“In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality. Geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science – among them existence itself – become problematized and relativized.”

This is an excerpt from an article on quantum gravity written by Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University. Mr. Sokal submitted this article to a leading academic journal, which published it quickly, without much scrutiny. Because the information appeared sophisticated and intelligent, the editors failed to notice that the article was in fact a parody meant to test and trick them. You can imagine the controversy. If you Google “Sokal hoax,” you can learn more about lack of intellectual rigor and the “anything goes” approach to information distribution.

In an era of excessive information, you have to wonder: how much of it is real or matters? The Sokal affair, as labeled by Google, prompted me to reflect on the concept of superficiality and how it relates to e-Learning. How often do we create courses that look and sound good but are in fact cognitively opaque? How often do we design learning by staying near the surface? How often do we sacrifice depth and rigor for the sake of expediency? If you took down 80% of your e-Learning courses for one day, how many people in your organization would complain?

After creating and completing hundreds of e-Learning products, I am noticing a trend towards substance abuse: we sometimes provide too little information, thinking we are doing users a favor, or we provide too much… thinking we are doing users a favor; or content is not really that important as long as it looks good. And most of this superficiality happens because we are often in a rush to deliver and don’t have the time or the energy to devote to thorough analysis.

Substance abuse in training can have serious consequences: on-the-job performance suffers, Help Desks get busier, and e-Learning gets a bad rep. How do we stop providing the mirage of e-Learning? What are some practical cures for superficiality? Read on.

The reality of less

Sometimes we oversimplify e-Learning content for the sake of brevity. And who is to blame us? We are addressing a culture of students with increasingly shorter attention spans; a generation of learners who wish to avoid inconveniences of prolonged training periods … learners who are after pleasant, instant stimulations, shortcuts, and quick fixes. As designers, you might be thinking: why clog output with unnecessary argument? Thorough treatment is for the academics.

Media and advertising, with their melodramatic sound-bites and slogans, are not helping our cause. You see ads that persuade people to believe they can get high gains with minimum effort. Look at slogans that promise a complete meal in three minutes, tax submission in two steps, and better abs in one move or less. If people are convinced they can get results without effort in most areas of their lives (family, fitness, entertainment), why not expect the same from e-Learning? Why engage in effortful pursuits when instant, comfortable chunks are so much easier to handle? Superficiality has become attractive to many corporate students who seek instant gratification and effortless training. How often have we seen e-Learning along the lines of Figure 1?


User interface displaying: step1 of 4 steps to handle stress. Understanding

Figure 1: Is it possible to manage stress in only four steps? Were this true, Prozac and psychiatrists would be out of business.


We’ve become too gentle with our students. We spare them the feeling that a training package may be too long or too difficult. In attempting to protect frail psyches, we often produce attenuated e-Learning. We fear that users, who are so stimulus-hungry and hurried, might close the browser and reach for the Wii. So we encourage learning by casual grazing. If we keep going at this pace, trapped and provoked by the 140-character culture, the future of e-Learning will be the blurb.

Do this exercise. Go to any of your e-Learning courses in your LMS (Learners Made to Suffer?) and count the number of screens where detail is sacrificed for the easily digestible. How many did you find? If the ratio is alarming, reflect on this: forced brevity breeds superficiality. You can’t simplify something by applying a few quick formulas. In some fields, you have to admit the frustrating complexity. Students might tell you that they are looking for are a “few simple rules” for a procedure. In some areas, there are no simple rules. Many topics are complicated and situational. Don’t oversimplify them.

Think of it this way: if everything in a training program was simple, users would not get much out of it. If everything was complex, users would not get much out of it. But if you balanced simplicity and complexity, users would learn better and appreciate your efforts to simplify. Simplicity and complexity need each other. It’s the contrast between them that shows your skills and provides students with substance and ease of learning. Just as we need the dark sky to appreciate the moon, we need complexity to appreciate simplicity. Consider Figure 2.

Including complexity in e-Learning screens assumes that you organize it well (any Edward Tufte book would help with that) and you distinguish between complex and complicated.


2 diagrams, both conveying same data with left side more complex than the simpler right side version.

Figure 2: We appreciate simplicity when we know the complexity that fed it.


