Allison Rossett, a Guild Master and professor emerita of educational technology at San Diego State University, consults on learning and technology for corporations and government agencies. She’s also a prolific author and she keynotes and speaks at conferences all over the world, most recently at DevLearn.

Guild Master Allison Rossett

I recently spoke with Allison about the future of eLearning and the importance of both training and performance support. The interview has been edited for length and clarity; the first part of the interview appeared November 28, 2016.

Pamela S. Hogle (PH): There’s a lot of pressure to make eLearning engaging, of course, but also mobile-friendly, accessible, easy to update. Seems like a lot to ask of instructional designers (IDs). How do they reconcile all of that?

Allison Rossett (AR): First thing, of course: IDs need to be paid more because so many requirements are being piled on their narrow shoulders! (Kidding … sort of.)

It’s a lot to ask, I agree. But I don’t think these things are oppositional; I think they suit each other marvelously.

Let’s use an example like wine selection, or product selection for a salesperson. If you’re learning to select better wines, or you’re learning to be a better salesperson, why can’t a whole lot of what you need to be good at what you do—why can’t it be on demand, accessible?

Go online to the App Store, and put in “wine.” There’s a million things to help you be better at it. And when I was working with a client recently, on the skills of salespeople, they had many, many small training modules, where they had to practice things and recognize errors. That’s very classic training to memory and to mind, heart, and belly. But then they had a ton of checklists, and things you could pull up and share with customers—much more performance-support oriented.

So I don’t see these things as oppositional. I think online, via iPads or phones—I think that’s just the right place to put things. You hire somebody to be a new consultant or new salesperson or even a new driver, or a new insurance adjuster, you give that new employee a device that’s already loaded with many of these tools. Then your job, if you’re bringing them in, is to orient them, teach them to access these assets, to know what assets reside on their system, and to use them; use them like crazy. That’s so much better than bringing them in for three weeks and trying to pour things into their head. Who’s going to remember all that?

PH: A lot of this assumes constant online access, which isn’t true everywhere in this country, much less globally. Are we leaving people behind?

AR: Of course we are. I think digital gap is a big issue. But if we’re talking about workplace productivity, we could sit here and talk about the problem of the developing world or the undeveloped world, and you’re right, it’s a big problem. But you know, they have access to phones. They’re “leapfrogging” technology, and they have access to phones. So there are possibilities.

I guess the main thing I would say for the people who read Learning Solutions is: Know what you’re dealing with. Do not assume that every time you take on a project and bring technology to bear on it that it’s an opportunity to do fabulous, groovy things. Instead, spend some energy and time knowing for whom you are developing and not create frustration for them, but use what they have. Make it match their circumstances. Don’t be surprised by bandwidth issues or by lack of devices. Keep it simple. Again, less is more. They will appreciate if you are keen on what their issues and problems are, rather than frustrating them by their not being able to enjoy the wonders of the animation you’ve produced.

On engaging learners

You asked me a question about engagement, and I think that’s a really big challenge. I recently reviewed some online programs, and I thought, “You would have to put a gun to my head to get me to complete this program.” This is brutal stuff. So, I think it’s really important that we talk about engagement.

I want to say some of the things that I think we need to do. It’s a bit of a laundry list, but it’s so critical. As we move toward more technology, one of the great benefits—and one of the sharper threats—in this is that they [learners] get to decide. They can decide in, or they can decide out. So we’ve got to make it compelling, engaging.

  • I think it has to begin with knowing their problem. You can’t just be vanilla off the shelf. It [eLearning] has to reflect their pain points and their opportunities. They can’t look at it and say, “Well, that was built for doctors, and I am a retirement specialist or a truck driver.” There are ways to do this. You can keep many of the common messages, but you’ve got to infuse at least some things that reflect that you know them, you know from whence they come.
  • You have to explain why—why are they looking at this, why are they engaged with this topic? Put it in a context. What’s in it for me? What’s in it for the organization? It matters. I can’t tell you how often that doesn’t happen. I don’t mean spend an hour on that, but say why we are there. Use stories. Use the voices of real people. I don’t mean people they know, but people who are also retirement specialists or truck drivers or nurses. Include their commentary on why they handled it that way, why they approached the audit that way, why the expert nurse managed as he did, why he asked a doctor to take a look at this patient as opposed to handling it himself.
  • Set up opportunities for learners to do something relevant, to do something that smells and feels like the real world to them.
  • Make it thought-provoking. So often, I look at programs, and I think, “This is so obvious.” I’ll give you an example. I was looking at a program on HIPAA. It was compliance. I thought, “Well, OK, I am going to take the test without doing the program.” I got 100 percent. Ridiculous. Who doesn’t know that you’re not supposed to leave files lying all over the desk? Who doesn’t know that?
    I call it the “low-hanging fruit syndrome.” They just teach the most obvious; they don’t go after the things where people have problems. Which is why many people don’t really like these programs: They don’t solve their problems.
  • Don’t get them lost. One of the things that’s really critical is guidance systems that tell people where they are, where to go next, and how much more they have to go. It’s a really good thing. Notice how more and more of the things we read tell us how long it’s going to take us to complete them? Don’t you like that?


Rossett, Allison. First Things Fast: A Handbook for Performance Analysis, 2nd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Pfeiffer/Wiley, 2009.

Rossett, Allison, and Antonia Chan. Engaging with the new eLearning. Adobe Systems, 2008.

Rossett, Allison, and Lisa Schafer. Job Aids & Performance Support: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere. Hoboken, NJ: Pfeiffer/Wiley, 2006.
Associated website and tool:

Rossett, Allison, and Gina Yusypchuk. “Is There an App for Leadership Development?” Chief Learning Officer. February 2013.