“I hate email!” Is this you? I know I’ve said it more than once. Many of us are inundated with wordy, unnecessary email chains under the guise of effective communication. This often leads to an inbox packed with messages—some of which may stay there for a year or more. So, why am I writing about email as a potential digital learning platform?

Designers like spaced learning delivered by email

What if I told you that email courses are one of the most successfully applied strategies marketers use to educate and engage potential customers today? What if a self-described email hater and long-time eLearning designer said that she preferred an email course format to most of the other types of online learning experiences? Would you be interested to read a little further?

How does an email course work?

Once upon a time… (a few years ago)... a colleague shared an article with me about an interesting topic with an invitation to sign up for a course to learn more. I was intrigued—it was a minimal investment of time and money, and the entire program was delivered through email. I figured it would be a similar experience to when I joined that MOOC back in 2015 that I never finished, but nevertheless I signed up for my first email course.

I immediately received an introduction email describing what to expect. Each morning I would receive a short email with some information, an activity, and additional reading (should I wish to learn more). The course would continue daily for a full month.

What happened? At the beginning of the day, I would receive an email. For about 10 minutes—less time than I’d spend browsing social media—I read about the topic and completed a quick activity. Sometimes I would go to the extra resources, especially if I had a bit more spare time. By the end of that month I had formed a good foundation for this new topic area, applying the skills that I had gradually built. This experience led me to consider how I could use this approach in workforce development.

Where can you use email courses?

After quite a bit of research, and discussion, I rallied my team to try the email course format. We selected a leadership training initiative in our pipeline to pilot the idea, and learned many lessons in the first run. For example, we found that simplified formatting with plenty of white space is better than a colorful design, reducing extraneous cognitive load. We also identified ideal delivery schedules for the target audience based on time zone and the routine of a typical workday.

As of today, we have had the opportunity to run several email courses for different groups of learners in a variety of industries. I have tried and found email courses to be effective for the following, although I don’t think it is limited to any one of these.

1. Onboarding. New hire onboarding is an ideal candidate for an email course. When an employee is new to an organization, there may not be much to do other than learn about the company and their new role. The email course approach allows for a scalable, consistent message and experience, can reflect corporate culture, and supports new employees to be more self sufficient.

2. Spaced learning. Email courses can also help address the steep drop-off of the forgetting curve for existing organizational training. Because of ease of automation, appropriate timing, and the short format, it is an ideal spaced learning solution.

3. Compliance training. Break up time-consuming annual compliance requirements using email as a digital learning platform. Rather than one hour-long compliance eLearning, design a series of short, engaging email modules that focus on one specific compliance topic at a time.

Tips for course designers

Do you have some ideas, too? If you are considering using email as a digital learning platform, I recommend the following tips:

1. Choose a topic area where you can outline a clearly defined path to a variety of information and activities.

2. Use the email as a conduit to connect learners to others, both online and in-person.

3. Choose content that can be broken down into smaller sub-topics and summarized in a short email.

4. Use an email platform where you can schedule emails to be delivered appropriately (email campaigns) and you can gather data on access/ usage.

5. Select content that is appropriate for a self-guided format.

Editor's note: Want to know more about email course design?

Sarah Mercier will show you more about how to design an email course, including real examples, in her session Email Course Design: Using Digital Marketing as a Learning Strategy, April 23, in The eLearning Guild's L&D on a Shoestring Online Conference.

In this session, you will:

  • Learn about the practical application of email courses in workplace learning
  • See examples of effective email courses
  • Apply best practices in design of email courses
  • Discover the common pitfalls of using email to support learning and performance