If you tend to oversimplify because you’re worried about the length of an e-Learning product, keep this number in mind: empirical research shows that adult learners’ attention span starts fading after 30 minutes. The key word is adult learner; for adults in other circumstances, attention span may be longer. The movie industry can keep our attention for more than two hours, and so can a good stand-up comedian. Learning situations are more cognitively taxing, especially if you’re asking students to retain and apply information rather than simply browse.

You may hear casual anecdotes proclaiming that e-Learning modules offered in chunks of 15 minutes, 7 to 8 minutes, or even 2 to 3 minutes are optimal. If you abide by these untested standards, know that you’re doing it not because adult learners cannot handle something longer, but because you recognize they are tied to digital leashes and are easily distracted. To create e-Learning for people with fickle attention but yet provide them with enough substance, we need to ask a different question. The question should not be: can students handle this 30-minute module? The question should to be: how can I create my e-Learning program so it competes with an engaging iPhone app that typically tempts my students or with a rewarding chat they have with a co-worker via IM? You will enjoy the challenges but also the rewards of the answer.

Another danger of offering a superficial e-Learning in simple chunks is that students may miss the overall context of the information. Learning objects – discrete and focused pieces of content– empower students to establish their own path by allowing them to draw from a knowledge repository only the information they need at a given time. That’s all good. Let’s assume the best case: students know what their path is. Even in this optimal situation, chunked and overly simplified learning objects may prevent students from seeing the bigger context. Incomplete schemas may cause trainees to have only a partial frame of reference related to a particular topic, which may lead to misunderstanding and inadequate performance.

Learning objects may be the modern bible of instructional design, but they ignore relationships and holism. I read an old Sufi teaching once about the importance of understanding the whole, not just the parts: "You think because you understand one you must understand two, because one and one makes two. But you must also understand and.” Superficiality often occurs because we fail to understand or bring importance to “and”. Being able to see connections between what is typically thought of as separate parts is the sign of the designer who thinks critically, not superficially.

To avoid the traps of cursory e-Learning, start with small steps. For topics that are extremely salient to your business, find three to five areas where it is important that your students gain in-depth knowledge. Inform students that accumulation of real skills and knowledge requires effort. Include enough substance that can keep them engaged for 30 minutes at a time, and show them how those different areas are interconnected. Don’t spoil the idea of depth with words such as “complete” or “everything you need to know.” Substance does not necessarily mean exhaustive information. It just means having enough to feel intellectually satiated. If you want students to return to your content repository, leave them on high notes, with the promise of more substance during their next trip.

In the areas where knowledge is meant to be brief, use words such as “overview” or “general information” or “getting started” or “outline” or “synopsis”; inform users of the type of depth they should expect and where to go if they would like more. Don’t compensate for lack of content by providing links to a lot of additional information. An e-Learning screen that has 15 additional links to more information can feel disheartening. A small amount of references, displayed in an organized and moderate fashion works.

And avoid going to the other extreme. Don't turn something into a deep topic when the content is not that critical. If you had to teach how to insert pictures into Microsoft Word, the instruction is better served with a .pdf document that lists a few steps vs. a full-blown e-Learning course with terminal and enabling objectives, interactions, and summary.

The reality of more

A German philosopher once described boredom as the hot breath of nothingness on your neck. I have a similar image in mind when a student looks at an overwhelming e-Learning screen. I can almost see that hot breath on their necks. Does Figure 3 look familiar in terms of content volume in an e-Learning screen? Have you seen or created screens that look like this?


3 examples of overly busy and overly crammed with information.

Figure 3: Providing too much information rescues us from responsibility (everything is there) but leaves students at best untouched, and at worst annoyed and bitter towards e-Learning.


The typical excuse I hear from designers when asked, “Why the information tsunami?” is, “The client wanted it that way.” I am amazed at how little accountability we assume. Are you noticing that we live in times where individual accountability is eroding? Someone else is always to blame. This is such an easy technique to adopt because if we believe it’s just the environment that needs fixing, then we are absolved of any personal responsibility.

It’s so easy to blame an institution, isn’t it? We speak about e-Learning programs failing, but how often do we speak of designers failing? The problem with this victim mentality is that the more we believe we don't have control over our environment and the substance we provide in e-Learning, the more undisciplined we become. I strongly urge you: do not join the generation of "whatever” designers. Those are people who spin away incompetence by blaming a system.

