I remember when I was tasked with my very first eLearning project. I had to create a five-part course on the steps for apprehending a shoplifter within a retail environment. While I knew a lot about catching shoplifters, I knew very little about designing and developing an eLearning course. You see, back then, I had been working in the field of retail loss prevention for the majority of my career. I had just earned my degree in criminal justice when I transitioned into a training coordinator role for the entire loss prevention department. At the time, I thought it would be a logical next step in my career. Little did I know that it would catapult me into an entirely different direction.

The truth is, my story isn’t unique. Most of the folks working in our industry fell into it entirely by accident—they were good at something, and one day someone said they should train others to do that thing. While this phenomenon has created a lot of diversity within our industry (which is a good thing), it has also had lead to many folks being ill-equipped with the skills and know-how to create engaging, performance-based eLearning.

So, what are the reasons why so much eLearning fails, and what can we do about it? Well, it’s not complicated. We just need to go back to the basics. Below are three reasons why eLearning fails, and what to do about it.

1. It’s not designed for how people learn

If I asked you how you learn, you might say something like “by trial and error,” “by doing,” or something similar. The funny thing is that most of us have a strong sense of how learning occurs. We know that learning isn’t a single event but rather a process that occurs over time. However, when we’re tasked with creating learning for others, whether it be an eLearning course or something else, we do a really good job throwing that logic out the window. We create a single training event where we dump in a bunch of bullet points on a slide, add a next button, throw in a quiz, and call it eLearning. And after that’s all done, we wonder why it didn’t deliver the performance results we we’re seeking.

Instead, we need to recognize that’s not how people—especially adults—learn! And we know this because of the research conducted by Malcolm Knowles around the topic of andragogy: the theory and practice of adult learning. What Knowles’ Four Principles of Adult Learning has taught us is that adult learners need to be involved in their learning experience. They learn when they’re challenged with real-world situations that are relevant to them.

2. It’s not the right solution for the performance issue

When your stakeholders and subject matter experts approach you to create an eLearning course, how do you respond? What questions do you ask? Do you challenge their assumptions that learning is the answer, or do you simply take the request and fulfill the order? The truth is, more often than not, our stakeholders and subject matter experts believe everything can be fixed with training.

Instead, we need to validate the cause of a performance issue before we can make an informed decision of whether eLearning (or any learning) will address it. We do this by conducting a needs analysis and performance assessment. Yes, this is done by initially talking with our stakeholders and subject matter experts but also by reviewing any available data, observing and talking to employees, and evaluating best practices. This information can help us identify what our employees are doing, what we want them doing, why they are or aren’t doing it, and whether or not training can help address it.

3. It’s not focused on performance

When you’re developing an eLearning course, you’ve likely been lectured about the importance of interactivity. There’s this common belief that you need to make your eLearning courses interactive to maintain engagement. However, not all interactivity is created equally, nor does it have equal outcomes. You can easily add a button that reveals a bunch of bullet points when clicked. And while I do believe there is a time and place for click-to-reveal interactivity, the truth is—nothing is gained from a learning and performance standpoint when it’s the only type of interactivity included in your course.

Instead, we need to be creating eLearning that’s based in performance—that’s focused on what we need our employees to do, not just what they need to know. We do this in eLearning by creating content and interactivity that challenges our learners to use their critical thinking skills to make decisions and apply what they’ve been taught. And ideally, this helps them put into practice the skills they’ll actually be performing on the job.

The bottom line

While a lot of eLearning fails, it doesn’t have to. eLearning can be an effective and integral part of any learning strategy; we just need to do a better job making sure it’s focused on how adults learn, that it’s the right solution for the performance issue, and that it’s focused on performance.

While this isn’t the end-all, be-all of creating eLearning that drives results, if you’re like me (someone without a formal learning background), these tips will undoubtedly point you in the right direction.

From the editor: Want more?

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