What does it mean to be an innovative eLearning professional? In an industry where innovation is a popular buzzword and change is the only constant, how can eLearning professionals embrace opportunities to innovate and create sustained value and growth within their organizations? Even the terms innovation or to be innovative yield many different and often competing definitions.

In this article, I define these terms broadly, as the departure from procedure-focused design mindsets to realizing novel ways of approaching design problems that create value. As Clark Quinn (2014) expressed in Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age, we are in many ways failing to realize the true importance and role of innovation in the design of learning and performance ecosystems because we have neglected to embrace and respond to change.

More specifically, I will explore a simple, yet critical question shaping the future of our profession: how do we support innovative eLearning design practices? By exploring this question, I propose three common barriers facing eLearning designers and suggest simple activities that you can use to help overcome these barriers.


In the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson (2010) suggested many innovations are not developed through rapid “eureka” moments like we may think, but instead through slow and gradual hunches leading to new ideas. When we think about common eLearning design practices, we likely think first of “the process” we follow or the procedures we use to design courses or training programs. In many situations, the primary goal of design processes is to enhance efficiency, accuracy, and control of project scope instead of creating innovative learning or performance solutions.

In many respects our profession is at an interesting turning point. The term “design” is used frequently and is a part of many of our business titles; yet, we often fail to apply many problem-solving practices that define design fields. Before eLearning designers can fully embrace opportunities for innovation, we need to see ourselves as true designers. In much the same way an architect uses a combination of creativity and design thinking to create spaces, eLearning designers must step into the role of a learning architect to focus on solving learning and performance problems in creative ways (Gibbons, 2014). What strategies should we use to design innovative eLearning? Borrowing the words of Edward Tufte, “Whatever it takes.”

Barriers to innovative practice

There are major roadblocks that often get in the way of maximizing opportunities for innovation when designing eLearning. Sometimes these challenges are presented as external factors that we manage such as time, money, or resources. In other situations the barriers may be internal to the designer such as resistance to change, decision-making styles, or past experiences and established behaviors.

Of these “barriers” to innovation, money is most commonly cited. In reality, great innovations are rarely born from environments where resources are unlimited. Innovation often happens most effectively in resource-tight environments because designers are forced to think beyond the easiest solution to more innovative solutions. If money isn’t a real barrier to innovation, what barriers hold back innovation in eLearning design?

The following list contains three common barriers to innovation that we all likely experience at some point or another; however, we may not immediately think of them as holding back innovation.  

The complexity dilemma  

The complexity of information and decisions involved in designing eLearning is growing at an exponential pace. Technology can play a role in this challenge because it allows us to access greater amounts of information; yet access to information is in many ways a double-edged sword. From one standpoint, easy access to large amounts of information can offer new insights into design decisions; however, often the amount of information and the ways information is presented far exceed our ability to make sense of and use it effectively (Sweller et al, 1998). In response to complexity, we make decisions that are not always the best choice given a certain set of options (Krug, 2006). We “satisfice,” or sacrifice the best choice for a lesser and more convenient option.

Designing in the dark

The complexity of decisions is only one challenge to innovative eLearning design. Once we make design decisions, communication problems often arise between designers, clients, subject matter experts, management, and other collaborators. For instance, one person on the team may have a wonderful idea about how to solve a problem; however, that idea may not be adopted or even considered by the group because it wasn’t communicated in a way that was easy to understand by the rest of the team. The majority of design ideas in eLearning projects are invisible and therefore highly vulnerable to being misunderstood or overtaken by existing mental models of collaborators (Hortin, 1983). In order for great ideas to flow freely during eLearning projects, design teams need to be on the same page and using a common language to communicate and make design decisions. The lack of these languages and tools creates a scenario where many eLearning projects are designed in the dark.