Take responsibility for information overload and educate clients on what constitutes manageable training. Any modern field you craft training about (finance, health, or technology), rests on petabytes of information (and that’s just for the overviews). The first step towards avoiding information overload, but still providing substance, is to impose some constraints on you and the client. It may sound counterintuitive, but hear me out.

It is tempting and fairly easy to add everything you have access to in an e-Learning program. Users can’t complain they don’t have access to all the information, and the development process is faster. But learning is hindered. To manage excessive information, decide which areas are worthwhile to address and complete these steps:

  1. Review decisions you've made recently when including content in an e-Learning course (how you collected information, how many people you interviewed, how much documentation you reviewed).
  2. List the steps you took, along with the amount of time and anxiety that went into each step.
  3. Reflect on how it felt to do that work, how much the final course benefited from your effort, and how your students received it.

This exercise will help you realize the costs associated with the volume of information you decide to include in your courses, and may prompt you to have some rules in the future. I am certain you currently have rules for different areas in your life (e.g., no more than two glasses of wine at dinner or no more than three bites of chocolate at a time). Imagine creating similar rules for your training design habits, such as talking to no more than three SMEs for a course, or interviewing no more than four end-users, or creating no more than 25 screens per lesson. When you start having such rules, you save time. You can devote this time to other areas where rules don't apply but are substance opportunities, such as how to create a meaningful interaction for a challenging instructional objective. Restricting your options, even though it implies fewer choices, benefits everyone.

I remember a cartoon by Peter Steiner, in which he showed the father fish in a fish bowl telling his son: "You can be anything you want to be — no limits." Even though the fish bowl is so constrictive, the advice was sound because it invited the little fish to explore and grow without being concerned with dangers of other larger environments that may not even have water.

Look at constraints not as restrictive but as liberating – a way to take the time reserved for volume and transfer it to building substance.

Festina lente

Time is tricky in training design. We often give our students too little or too much because we are in a rush and so are our students. Patience and restraint are not qualities of our generation. Because students and clients see waiting as uncomfortable, we end up with diluted e-Learning programs that have either selective detail or programs that include everything and the kitchen sink, along with the bedroom window, and links to the neighbors’ house.

Client pressure is predominant in corporate training. “Can you do it by Thursday,” they announce on Monday. “Just put something out there, anything.” If Professor Sokal were a SME and worked with corporate training, we would probably be pressured into publishing a module on quantum gravity once a week without blinking. What the bleep do we know? We’re just doing our jobs.

Because of time constraints, we bypass discipline and look for shortcuts. Who has time for reflection anymore? The hurried lifestyle of our users pushes us to compress and deliver quickly, often sacrificing balance and validity. Immediacy is the enemy of profound thought.

More or faster does not lead to better. When you’re in a rush, you do not have time to descend into depth — and developing e-Learning too fast is like vacuuming too fast: you miss stuff.

Here is how it works in real life. Let’s say you come across this statistic: 40% of business practitioners use software X. The interpretation of this statistic can be misleading: first you would have to know how many people in business use software and then how many of those use that particular software (and is it only software they use?). But how often do we stop and think critically? Background information is often ignored, yet it can be as important as the conclusion. Selective evidence can lead to poor knowledge and sometimes manipulation. Ironically, the abstract is often more enticing than the body of the article to the time-thirsty corporate student.

How do we balance expediency with depth of argument?

  1. Keep in mind that facts matter but the principles behind them may be equally important. Take your time to study and understand the content, at least for the courses that are really important for your business.
  2. Follow immediate action with quiet reflection, because even more meaningful action will follow, as Zen masters would agree (might be nice if there was a Zen e-Learning school we could all attend).
  3. If you have to create something quickly, divide content creation and production into separate parts, and get help for the latter. This way, instead of spending time on deciding what graphic to include on each screen, you have more time for critical thought and the buildup of an argument.
  4. Lack of a rigorous QA process allows superficial thinking to pass unchallenged. Establish guardians for depth of thought, content validity, and reliability.

“Festina lente,” the title of this section, in Latin means to “hurry slowly.” I like this sentiment because it reminds us to maintain a sense of urgency, yet take the time to contemplate and not rush into thoughts and conclusions and sound-bites.

