Listen up, eLearning designers. Before you get started on the design for the new training, there’s a short quiz. Answer these true-or-false questions:

  1. When you’re designing eLearning for your employees, it’s safe to assume that they know how to use these technologies:
    • Smartphone
    • Word processing software (e.g., MS Word or Google Docs)
    • Computer mouse
    • Multi-line desk phone
  1. Most adults know how to search the Internet on a phone or tablet.
  2. It’s safe to assume that your employees are familiar with social networks and how to use them, including posting, tweeting, and chatting.

If you think that any of the above statements is true, you’re in good company—and you’re wrong. Unless your employees are in jobs that require them to use technology daily, it’s not safe to assume any knowledge. And even if they are, some assumptions might be misplaced.

For instance, it’s “common knowledge” that so-called digital natives, those born after about 1990, emerged from the womb texting and adroitly balancing a half-dozen social media accounts while simultaneously watching a video and doing their homework. So of course the new marketing assistant, a woman in her late 20s, knows how to use MS Office, right? Wrong again.

“In the Millennial world in particular, we see expectations that they know how to use the software—Word and Excel and PowerPoint and all that—because they’re techno-literate in theory. In reality, they are mostly self-taught on those things; there’s a gap,” said eLearning pioneer, longtime educator, and Guild Master Jean Marrapodi. “When I taught in college, students would use their computer like a typewriter—using spaces instead of tabs, for example. They didn’t know a lot of things, but they didn’t know that they didn’t know: That’s how they thought it worked.”

When targeting training to adults in their 40s and older, eLearning designers cannot safely assume any technical knowledge unless the training is specifically geared toward a technical audience. Learners who’ve spent their careers in medicine, retail, or trade or industrial jobs, for example, might have learned to use specific tools or instruments for their work, but that does not translate to ease with email, social networks, or even a computer mouse. The starting line for eLearning really is teaching the most basic skills and knowledge:

  • When designing an eLearning kiosk that forklift operators can use to complete safety training while recharging the forklift battery, consider the wording of instructions—and any assumptions implicit in the training or instructions—carefully. If you are asking learners to “click on” or “highlight” text or buttons, or telling them to “navigate to” a specific location, explain what those terms mean and how to do that.
  • If you’re designing simulation-based training for volunteers who staff an emergency hotline, take a look at the phone system—and include instructions for putting a call on hold, transferring a call, or any other action they might need to perform while staffing the call center. Let learners practice these basic tasks as the first level of training so that, when they get to the practice call scenarios, they’re not flustered by the button combinations and can focus on the essential content.
  • When your hospital or clinic switches to electronic record-keeping and requires the nurse practitioners and physical and occupational therapists to do their record-keeping and enter patient notes on tablets, start with basic lessons on how to create and modify documents, how to use a touchscreen or mouse—even how to turn on the device and get to the right forms.

If employees’ jobs have not been technology-based, it is not reasonable to assume any, even the most basic, knowledge of technology.

For some learners and some tasks, eLearning might not be the right solution. For employees on the floor of a home-improvement store, for example, a “cheat sheet” on how to perform some customer transactions or transfer calls might be more appropriate than an eLearning module, even one delivered to their mobile phones. When performing occasional transactions, one manager says, she regularly asks another employee for help; she’s also drawn up her own crude sketches as memory aids. She’s probably not the only one. A simple diagram posted at every check-out terminal would save time and reduce employee frustration.

But for the many areas of training where eLearning can be beneficial, it’s crucial to ensure that all learners can engage fully in the training. To do that, they need to be able to turn on the machine and get to the first screen. They need instruction that normalizes their lack of technical knowledge; if they become frustrated or feel stupid because they don’t understand that the mouse moves the cursor around the screen or know what a “double click” is, they will not engage with—or retain—the eLearning. Adult learners also need the option to skip past the basic material if they do have some technical savvy; wasting their time on info that they already know will sap their motivation.

Andragogy differs from pedagogy in key ways, one of which is granting adult learners greater autonomy and control over their learning. Respect employees’ intelligence, life experience, and autonomy by ensuring that eLearning is focused, clearly states what they need to learn and why, and presents information clearly and engagingly—without assuming too much.

A tall order? Maybe. But when eLearning is designed with the widest variety of learners in mind, engagement will increase and frustration will decrease. A well-designed eLearning module can help create real change, but only if learners are willing and able to complete it.