‘electronic documents bound into a course’ is that people think that what goes in (ie into the course) is the same as what comes out – the change in knowledge, skills, attitude and awareness. In my experience it very often isn’t. Short videos like the slips, trips and falls one above can, I believe, make much bigger changes than things like ‘and remember, health and safety is everyone’s responsibility’.

We use the “case study” approach to teach safety in the work place. Here are some great examples:

April 29th, 2014

Last year I was tasked with making a short training for Supervisors about appropriate emergency evacuation procedures and the need to take drills seriously. My issue was how to get the learners attention and make a case for taking the drills serious.

In 2001 the building we work in was hit by the Nisqually Earthquake. File cabinets were knocked over, things fell off shelves and there was structual damage to the building. At least one person was trapped in their cubicle. I used the earthquake as my “it really can happen here” case study.

I started the training using two of the Storyline animated characters having a normal employee conversation complaining about “another mandatory training”, this one about evacuations. They laughed about a supervisor who always took the drills so serious. As the complaining continues they recall the earthquake. “Thought bubbles” pop up with actual office pictures after the quake. One of the employees acknowledges he was trapped in a conference room. He realizes that it was the Supervisor that took evacuation drills so serious that discovered he was missing and sent for help.

I then went on to the actual material but kept the whole training under 10 minutes. At the end I loop back to the fact that it “has happened here”.

Hi Tom,
Thank you for this reminder and very easy way to create more engagement for very little resources spent to make this addition.
Can you point us to any examples of this used in a course? I’m curious how it might flow with the course content.

Thanks again!

@Rachel: I see someone posted a few examples.

April 29th, 2014

I use these in my classroom with years 10, 11 & 12 to introduce the teaching of 2 particularly dry software development topics …


I integrate these into my classroom and extend the case study introduced in the first to the point where they actually code a solution for the business owner (I take on the part of her business manager)

Hi Tom,

I feel very happy while reading this blog and I totally agree E-Learning case studies on safety definitely helps the work place employees. Even the concept of case study approach can be implemented by various industries for different requirements. Take a look at few case studies:

Thanks and keep posting such valuable blogs.


Many years ago I created a course for prospective adoptive parents about attachment. Many children adopted from orphanages and foster care have challenging behaviors. I wanted learners to get a feel for what it was like to have to keep making choices without being sure if they’ve done the right thing. I wanted them to get a feel for what it was like to BE the parent of an adopted child with attachment issues.

The Journey of Attachment incorporates different branching scenarios with different outcomes, depending on the choices made by the learner.

May 13th, 2014

Kim Mihaly,

I love the Mia’s Sandwich Shop module. Can you clue me in as to how you created the question interface? It has the feel of an engage plug in but with some custom stuff added that I can’t seem to figure out. Thanks!