When the first edition of this book appeared five years ago, it was an instant hit and joined William Horton’s earlier works on many an eLearning designer’s bookshelf. The second edition, which came out exactly a month ago, is bound to have the same success.

If you have the first edition, you need to purchase this one now. If you don’t have the first edition, you really need to add E-Learning by Design to your library. Let me explain why.

Learning for today

This is not a minor upgrade to the first edition. It is reorganized, and enhanced with new content on games, social networking, and mobile technology.

However, it is still characterized by Horton’s humor and his thoughtful structure, by his tables and matrixed job aids that simplify design decisions, and by copious figures and illustrations. William has also incorporated new ideas and new approaches that have appeared or been validated since the first edition. In other words, this is not a guide to producing eLearning as it was, but to creating eLearning to today’s standards.

If you are new to the design of eLearning, whether you have a background in instructional design or not, Horton provides a quick guide to the varieties of eLearning and to the intricacies of interaction online between design and development, between vision and tools.

If you are more experienced in this online world, William Horton, who has done lots of what he calls “autopsies” on failed eLearning projects, will help you improve your results.

If you are the manager of a traditional training department or educational organization, Horton’s insights into the levels of eLearning, from media to complete curriculum, and into social learning, virtual classrooms, collaboration, and breaking the ADDIE habit will help you succeed in making the transition to online learning.

If you manage a team of designers and developers, this is the book that you can use as a shop reference and as the basis for “how we do things around here.” If you are a one-person shop or an independent producer or contractor, E-Learning by Design will help you develop your standards and your brand.


E-Learning by Design is structured not so much around chapters as it is by major sections, each of which deals with a question or an area of practice.

The first section, “Designing E-Learning,” gives a quick (well, 66-page) overview of what eLearning is, and of the basic design principles. At the end of this section, there is a handy guide to which chapter in the book to read next, based on where the reader is feeling the need for more information. Horton also recommends a couple of more complete guides to instructional design.

The second section is a little different from what you might expect in a book like this. Horton calls the topic “Absorb-type activities.” When I first saw this, I thought, “OK, he’s going to talk about engaging the learner.” Well, that’s not exactly it, although these activities will engage learners. William divides the activities that people engage in while learning into three categories: Absorb, Do, and Connect. The Absorb activities are closest to pure information. Horton says they are best for highly motivated learners, and for such individuals they can be very efficient ways to learn. They “usually consist of information and the actions learners take to extract and comprehend knowledge from that information.” The intent is to inform and inspire learners, and the activities may include such things as presentations, demonstrations, stories, and even field trips (which can be done virtually or via a Webquest, as well as through a physical trip). This 60-page section ends, as do all the others, with a guide to finding more information about Absorb activities.

The next two sections deal with the other two types of activity, Do and Connect. “Do” includes such traditional eLearning activities as drill-and-practice, hands-on, and discovery. The “Do” section also introduces games and simulations. This is the shortest section in the book, only 33 pages. “Connect” activities are a bit more varied, and the section on them is some 51 pages long. Connect activities help learners close the gap between learning and the rest of their lives. Where Absorb and Do activities have as their purpose teaching something new, Connect links to something already known or prompts application of learning. Connect activities include such things as pondering, questioning, stories, job aids, research, and original work. In the summaries of the Absorb, Do, and Connect activities, Horton provides his excellent charts that help the reader understand how to use these activities and how to pick activities to accomplish specific learning objectives.

In the last two-thirds of the book, Horton addresses Tests, Topics (which he treats as learning objects), and then new areas: Games and Simulations (almost 80 pages), Social Learning (100 pages), Mobile Learning (only 40 pages, but contains excellent guidelines for dealing with the limitations of mobile devices), and design for the Virtual Classroom (43 pages). He concludes with a short appendix on “Essentialism” – testing your design to make sure it delivers what the learners need.


This is a thorough, practical guide to creating excellent eLearning, written by a master of the craft. It clearly communicates William Horton’s 35-year career in our field. It is also an enjoyable book to read, like Horton’s other works. In my opinion, it belongs in your library, whether you are new to instructional design or whether you have dozens of eLearning projects in your portfolio.

William Horton will be presenting the Thought Leaders Webinar, “Blunders eLearning Designers Make (Or What I Got Wrong in the First Edition),” on November 15. This event is available at no extra cost to all paid membership levels (Guild Members, Member Plus, and Premium Members), but you must register in advance.

My bottom line: Buy this book. Attend the Webinar. These will likely be the best investment of time and money you will make next week.

Bibliographic Information

Horton, William. E-Learning by Design (Second Edition). (2011) San Francisco: Pfeiffer. 615 pages. ISBN 978-0-470-90002-4.

Amazon.com: $52.99 (Paperback); not available for Kindle at this time

BN.com (Barnes & Noble) (online): $53.82 (Paperback); $44.00 (Nook Book)

Pfeiffer: $65.00 (Paperback)