The container and the content

I read the story of a woman who was unwrapping her iPod and exclaimed: “I did not care whether it worked or not. It was that beautiful.” Sensuous design and appeal dominate the consumer business and often precede functionality. Luckily, Apple knows how to balance style and substance. Unfortunately, this balance does not exist in some of our e-Learning packages.

In training design, we sometimes place more value on the container than we do on the content. Plagued by show and seduced by flash, some designers are too often preoccupied with how the training looks rather than how it functions. Clients buy into this plastic paradise we offer in some e-Learning products because we live, after all, in the Age of Aesthetics. If appearance serves, why bother with depth?

Have you ever been guilty of spending too much time fretting on how to create a flashy presentation with slick programming and multimedia glitz? Has the medium ever killed your message? Screen dressing is dangerous because it leaves room for poverty of thought and reason. When we insist too much on the beauty of the container, we sometimes create pseudo-learning that is expensive and glossy. In such cases, the multimedia noise is the cognitive equivalent of fast-food.


half a dozen of very visually appealling templates

Figure 4: An abundance of templates provides visually appealing interfaces. Fill them with solid content so you offer both substance and style.


As you know, there is more to e-Learning than arranging binary code in an aesthetically pleasing fashion.

You can color e-Learning screens with the latest programming and layout techniques and authoring tools but don’t forget business and student needs for substance and depth. (Figures 4 and 5 attest!)


visual: nail sandwich

Figure 5: Offering style without substance is like offering a sandwich with non-nourishing ingredients.


I often hear this request from clients: “I want you to develop an e-Learning package for my employees that is really stimulating, and full of engaging activities and effects that attract the eye and keep them interested.” And designers start stressing and obsessing over how to make the training full of engaging and eye-catching opportunities. Here is what you need to tell clients: Not all courses scream out for motivational and glitter techniques.

According to several theories of cognitive arousal, the following considerations apply when establishing how much stimulation is necessary in a training program in terms of substance and style:

  • If students consider the subject matter as critical (e.g., safety measures or mandatory training), then aim for a low stimulation level. In the case of mandatory training, students do not really care about the learning process, but about its consequences. All they want to do is remain relaxed, alert, and complete the training quickly so they can move onto other things. For example, if you develop online training about a mandatory topic, such as the code of business conduct of your company, you should not waste a lot of development hours adding glitz and humor and sophisticated interfaces. Students know this is an obligation. All they want is clear content, instructions on what to do to complete the training successfully, and that’s it.
  • If students consider the subject matter as freely chosen and avoidable (e.g., a training package in improving communication, developing creative thinking, or improving time management skills), then use a higher stimulation level. In such circumstances, students are not necessarily mindful of the consequences of the e-Learning program but wish to enjoy the learning process and consider high levels of stimulation as pleasant and challenging.

Linguistic laxity

Imagine you’re in love. You could tell your lover: “I appreciate your love. You make me feel good and I really like you.” Or you could say: “If you caught me one day and kissed the sole of my foot, I would limp a little, afraid to crush your kiss.” Which words would have a bigger impact?

How often do we take time to offer substance through specific language? How often do we include the radiance and expressiveness of the English language in our content? Not often. Our courses are drooling with non-sentences. Our language is often missing nuance and detail. We throw around phrases such as “paradigm shift,” “thinking out of the box,” “unparalleled technology.” Unpack these words and you see a sad reality: we often write in diluted sentences and transmit obscure thoughts. If we are on a mission to make our courses shorter, yet still offer substance, language analysis and linguistic scrutiny is definitely one of the solutions.

Beautiful language that has brevity and depth is becoming a vanishing luxury. There are several reasons for this trend. First, we tend to exploit and trivialize words; we use adjectives such as “wonderful” and “fantastic” for the most insignificant concepts (“fantastic toenails”); “terrible” or “tragic” show up in structures such as “terrible pen.” What superlative can you think of that really denotes tragedy or wonder in its true sense? We’ve slowed down prose for the sake of lazy language (“lunch was awesome”). Whatever.

The language of Twitter is superficiality incarnate. If Jane Austin was using Twitter when she wrote Pride and Prejudice, this is what we would be reading: “@janeaustin Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together.”

The cure for this is more commitment to the appreciation and usage of language. Read more; take notes of expressions that are brief but potent. Take a creative writing course. That’s when you learn to appreciate the difference between writing sentences like “He hit me” vs. “He decked me” vs. “He Steven Segal’ed my butt.”

