E-learning: Getting it Right

A few years ago, commencing a postgraduate program at Sydney University, I was subjected to a mandatory e-learning module on referencing and academic integrity. I don’t remember much of the content, but I do remember how bad the module was.

I was annoyed that this world-leading institution would subject me to a ridiculously simple and boring module that looked like any dull PowerPoint presentation, with binary options to test my understanding. Actually, all it was testing was my short-term memory and resilience in the face of an unpleasant learning experience. It also ticked a box, of course – I could not plead ignorance later if found to have been academically dishonest.

For many of us, that’s our experience of e-learning. At best we get average content poorly presented, or some lame attempts at gamification. We comply with the compliance requirement so we can get on with more exciting things. Yes, simple e-learning is a cost-effective way to get through the basics of induction, but do we want to tick boxes or actually deepen understanding?

E-learning resurgence

E-learning is not new, but it’s experiencing somewhat of a resurgence. The need to replace face-to-face training with remote options is contributing to this. The cost of training is another factor. Whereas good e-learning has an up-front cost for development, it can be rolled out infinitely without any additional expense – as long as the content remains relevant.

It helps to reconsider what we mean by the term e-learning. In its broadest sense it could simply refer to access to online learning resources. Access can be individualised (e.g. a module completed by an individual independent from others) or collaborative (e.g. a webinar); synchronous (e.g. videoconferences and live chatrooms) or asynchronous (e.g. thread discussions or self-paced modules).

In this article I apply a narrower definition: an e-learning module is an online offering that has four characteristics:

  • Has a specific, educational purpose
  • Requires some learner interaction with the content
  • Is self-directed
  • Is autonomous (i.e. it requires no synchronous involvement by a tutor or facilitator).

This definition does not include webinars, online discussions and informational videos that require no user interaction.

Education institutions often adopt e-learning strategies to reduce costs and increase reach. Organisations also often choose e-learning to standardise compliance training, or to reduce resource allocation for repetitive learning requirements. Any knowledge-intensive environment can use e-learning as part of a broader communication and information-sharing strategy.

When to use e-learning

One of the key considerations is when to use e-learning. A simple heuristic is to consider complexity of content and need for scale. E-learning is best suited to knowledge that is reasonably complex, and where the need for scale is medium to high. Complexity refers to the intellectual loading, the range of variables, or human emotion. Very simple information does not need e-learning; website copy or information sheets would suffice. At the other end of the scale, content that is at the very highest levels of complexity is better communicated in person – through coaching, consultations, or workshops.

Need for scale is determined by supply, demand, or both. Content that requires disproportionate amounts of time to deliver – time that would be better spent on more complex issues where personal intervention is essential – should be communicated through a scalable solution like e-learning.

Requirements for great e-learning

But e-learning is no good if it is not effective. I recently interviewed a number of candidates for an instructional designer role and asked them to submit examples of their e-learning work. There were glimpses of quality and some innovation, but very little that met our basic standards of a good e-learning model. For us, there are six requirements for great e-learning:

  1. Deep understanding of how people learn. This is more than simple instructional design; we’re talking about the psychology of learning.
  2. Deep understanding of how people change. We know that changing entrenched behaviours is incredibly difficult. Good e-learning uses the best of cognitive behaviour change and other behavioural approaches to inspire change and give learners the tools to make change stick. Meaningful cognitive engagement with the underlying concepts – through testimonial videos, practical examples, models and graphics – can all be used to reinforce elements of a change message.
  3. Great visual design. E-learning should look and feel like a quality media production, not a few bullet points in a presentation. It should not be over-designed though – if design detracts from learning it has gone too far.
  4. The right media for the right content. Video, character animation, animated text, graphics, voice over, text on screen ­– there is a wide array of possibilities. Budget is always a consideration, but using the most effective medium to communicate content is a big part of having impact.
  5. Interactivity that works for the audience and for the content. Interaction should have a purpose: to reflect; to apply theory to own experience; to reveal preferences; to test understanding; to assist decision-making – there are many reasons to step out of information flow and interact with the content. But we should avoid gimmicks like unnecessary and inappropriate gamification. If it doesn’t add value, and if it does not have a reinforcing effect for learning, don’t do it. We should be well past showing what technology is capable of, just for the sake of showing what technology is capable of.
  6. All these elements should have coherent and meaningful structure. A great module, like a great video, speech or TED talk, has a rhythm. Its pace is just right, and its pitch allows stretch for those who want it, and foundation knowledge for the less sophisticated learner.


Importantly, e-learning does not replace all existing information and education content. E-learning can be seen as part of a suite of communication that includes website copy, information sheets, explainer videos and face-to-face interaction.

As with most meaningful human endeavour, e-learning is a science and an art. It may sit early on the continuum of exciting means of communication, but it has an important role to play in any modern organisation. So, it’s worth getting it right.

By the way, that Sydney University experience was eight years ago. The course itself was excellent – it was just the initial e-learning experience that was negative. I’m sure their e-learning modules on referencing are much better now; if not, please show them this article – for the sake of the next excited adult learners hoping to have their skills honed – not their enthusiasm blunted.

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