What is eLearning? It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Today, eLearning comes in many formats and is created using many different tools. Before you can choose the right format, you need to consider how best to meet your eLearning goals. And that requires knowing something about your learner audience and your training goals.

Don’t start with tools

All too often, instructional designers or L&D teams start by focusing on selecting an authoring tool. As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Just because your L&D department has a fantastic—and expensive—authoring tool it does not follow that all training for all of your learners is best accomplished with the type of click-and-read eLearning course that the tool excels at creating.

Some types of training cry out for a different format. In addition to conventional eLearning courses, consider:

  • Microlearning
  • Infographics
  • Interactive eBooks
  • Chatbots
  • Video
  • Podcasts

I could go on, but you get the picture. Learning happens in a lot of ways using a lot of different media. Better yet, your authoring tool just might support some of those other formats.

Start with your goals

Why are you creating training? Do you need to:

  • Onboard new employees?
  • Make sure learners retain critical compliance information?
  • Teach your clients, channel partners, or suppliers about your products or processes?
  • Develop employees’ soft skills or offer leadership training?

Again, these are just a few of the possible ways training might be used. Beyond a broad reason for having training, though, you also need to know what you want to change and how you want it to change.

Are you trying to:

  • Change employees’ behavior?
  • Reduce safety incidents?
  • Increase sales or improve efficiency?
  • Ensure that your organization passes a re-certification audit?
  • Reduce your legal liability?

How will you know when you’ve accomplished your goal? In other words, what does success look like and how will you measure it?

The answers to these questions may well be different for each training initiative you undertake, so it seems clear that a single tool—or eLearning format—can’t meet all those needs.

Next, examine your learners

Not all learners are alike. And no, I am not going to repeat some tired old myth about millennials needing certain types of training or—worse—tell you to adapt training to people’s mythical “learning styles.”

Learners are different in many ways. And learning environments are different. Both of these will influence which types of training work best.


  • Prior knowledge: Are your learners novices in this topic, do they have some knowledge and experience, or is your population a mix of people at different levels?
  • Environment: Do your learners work in an office with easy access to a laptop? Are they in a factory or warehouse? Are they on a retail floor, working with customers? Do they spend all day in a delivery vehicle or driving between customers? Do they have easy access to internet connectivity?
  • Time: Can learners dedicate 20 minutes or an hour to training? How about 5 minutes a day? Will they have reliable dedicated time for learning or fit lessons in on the go?
  • Device: Will most of your learners be using laptops? Tablets or smartphones?

Some types of content, like podcasts, work really well for learners who have a lot of “windshield time.” That same format would not work at all for a bank teller or restaurant server. Some media, like text and video, are flexible and can easily be adapted for use in several environments and learner populations.

Finally, consider your content

Just as some eLearning formats work better for some environments, some eLearning formats are more suitable for some types of content. Some content formats, like videos or infographics, work well when you’re explaining a process, but fall short for explaining a complex idea.

If you’re presenting a lot of detailed information, and you want learners to absorb and remember it, you might get the best results with an app that uses spaced repetition. Scenario-based learning and simulations are a proven choice for soft-skills training, such as harassment prevention training or coaching new managers on providing feedback to direct reports.

Put it all together

Once you know your goals, have identified your learners and their learning environment, and have considered what formats suit both your content and your training goals, you’re ready to choose a format—or formats. Multimedia—combining several content formats within a training unit and multimodal learning—offering the same content in two or more different formats—are great ways to offer learners choices about how they learn.

Only then, when you’ve made all these decisions, is it time to choose your tools.

For more guidance on how to choose the right format, join me at the eLearning Guild’s eLearning Foundations Online Conference. My session, “Understanding Today's Different eLearning Formats,” will walk you through choosing a format and finding the right tool or tools for creating eLearning that will meet your training goals. I’ll even throw in a bonus—some resources that aid and enhance eLearning production.