Perfection is arguably one of the greatest threats to innovation in eLearning projects. There are likely many reasons why people strive for perfection. Possibly it is a long held expectation that we carry from our early schooling years where the results of failure were often negative reinforcement or even punishment. The pursuit of perfection may also develop out of organizational cultures that reward the status quo and where the fear of failure or rejection can drive decisions.

eLearning design is a problem-solving process and, by its nature, should experience a high number of failures before arriving at an optimal solution (Allen & Sites, 2012). Regardless of how much time, effort, resources, or money is spent in the design process, the first version of an eLearning program will have flaws. Even the final version of an eLearning project will have flaws. “Perfection” is something that many eLearning designers strive for but is simply not achievable given the nature and diversity of our profession. The pursuit of perfection can consume much energy and time in design processes that could better be spent iterating, learning, and experimenting rapidly. In other words, the time spent on trying to make eLearning “perfect” is killing innovation.

Note: Avoiding a goal of perfection does not mean we should create poor eLearning. We should devote our efforts to solving important problems in creative ways, quickly learning from failures, and applying what we learn to new and more innovative versions.

Action plan for innovative eLearning design

Complexity, miscommunication, and the unattainable goal of perfection are eroding the ability to innovate. How do we break through these barriers and transform what, in many cases, are deeply established practices for eLearning design?

As a community of eLearning professionals, we need to fundamentally rethink how we engage in design processes. When beginning an eLearning project, do we start thinking about the design process (“this is the way we’ve always done it”), or do we examine each project as a puzzle that requires a fresh and new perspective? Redirecting focus from the design process to design innovation doesn’t mean compromising the project timeline or performance indicators. Instead, this shift in perspective allows us to understand the true goal, vision, and possibilities of the project.

Talking about designing innovative eLearning and actually doing it are two different things. To help you apply innovative eLearning design practices, I’ve developed an action plan to get you started. These action steps highlight general approaches to innovative eLearning design that you can adopt and use right away.

Curate an eLearning design-innovation toolbox

The eLearning profession has no shortage of authoring and production tools and yet has very few tools specifically used for supporting innovative design decision-making. From a general perspective, we are likely developing a lot of content that lacks good design qualities.

One way eLearning designers can begin enhancing innovation opportunities in their own practice is to curate a design-innovation toolbox. eLearning design-innovation tools are decision-making tools that designers use throughout eLearning projects to support innovative thinking (Dodd, 2013).

Table 1 describes categories of eLearning design-innovation tools and presents several examples. An eLearning design-innovation toolbox is a “go-to” collection or portfolio of tools that you can use to help guide innovation processes. eLearning designers should curate tools for each category to assist them in innovatively solving problems at key points in a design process in creative ways. An effective eLearning design-innovation toolbox should be diverse and include resources for each of the categories (connection, inspiration, how-to, prototyping).

For example, inspiration tools might be used to explore new ideas while how-to tools could be used for adopting new and innovative design ideas. You can organize these tools using cloud-based note taking, curation, or file sharing software making it convenient and easy to use.

Table 1: eLearning design-innovation tools (adapted from Dodd, 2013)



When to use…


Connection Tools

Supports communication, collaboration, and idea sharing with other eLearning designers.

Do you have experience using the techniques I am about to try?

  • Work teams
  • Personal learning and/or social networks
  • Online collaboration tools
  • Note taking platforms

Inspiration Tools

Presents sources of inspiration or new ideas that could be used to enhance eLearning course design projects.

What new or novel ideas could enhance my eLearning design plan that I haven’t thought about?

  • Worked examples
  • Curation sites
  • Design “roundups”
  • Brainstorming

How-to Tools

Supports developing skills needed to adopt innovative eLearning design ideas.

How do I implement my eLearning design plan?

  • Checklists
  • Job Aids
  • Online video tutorials

Prototyping Tools

Allows eLearning designers to create low-fidelity versions (prototypes) to evaluate and revise innovative eLearning design ideas.

Will my eLearning design plan work?

  • Wireframe tools
  • Sketches
  • Storyboards

Draw it!

Communication plays an essential role in the success of any eLearning project. As previously discussed, much of eLearning design happens in the mind of the designer, invisible to other team members or collaborators. J.A. Hortin (1983) emphasized the need for more visual methods for communication within instructional design processes. Over time, new approaches have been developed to help eLearning designers represent and critique their design ideas. One notable method for visualizing and drawing design ideas is action mapping. Action mapping is a process that visualizes key design aspects of an eLearning project such as business goals, learner behaviors, activities, and supporting information. This visualization process also helps reduce cognitive load by representing the most essential aspects of design decisions.

