Most eLearning disappoints. The information is not organized, the content is irrelevant, there are no opportunities to practice, and the feedback doesn’t help. It’s not the fault of the technology, unless the wrong technology or medium was chosen in the first place. The reasons that eLearning fails are basic and not difficult to discern, and the solutions to bad eLearning design are very available.

Tim Slade, an award-winning eLearning designer, has some insights and advice to share with you in this interview.

Identify what went wrong, identify the solution

BB: What gets in the way of eLearning results?

TS: First, eLearning may not be the right solution for the performance issue you're trying to fix. Oftentimes we will create eLearning either on our own or at the request of our stakeholders for things that can't be fixed with eLearning at all. That's either because it's not a performance issue or because eLearning isn't a fit-for-function learning intervention to address it. It can also be that the eLearning didn’t get designed for how adults learn. eLearning won’t be effective if it’s just a lot of lecture or information dumps or if it's not really focused on taking advantage of what makes adult learning unique. And then finally, some eLearning doesn’t address what people actually need to do on the job. Sometimes we design eLearning for what people need to know or what they need to be aware of, not for what they need to do. We must look at the actual behaviors people do on the job and design our eLearning to help them accomplish those things.

The struggle that I think a lot of designers have with eLearning is they're usually taking something that was taught in the classroom and converting it into eLearning. There's so many things that are fundamentally different from the classroom when you're trying to create learner interaction in eLearning. In the classroom people can raise their hand or they can do group activities. In eLearning, you lose a lot of that. To create an eLearning course that's designed for what people need to do, the challenge is: How do you take a task, a behavior, a thinking process, or a decision-making process, and represent that in the eLearning format? One way we can overcome that is by creating scenario-based learning, where learners are provided some information—and then later in the course they're put into a scenario where they have to make a decision based on that information—so they're using critical thinking skills in that interactivity. But the other challenge that we run into is we try to create interactions for things that just don't translate into digital interactions. In teaching how to use a piece of equipment, you can communicate conceptual information about that equipment but at the end of the day it's really going to require hands-on learning to master its operation. Maybe eLearning isn't the answer in that situation.

There are some learning components of soft skills that can be accomplished in an eLearning format. Let's say you're teaching a leader or a manager how to give effective feedback to their employees. You can put that manager or leader through a series of scenarios where they're given information and then they have to make a decision on how to respond to a hypothetical employee, where they need to give critical feedback. Even then, while you can help a manager better understand the steps or the thinking or the skills involved in giving that feedback, it requires practicing it in real life—either with real employees or doing some sort of role playing with a facilitator. Those things can be simulated in eLearning; they just have to be accompanied by some other sort of practice that's outside of eLearning.

Choosing an eLearning format

BB: Are there particular learning formats that are more likely to be successful in particular situations? For example, microlearning, which is often video-based. How would you go about choosing among the various formats that are available to us today?

TS: One of the questions that is often pondered is: What constitutes eLearning in the first place? For me, eLearning is anything that can happen on a digital device, whether it's watching a video or taking an asynchronous, self-paced interactive course, or even a webinar. When we look at the different formats, the thing that I always ask myself is: What am I trying to achieve through that eLearning, and how can I pick the right eLearning format, whether it’s interactive, or a five-minute microlearning video, or maybe it's a digital document like a PDF? I consider all of those to be eLearning. What am I trying to achieve or what experience do I need to create and then which format is most fit-for-function?

So for example: If I just need to transfer knowledge or information where I'm not trying to create opportunities for practice or application, then a five-minute microlearning video is great. And there's times where that's all you need to do. On the other hand, if I need to create an opportunity for practice or application and I want the learner to make some decisions, they may be doing that in an interactive format in an asynchronous eLearning course. I can still make it a five- to 10-minute microlearning experience that gives me the opportunity to make it interactive. It's about deciding what I'm trying to achieve through that experience, and then how do I match the right format or modality to that.

Mobile devices and performance support

BB: What about mobile devices? Are there any unique advantages or challenges to delivery on a mobile device?

TS: Most mobile learning is ideal for performance support. Somebody is on the job, they're doing something and they need to reference how to perform that task or procedure or use that piece of equipment. They can pull out their mobile device and get some quick reference material through a knowledge base. What I think is unrealistic for us as learning designers is to make some assumption that we know what type of eLearning course somebody might take on their laptop or in front of the desktop computer and how to translate that to the same experience on an iPhone or tablet. I can make an educated guess that most learners don't want to sit through a 10- to 15-minute interactive course on their iPhone, but they might be more apt to do that on a larger format tablet or computer. It's a matter of determining in what situation would your target audience actually use their mobile device, and then what content is best suited for that mobile device. You know we're not going to put people through their annual compliance training on their iPhone, but we might give them some performance support, a job aid, maybe some quick videos that they can reference on their mobile device. Again, it’s fit-for-function for that delivery method.

Let's say somebody is going through an eLearning course and they want to ask an expert. You can initiate that in the eLearning course. Whether that expert can respond in real time depends on all sorts of variables, but how can you create that social learning experience through eLearning? I think you can do that with knowledge bases or communities. I still consider that eLearning: Somebody goes online and they can collaborate with somebody via text or hop on a Zoom call. That can all fit under the umbrella of eLearning. It’s happening digitally. In general, though, I consider that more social learning, and you can incorporate components of social learning in the eLearning format.

First things first

I encourage eLearning designers to determine—before starting to build anything—whether or not it’s eLearning. What is the right solution for the issue you're trying to address? You do that with a basic needs analysis. Ask: What is it that people are doing, what do you want them doing, and why aren't they doing it? If you could just answer those three questions, then you'd have a better understanding of whether or not learning can fill that gap. Then you know whether or not it's eLearning or something else, depending on a whole other set of variables. What technology do they have access to, and are the results are conducive to eLearning or some blended approach? Answer that question before you start even building, designing, or constructing any sort of learning intervention.

Want more?

Tim Slade will share even more insights in his presentation at the eLearning Foundations Online Conference December 11-12, 2019. His session, “Why Most eLearning Fails: How to Design eLearning That Gets Results,” begins with the basic needs analysis questions: What are people doing, and what do you want them to do? Only then can you know if eLearning is even the answer, and only then can you start creating an effective learning intervention.