Instructional Design

eLearning – Are We Missing The Point?

Talent LMS - eLearningI want to start this off by asking one simple question…does eLearning really work? Unfortunately though there is no simple way to answer that question.

There are many arguments both for and against eLearning, but the stark reality is, that if you are pushed for an answer, when you look at the facts, the answer is a resounding “NO”…but it so easily could be a “Yes.”

So why is that?

First and foremost is that there are no real FACTS about eLearning being effective, particularly in the workplace. Sure we collect figures about how long something took to develop, how many times it has been accessed, how many people achieved the pass mark etc. But do we have any facts and figures about if it actually worked, can the learner do the task any better than before?

eLearning doesn’t really measure, or have the capacity to measure, “Kirkpatrick Level 3 – Transfer of knowledge”, let alone think about Level 4. In my professional experience eLearning is primarily used to replace Instructor-led Training (ILT) or deliver a rapid deployment of a consistent message. The problem here is that it is used in a “fire and forget” style, once the course has been signed off and published, unless a spelling mistake is spotted or a business process changed, these courses sit quietly on the LMS never to be touched again. Now I can hear the outcry as you read this, but don’t shoot me just yet. When you think about it, what do we actually measure in eLearning courses? Most measure “Reaction – Kirkpatrick Level 1”, the better examples try to measure “Learning – Kirkpatrick Level 2”. I say “try” because when a one dimensional learning experience is designed, where the flow of information only travels in one direction, how can you accurately measure a change in someone’s “Knowledge, Skill or Attitude” especially when the Learner won’t really appreciate this until weeks or even months after completing the course.


Can user (insert name here) complete “basic blue sky process to create a bill?” The answer is Yes. Can this same user create a bill on the live system with real data, knowing that a customer is about to receive whatever they create? Maybe they can, but the facts about who can and who can’t are not measured and nor is their confidence.

Again I can hear the “Yes but ILT can’t promise the same thing either etc”…and yes I agree, user experience will vary, but ILT CAN at least measure it and for those learners that fail this task, ILT can make real time and bespoke adjustments to support the individual during the course. eLearning is unable to do this, which means when we debate Training vs eLearning we are not measuring the same things.

Yes eLearning can measure information retention and yes “we” can get these facts if we really wanted to, but that would potentially mean a new course needs creating, for only a few users, with no promise of ROI…this makes eLearning seem like the wrong choice for the task…and sometimes it is! Yes that’s right I said it! It’s being used for things that it shouldn’t. eLearning is a buzzword in business, yes it can save you money, and yes it can do some things faster and more consistent than a trainer would…BUT that doesn’t mean that it is always the answer. Working effectively is about using the right tool for the job, not using the shiny new tool for everything to get your money’s worth out of it.

Who designs this stuff?

Because of the explosion of this industry and increased demand for eLearning courses there are Developer jobs all over the place. And because this is a relatively new field (in comparison to other Learning Solutions) standardised qualifications, working models and generally “this is how things are done” just don’t exist, or at least they are not being asked for in interviews.

Now I’m all for new ideas, new skills and new ways of working together…but there comes a point where you need to know certain things when designing effective learning solutions. Telling someone everything there is to know about Basketball, for example, doesn’t mean that they will remember it all. It certainly doesn’t mean that they will understand all of the rules of the game or be able to play it any better than before.

How many times have you completed an eLearning session that looked / sounded amazing, but you didn’t actually learn anything from it? I have seen many of these types and thanks to rapid authoring tools I’m sure that I have made some of them too! My problem is that if you remove the flashy images and sounds from the eLearning, most of them are just left with: Click > read > Click > read. And yes I get it, I’m a designer too…it is hard to get the message across, but that doesn’t mean that the message isn’t important anymore…remember the days of “death by PowerPoint!”


How many times have you got stuck in the “Frankencourse” mode? Perfecting interactions, editing images and re-recording objects to make your slides stand out from the rest!…You can get so lost doing this that you forget what the point of the slide was in the first place. What was the learning objective? I know this is true because I catch myself doing it all the time.

I have also seen this trend move across to my Stakeholders, the guys that asked for the eLearning in the first place. Gone are the days that Learning professionals such as you and I discuss what the learner needs to know/do/change. Discussions now are all about font colour, style and what theme do we want to use. Do you want cartoons or real people? Can we change this word to that one…can we have a video in it… can they open it on their mobile phones…or the dreaded “I don’t like…”

To make the most out of eLearning you need to know how people learn…and not just one person, how everyone learns.

They say that There’s no “I” in TEAM…well I say there’s no room for “I” in eLearning either! It needs to work for everyone, which means that it can’t be personal.

The sad reality is that we are all under pressure (deadlines to hit, meetings to attend etc), which mean that we don’t always follow our own advice. eLearning (well training in general) tends to be an afterthought in the business world. Good eLearning takes time to plan and design, from Instructional Designers, Developers and Stakeholders and in my experience this is where the corners are cut, because we have to hit that deadline. We hide behind phrases like “Business needs” and “it’s not ideal but…” and most of us in our hearts know that we are creating something substandard, by our own standards, but we tell ourselves that it’s OK because it’s what the business wants.

So my question to you is this: The business knows what it needs, because it has 30 members of staff that require training on _______, but who is best place to decide on the most appropriate method to do that?

Yes my friends, that answer is you! Why is it that we just let people tell us how to do our job?

Who is eLearning for?

It’s very easy to forget, but your preference, my preference and to a large degree the Stakeholders preference shouldn’t come into it…the only preference to worry about is that of the Learner! Our job is to help them learn, yes we need to keep the Stakeholder happy and try to accommodate their wishes, but only when they don’t detract from the learning.

Do I have the answers…

So this is the part where you look for the answers…the “do it this way and all your problems are solved”…either so you can shoot me down or find eLearning nirvana. Unfortunately I can’t offer you this, and neither can anyone else. There are numerous different Learning models, best practice theories and latest craze fads out there…the short answer is that we are all different. We are all unique, we have different values, we think differently from one another and we learn differently and this is something to be celebrated….when you design something, eLearning, ILT or even an LMS, design it for the user…every user!

What do I use?


I have created, reviewed and amended countless numbers of eLearning and ILT training courses over the past 15 years. I don’t profess to be an authority on the subject, nor do I suggest that a graphic designer is unable to design a great eLearning session…but I do think that sometimes we all get a little lost in the task and can miss the point. People do the course to learn something or because they are told to do it to learn something.

Here’s what I do to try and keep myself on track:

  1. Always agree the Objectives first and then agree how we are going to assess them.
  2. Next, always always always storyboard!
  3. Be mindful of every awful “death by PowerPoint” I have seen, and don’t do that to my learners!
  4. When reviewing and testing : Give it the 3rd degree

question of an eLearning specialist

and Finally…

What’s the point? If you have only taken one thing from reading this, no matter what that thing is, I hope that it reminds / inspires you to:

  • Design bigger and better courses for your learners.
  • Be the voice of your learner (because they usually don’t have one in course design.)
  • Give it the 3rd degree!


Guest post

CJ McKay, based in the UK, has spent 15 years in the L&D corporate sector. He is an Instructional Designer, eLearning Developer & L&D Consultant with a passion for Blended Learning and NLP.

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