When the first edition of Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company appeared 13 years ago, the eLearning world was not what it is today. The eLearning Guild was only a year old. SCORM was shiny and new, and modern learning management systems (LMSs) were only beginning to appear (although LMS as a concept had been around since PLATO in the 1970s). There was:

  • No mobile ecosystem
  • No social media, at least not as we know it today
  • No cloud computing
  • No practical way to deliver interactive video over the Internet (there was programmable and random access videodisc and laserdisc for the desktop, however)
  • No enormous array of “rapid authoring” tools (the term itself only appeared in 2004)

Michael Allen wrote the first edition of Guide for instructional designers, who by and large created content that was still in the early stages of transition from classroom training, delivered by human beings in a classroom setting, to technology-mediated instruction, most of which was not delivered through a web browser. Managers who approved training expenditures and staffing often needed a lot of convincing that eLearning was a “thing” and not a fad. The users of eLearning­­—the learners—were not used to downloading content, although iTunes and the iPod, along with early eCommerce sites, were laying the groundwork for mobile and the always-connected, always-on environment we enjoy today. As a result, much of the first edition of Allen’s book had to deal with skepticism about eLearning. Nobody was sure what worked or where “the information highway” was leading.

A lot of things have changed, but not the basics.

What’s new, and what’s surprising

I think this is an important book, and one that everyone in the field of eLearning should read and consider today, but it is important to understand why Allen has chosen to write this second edition now. This edition is significantly different from the first edition, for a different world. Superficially, it may resemble the first edition, but inside you will find that the similarity largely ends with the title. It is true that Allen takes the same pragmatic, no-nonsense, craftsman-like approach to eLearning design that he did in the first edition. He is, as he has always been, about thoughtful solutions to business problems and human performance, as you would expect from a practitioner who has been in the field of eLearning for many years and in fact developed the first widely adopted eLearning authoring tools.

That said, readers who are new to eLearning design and development will be surprised—perhaps dismayed—by what Allen has to say about the state of software creation and our response to technology. But permit me to quote him at length. The words that follow, taken from the first chapter of the new edition, may be the most important words in this review and the ones that you must keep in mind as you read the book:

“People of many backgrounds, skills, and talents find themselves involved in creating instructional applications because interactive technology is more accessible than ever before. Creation tools that emphasize speed and minimal instructional knowledge seduce the unwary into instructional design roles where, although well-meaning, they are not ready or able to make good design decisions.

There’s no doubt we are blessed with more ways than ever to help people and organizations perform better. It’s all very exciting. At the same time, even more expertise is required to choose an effective path—to avoid what’s novel and new but not the best fit.

Unprepared courseware developers, with far too many instructional models, tools, and delivery technologies, are spurred on by eye-catching examples that have great appeal, but actually miss most instructional opportunities. This has created a new environment in our industry. …

[M]y answer to the question What’s new? could well be everything. And yet, the most important guidelines remain the enduring basics of what we know about learning and performance. Through all these changes, it’s more important than ever to be grounded in, and guided by, the basic principles of human learning and performance.”

Delivering the argument

Strong words, perhaps. But in my opinion, he makes good on them. The entire focus of the second edition is to help fill up whatever may be lacking in the readers’ knowledge of those enduring basics.

How does he do that? First, Allen explains that he is not dismissing the recent developments in technology and delivery channels: social, mobile, and games. He isn’t even actually dismissing rapid development tools, although he would certainly never advocate their use as the default.

Allen cautions strongly against the suggestion that building courseware is more a matter of implementation than a matter of design, or that knowledge about appropriate and effective instructional design should be pushed aside in the interest of expediency. He appreciates that mobility, games, video, real-time simulations, MOOCs, and social apps offer possibilities with great value in some cases, but it’s design that matters most, followed by appropriate selection of delivery. Even eLearning itself is, for Allen, a delivery platform with “an interesting set of capabilities,” not an instructional approach.

Second, Allen presents a solid framework for creating effective and valuable learning. This appears in chapters 7 and 8, following his presentation of the rationale for the book in chapters 1 through 4, his “Executive’s Guide to Good e-Learning” in Chapter 5, and his strategic overview in Chapter 6, “Where Does e-Learning Fit?” While those chapters contain echoes of similar content in the earlier edition, chapters 7 and 8 are the heart of the present volume. Allen certainly could have presented those two chapters at the beginning of the book, but he chose to make his case for their necessity first. If you are already familiar with the rationale for good design before making technology decisions, feel free to skip over the first six chapters. You can always go back and read them.

The heart of the matter

Chapter 7 consists of what Allen calls “simple success strategies.” There are seven of these strategies. The first four will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken a course on instructional design: Set clear outcome goals for your product, match your instructional strategy to your outcome goals, beware of “awareness” goals, and design backward (you may think of this as the classic “begin with the end in mind”).

When Allen comes to the fifth simple success strategy, he gives the reader what he considers “the most helpful discovery in my endeavors to help e-learning realize its potential”: the identification of the four components of impactful, interactive instructional experiences. He says these four components—context, challenge, activity, and feedback (CCAF) —define and comprise learning events, including serious learning games. This is a serious insight into instructional design, and he expands on his thoughts in Chapter 12, “CCAF and Interactive Instruction.”

Allen gives his procedural basis for eLearning development as his seventh success strategy: SAM, the “successive approximation method.” This method appeared originally in the first edition as “Savvy: A Successful Program of Successive Approximation.” (Allen covers SAM in depth in his book Leaving ADDIE for SAM, and the method receives further explanation in the associated Field Guide—both of which have been reviewed for Learning Solutions Magazine—as well as in Pamela Hogle’s September 20, 2016 Learning Solutions Magazine spotlight article, “Waterfalls or Whirlpools: Why Use an Instructional Development Model?”) He expands on the topic in Chapter 14, “Successive Approximation and SAM.”

The final philosophical basis for Allen’s framework appears in The Serious eLearning Manifesto, which he cites in Chapter 8, along with commentary on the 22 principles it contains. This document is the result of work by Allen and three of his colleagues, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, and Will Thalheimer. The eLearning Guild is a signatory to the Manifesto, along with more than a thousand professionals worldwide. This chapter is worthy of serious contemplation, and I will not attempt to summarize it here. You could start by reading the Learning Solutions Magazine article on the Manifesto.

What else is in the book?

I have summarized what seem to me to be the most significant parts of the second edition, although there is much more in the Guide. Allen includes content that expands on the first edition’s advice about learner motivation. He covers topics that were in the first edition on “Seven Magic Keys to Motivational e-Learning,” navigation, and instructional interactivity.

A significant addition is in Part 3 of the second edition, “Serious Learning Games.” If you are interested in this instructional alternative, you should definitely buy the book for this section alone.

Why read this?

We read articles and weblogs every day decrying the state of eLearning. It is called boring, ineffective, and not worth the time and expense involved in its creation. And perhaps much of eLearning fits that description. Unfortunately, the suggestions for improving the situation are varied and all too often consist of solicitations to buy this product, that system, the other service. The prescriptions are varied and not necessarily grounded in experience, let alone research. But in this new edition of his Guide, Allen brings decades of research, experience, and success to his design recommendations, and even if some of what he says may be hard to take or to accept, it is certainly worth considering. I recommend serious, thoughtful reading of Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, 2nd Edition.


Allen, Michael. Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, 2nd Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2016.