Every January I revisit the previous year’s columns looking for themes, or a common thread, or sometimes ideas for New Year’s resolutions. This time some key phrases popped out at me.

Extend the opportunity. It’s so easy to take a tool at face value. Try to get beyond the appearance and look at what it can really do. A blog is an almost-idiot-proof web page; a Diigo or Delicious group can replace hundreds of emails; a Pinterest board can be the platform for a narrative or a chronology. Likewise, the ease of creating and uploading and accessing online videos offers huge opportunities for learning if we just look for ways to leverage additional approaches and features. See Making Video More Social.

Remember we are all toothpaste salesmen. Google something, such as “ladder safety eLearning” or “sexual harassment training.” You’ll find 83,417 courses—and three of them will be good. What is it about those three that make them better? What did those designers do differently? Sooner or later we all have to work with dry content, or create policy overviews or “awareness” training. Like the advertising guy who’s trying to find a new and different angle to sell one more brand of toothpaste, it’s your job to figure out how to make that content relevant and engaging. Don’t Blame Your Content.

Put your hands in the air and step away from the computer. Quit thinking in terms of, “I have to create an online course,” and instead ask: “What would make a great course about ______? How could I make that work online?” Don’t start by loading content onto slides and then figuring out what to do with it. Talk to people who have the stories that will make the content come to life. See (again) Don’t Blame Your Content and suggestions for using Crooked Lines from Tracy Parrish.

Horse, then cart: What do people need to do? How will you know they can do it? Don’t fall into the trap of creating instruction, then rummaging back through looking for 20 multiple-choice questions. The disconnect between workplace performance, course performance objectives, assessment, and content is a huge contributor to learner failure. Begin with the end in mind: create the assessment, and then design the instruction. Design Assessments First.

Forest, then trees. Be careful of becoming so embedded in conversations with subject matter experts and piles of content that you lose sight of an obvious or better solution. Talk to some people who don’t know a thing about the subject matter. Ask your kid. Ask Twitter. See Seeing the Forest. (See also James Thurber’s “Here Lies Miss Groby.”)

Design, then develop. Many tools promise that with no effort at all you can create engaging, interactive online training. Not so. It’s akin to saying you can drive a Kia into a carwash and have it come out a Lexus. (Big secret: Sometimes, really, all you need is a Kia.) The expectation that a fabulous end product will come from no work is not very realistic. Take the time to find a good treatment and craft a good solution rather than just load a bunch of text-based material into an authoring tool. Good eLearning is about thoughtful design, not software. See How to Be an Overnight Success.

Remember the things you tout may be the very things other people resist. “People can access information anytime they want! Learners can control their own learning experiences! We can cut back on courses!” Recognize that the usual presenting reasons for resistance (“I don’t have time/money/training/equipment”) are likely just first-order barriers masking the real underlying causes of resistance, like ego needs, comfort with the status quo, or perceived threats to job security. The first-order barrier game is a no-win: No matter how many objections you resolve, there will always be another. Figure out what’s going on underneath it. See How to Deal with Barriers.

Rethink “good.” The best eLearning is not necessarily the most expensive, or the flashiest. It may not even follow all the rules for what we think is good. The best eLearning solves your problem and gets you the performance you’re after. See What Is “Good” eLearning, Anyway?

Be a learner. That’s how you get to be a better practitioner. Go to conferences. Take other people’s eLearning courses. Look at some Snapguides. Teach yourself to play the ukulele. Expand your surface area and remember what it’s like to be in the learner’s shoes. See Be a Learner.