Visualization methods such as drawing, sketching, or action mapping not only support decision-making processes, they also support collaboration, communication, and managing complexity. Jane Bozarth (2014) emphasized the importance of sharing your work and supporting knowledge management processes. Visualization processes apply these same knowledge management principles to the process of designing eLearning by opening up new possibilities for designers to maximize opportunities for innovation.

Practical tips for visualizing eLearning designs

  • Go analog. Step away from the digital devices and use paper, markers, whiteboards, and other visual media. This allows ideas to flow more easily during the design process.
  • Keep ideas movable. Use sticky notes to allow the ideas to be moved around and adapted as the design process proceeds.
  • Critique to create. Start a design session with a pre-visualized general concept and then allow the team to critique and build on the starting idea.
  • Focus on the idea, not the graphic. Keep the graphics you draw simple and don’t worry about artistic perfection.
  • Be active. When facilitating design sessions, use graphics as the center point of interaction and dialogue.
  • Think big. Use visual media that invites many people to participate. Use large pieces of paper, large whiteboards, walls … anything to remove limitations of space when representing ideas. You should work with an infinite idea canvas unbounded by space limitations.

Prototype: fail fast, early … and learn

The pace of change and the demand for faster results dictate that we be able to quickly develop high quality eLearning programs and make them available to learners in efficient ways. Traditional design models are simply unable to meet the needs of organizations and learners.  As such, interest in prototyping is growing in many professions and specifically among eLearning experts (van Barneveld, 2013). Prototyping is the practice of representing design ideas in more concrete and practical forms so you can evaluate and develop the design (Warfel, 2009). Using fast failures and prototyping allows designers to quickly see strengths and weaknesses in their strategy and rapidly respond based on feedback. To accommodate these needs, more nimble design methodologies focused on developing iterations of a project and incorporating user feedback until a “finalized” version is ready are growing in popularity (Allen & Sites, 2012). This allows learners to benefit from the solution more quickly while not waiting until late in the design process to incorporate learner feedback.

One method that uses prototyping and iterative design is the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) (Allen & Sites, 2012). SAM uses prototyping methods to design, evaluate, and refine eLearning projects rapidly based on how learners actually use the eLearning solution. Prototyping offers an authentic and fast way of trying out ideas while inviting learners to contribute feedback. Using prototypes is highly visible, allowing you to evaluate ideas and learn from mistakes without risking the success of the project.

Concluding thoughts

This article explored innovation barriers facing eLearning professionals and proposed practical action steps for breaking down those barriers. A path to innovative eLearning design ultimately starts with individuals who are willing to do something different to depart from traditional, procedure-focused design mindsets and break new ground (and sometimes a few rules). This path requires organizations to build cultures that value innovation in eLearning and cultivate opportunities where innovative solutions are celebrated.

The eLearning profession needs innovative thinkers and leaders to confront the types of complex challenges our learners face. The ability to deliver innovative eLearning is quickly becoming not only a nice-to-have skill, but a required ability for eLearning professionals. These action steps offer you a clear roadmap to start or continue this important journey.


Allen, M. and Richard Sites. Leaving ADDIE for SAM: An Agile Model for Developing the Best Learning Experiences. ASTD Press, 2012.

Bozarth, Jane. Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-to’s of Working Out Loud. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Dodd, B. J. Toward a Theoretical Model of Decision-making and Resistance to Change Among Higher Education Online Course Designers. Doctoral dissertation retrieved from ProQuest. 2013.

Gibbons, Andrew S. An Architectural Approach to Instructional Design. New York, NY: Routledge. 2014.

Hortin, J. A. “Instructional Design and Visualization: The Roles of Visual Thinking, Visual Rehearsal, and Introspection.” Performance & Instruction. September 1983.

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Sweller, J., Jeroen J. G. Van Merrienboer, and Fred G. W. C. Paas, “Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design.” Educational Psychology Review, 10(3). 1998.

van Barneveld, Angela. “Research for Practitioners: How Expert Designers Design.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 29 January 2013. http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1095/research-for-practitioners-how-expert-designers-design

Warfel, Todd. Z. Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media, 2009.