Specifics mobilize the brain; by selecting words that are specific (vs. corporate clichés or generic words), you can enable students to focus on your content for longer periods of time. And when you choose just the right word, you can achieve brevity as well, which means that your training can be a bit longer and it can have more substance (since statements are crafted carefully and free of non-words). I recently learned the Portuguese word saudade. On the surface, it means longing for someone who is not around. But when you study it more, you discover additional texture and touch. The tiny word is a summary of all that matters: profound feelings for someone whose picture may be in black and white, yet you still retain the colors; someone whose existence has redesigned your daily choreography; someone who earned the right to open your bedroom window in the morning and whose absence triggers all the senses ... Imagine all these feelings in one little word! That’s the power of language. That’s how much meaning we can pack in a few letters, if we just took the time to look. Festina lente.

Getting specific with words means acquiring a better vocabulary. Word power does wonders to substance because language has the potential to shape thoughts. When I was researching information for this article, I came across the word sciolism, which means claims of knowledge we don’t have; instead of saying we don’t know, we pretend that we do. While I would not use the word sciolism in a conversation (imagine the looks at a cocktail party), it did prompt me to think of one area that I included in this section concerned with using words to make the discourse appear in a more positive light. Language can often shape thinking; acquire more of it.

Another reason we turn our discourse into empty sentences is because of too much insistence on political correctness. I was recently going to interview a well-known presenter on a topic I am passionate about: beginnings of presentations. Amongst questions such as what constitutes a good beginning and where could we find inspiration for them, I was also going to ask: is there a difference between the way men and women start their presentations? I was advised not to ask this question for politically correct reasons. Such a shame, as the question was genuine and could have led to good conversation and deeper thinking. Do men open with a challenge? Do women open with consensus? Or is it the other way around? I don’t know and I was afraid to ask.

The zeal for PC (“politically correct”) speech is leading to overly sanitized phrases that are meant to take the sting out of reality and provide a palatable but superficial impression of what happens around us. We don’t travel “economy,” we travel “coach.” We don’t “fail”; we experience “deferred success.” Some hospitals do not talk about “death” but “negative patient outcome.” On the other extreme, we adopt an over-the-top linguistic style, created to provide an inflated sense of importance of the content and conceal the shallowness of ideas. Obscure language is meant to impress. We use words to create positive auras and bolster egos. Everyone is a Vice President of some sort.

How excited would you be and how much substance would you expect to get out of the e-Learning program in Figure 6? Would Figure 7 give you a different set of expectations?


two winners holding a trophy next to cliched text

Figure 6: The enigmatic, clichéd text and the unrealistic picture reduce the credibility of this screen (the picture would be more appropriate for a CSI movie).


steps on it are various colorful pillows that serve as chair cushions

Figure 7: Clear, simple, and honest words announce a training program with worthwhile substance.


One cure for linguistic laxity is to design courses about content you’re familiar with and you’ve experienced directly. Actors tend to be more successful when they act what they know. It’s the same in e-Learning design. When you write about what you know, your language is crisp, clear, fresh, and precise. There is a difference between knowing about something vs. knowing it directly. The botanist knows about the flower, the bee knows it directly. You might not become the bee, but you can do diligence to depth by constant research, solid interviewing skills, and critical thinking skills. The more you stay the busy bee, the better the results and the student satisfaction scores.

Doing something about superficiality

In order to apply the cures suggested in this article, you must ensure that you have enough energy. There is a link between superficiality and our physiology. We are quickly turning into a society of tired people. How can we run an intellectual marathon, when our mind can barely run 5k? I am sure your New Year resolutions include at least one about your health and energy level. Place it at the top.

I recommend Richard Paul’s book on the topic of critical thinking, which reminds all of us that we should be engaged more often in constructive skepticism and in the art of in-depth approach to information that matters. And avoid the type of thinking that keeps one’s ego captive and is free of social conditioning and is on a constant rush. This way, when a SME pressures you into publishing content on quantum gravity, you know better.

The overall plea of this article is to convince you to avoid superficiality and engage in more critical thinking. Keep in mind that when we provide superficial e-Learning, we are not transmitting knowledge, but rather the illusion of it. And illusory e-Learning can be corrosive and regressive. Be more thorough in your approach to e-Learning and do not engage in substance abuse.