We’ve all experienced bad eLearning (unfortunately, too much of it) and we all know that just using the latest and greatest eLearning tools doesn’t necessarily make bad eLearning any better; it just makes it more efficient. The argument goes, and rightfully so, that it’s the quality of the instructional design that really makes the difference.

But think about this: There’s a lot of content out there that we forced into an instructional (eLearning) paradigm when, in fact, it would have been more useful as well-designed information. Just because you can turn important content into good instruction doesn’t mean you should.

What’s the problem?

The assumption that all content is best communicated in courses—classroom, online, or otherwise—is problematical. It can raise costs, take too much time, and can certainly limit the amount of content we can deliver to the workforce, leading us to make possibly detrimental choices (“this content is in; this content is out,” or “these employees can take the course; these employees cannot”).

So I have an idea. Let’s divide eLearning into two distinct types of deliverables. We’ll call the first “eLearning,” like we always have, and we’ll call the second “eKnowledge.”


Albert Einstein once said that he didn’t want to waste time learning things he knew he could look up. Before deciding that you need eLearning, ask yourself if the learner must remember or practice the content. If not, if it’s just content that has to be referenced, you’re better off with eKnowledge (we’ll discuss that next).

But if you have a true instructional need—if your target audience must demonstrate that they have learned the content or that they can perform a task, eLearning can work for you. The rest is pure instructional design savvy—organizing the learning, building meaningful interactions and practice, reinforcing the learning, assessing results, and providing quality feedback. In such situations, a good eLearning tool will enable you to get your program out faster, and, as we all know, speed matters.

Of course, we can deceive ourselves into thinking we have a sound instructional program when what we really have is just a lot of content. Unfortunately, this happens mostly when we limit ourselves to putting slide presentations online, with or without narration, or when we simply record an instructor’s lecture and archive it on a server for later viewing. Here, it is critical to ask not just if the content is correct, appropriate, complete, etc. (a whole other conversation), but whether it accomplishes its instructional goals. Good online content—important content—may be valuable, but it may not require eLearning. This leads us to our other choice.


Too often we take content best used as reference material and try to make it into eLearning. Let’s acknowledge that a lot of what we publish—presentations, spreadsheets, documents, videos, podcasts, blogs, wikis, etc.—is information, not instruction. If we make this distinction, we accomplish three important things:

  1. We eliminate much of what we say is eLearning but is actually eKnowledge. This culls our course catalog, enabling a sharper focus on the truly important instructional products that are offered.
  2. We apply a different set of tools and strategies to make eKnowledge assets valuable. We chunk the content in ways that make it more digestible, especially in short spurts, and we devote considerable effort to enabling the right amount of content to be found by the right people at the moment of need. We focus on tagging, keyword searching, and other techniques to make the information easily and appropriately accessible. We teach how to find, interpret, evaluate, and use the content, but we do less teaching of the content itself.
  3. Most importantly, we change metaphors as we move from online courses to online libraries. Once this paradigm shift takes hold, we can treat eKnowledge assets differently from eLearning assets, focusing on knowledge management systems in addition to learning management systems, for example.

We do not degrade the importance of training or eLearning (instruction) by embracing eKnowledge; we merely expand our toolkit, our capabilities, and our options.

Should we redefine eLearning?

 Some people define eLearning as all-inclusive. Knowledge management, performance support, social learning, and other approaches represent an expansion of this single domain. It feels comfortable, but perhaps we should go in a different direction, limiting the definition of eLearning to instruction-focused solutions and using eKnowledge (or another term if you like) to include the information side of the house. The line between the two will certainly be a little mushy, and we might debate where a particular solution might best fit, but that debate might also be very useful and clarifying. What do you think?

When I was in school, we had to memorize the periodic table of the elements. It was pretty easy way back then (I was in school so long ago, there were only about a dozen known elements), but I do wish we’d had an eLearning program to help me along. Today, with 118 elements, no one learns the periodic table anymore—they reference it. What they do learn is how to use it to solve more complex problems. What was once a good candidate for eLearning is now a better candidate for eKnowledge. And we can reinvest the instructional time saved in more complex—and more critical—learning activities.

And this may be the greatest benefit of a renewed eKnowlege focus—the opportunity to recycle limited and precious instructional resources into new and more important learning endeavors.