What is eLearning?

What is eLearningIf you accept the simplest definition of from Google search results, eLearning is a broad term for “learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the internet.” eLearning materials are often created by instructional designers within a training department, but it takes subject matter experts (SMEs) and project stakeholders to develop complete, meaningful learning experiences that actually impact organizational goals. It also takes knowledge of the audience’s needs and expectations. As with other projects and communication efforts, an eLearning designer must first be a good communicator.

An All-encompassing Definition of eLearning?

If you ask a bunch of instructional designers, academics, and other industry practitioners “What is eLearning ?” you will be met with various definitions, best practices, even spellings. Is it eLearning, e-learning, or Elearning? If people still refer to it as web-based training, is it outdated, saying the same thing, or something else entirely?

In a 2008 research article, Henry L. Steen points out that “…training designers have the difficult task of designing effective eLearning to meet those sometimes conflicting needs. This task is difficult because as noted by Allen (2007), designing successful eLearning is part art and part science.”

Part art and part science. The combination makes eLearning development an exciting career choice. But like alchemy, eLearning requires a combination of self-directed learning elements at the right levels at the right time to achieve the desired result, which is a valuable customer experience.

Definitions coined as recently as 2012 have become outdated. They focus too much on the technology used to deliver eLearning or the information transfer aspect of eLearning over the measurable performance improvement outcomes that underlie learning in general and eLearning specifically.

The Serious eLearning Manifesto, a set of modern principles and values presented by four eLearning industry thought leaders (Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn and Will Thalheimer), recommends that eLearning designers rely less on instructional design process models and learn more about how to apply design principles. eLearning is not always the answer; when it is, the goal should be to improve performance instead of to share information. An example of a performance improvement is to teach the call center employees how to use shortcuts within a call logging tool. By improving familiarity with the tool and making it easier to use, they can gather and log call information more quickly, increase productivity, reduce errors, and improve the customer experience.

Media and Access

Broken down into smaller pieces, eLearning can consist of interactive media elements, using internet technology to deliver training in various forms, including standalone self-paced e-courses, hosted webinars, even PDFs to review on mobile devices. Virtually any form of media and writing can be included in eLearning, including:

  • Infographics
  • Software simulations
  • Games or gaming elements
  • Interactive charts
  • Videos
  • Audio narration

eLearning can be designed into formal training programs or as informal snippets of information gathered by learners on demand. It is often asynchronous, meaning that the learning and access to materials does not take place in a real, specified time. But eLearning can be blended with synchronous communication with peers (forums, discussion boards) and instructor-led classroom training, which together often provide richer learning experiences.

Thoughtful and effective eLearning developers want to design learning products that are useful and meaningful to learners. They understand that greater success with a product or service reduces costs or generates revenue, which positively impacts a company’s return on investment (ROI) (for example, greater understanding of product use results in fewer calls to help desks). However, challenges often arise as many training projects are tacked on as an afterthought by managers when they finally realize a product is about to be released without any guidance for using it.  eLearning and other training efforts need to be an essential part of the development plan and designers need insight from SMEs and learners.

But why wait until a new sale is made or an employee is promoted to start offering training? By viewing eLearning as a way to improve the customer experience, current customers and employees as well as potential audience members can be reached ahead of time.

Desired Benefits and Return on Investment

The learning needs and approaches for eLearning programs vary from traditional classroom settings. Unfortunately, project expectations often consist of a “simple” transfer of classroom PowerPoint slides into online, self-paced training programs that are essentially an information dump rather than real-world practice scenarios or system simulations. However, when designed effectively with the learners’ needs in mind, eLearning can:

  • Reduce reliance on trainer availability.
  • Reduce travel budget for trainers and participants.
  • Increase availability of learning programs and materials.
  • Provide real-life practice scenarios.
  • Provide consistent experience on each device.
  • Increase acceptance for change.
  • Allow for self-directed and self-paced learning.

Perceived Challenges and Risks in Implementing eLearning

Unfortunately, low budgets, misguided project goals, and inexperienced designers copying ineffective styles lead to:

  • Increased risk of low-touch, hands-off training, sending learners on their own without support.
  • Overemphasized value on the right tools, yet not enough concern about audience need, intended performance, learning outcome, and business value.
  • Misguided learning and development efforts that simply copy, paste, and upload classroom training materials and wind up trapped by the availability of internet connections and devices.

Overall Tips for Success as an eLearning Designer

Conduct several forms of analysis, including an end-user audience analysis, a project manager analysis, and a business stakeholder analysis to determine the reasons for even starting the project.

  • What do the audience members already know and do?
  • What do they need to know and do after engaging with your content?
  • Is eLearning the best approach? Or would job shadowing, a job aid, or classroom training be a better fit?
  • Are the audience members’ expectations too advanced or detailed for the learning needs?

Before you design any content, determine if your company already has content that you can repurpose. Perform a content audit throughout the organization (web copy, marketing materials, online or print documentation) to see what potential learning materials exist or can be leveraged without having to start from scratch.

Create measurable goals. Focus on performance outcomes and behavior changes instead of writing and testing learner’s abilities to explain concepts.

Design practice activities that are realistic and challenge learners to make choices, receive consequences and modify actions. If you have access to a test system, use it.

Measure performance not just in multiple-choice exams, but with continuous feedback loops and re-training when needed…not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to continue practicing and learning. Incorporate positive feedback to encourage learners to continue working through the material, and consider unique and interesting ways to keep them engaged.

Know that at times, there are projects that make everyone cringe. Much like dealing with poor writing, style, and output decisions in technical communication, a lack of understanding about effective learning principles and short timeframes for completing the work ensures that the junk keeps happening at least some of the time.

eLearning, in all its various forms and outputs, can be a fun, engaging, and meaningful way to deliver training to learners. Consider the audience needs and business value over the focus on the latest and greatest tools. Create eLearning that brings value to the business and to the learners.

Are you creating eLearning content and experiencing challenges you would like to share? Is there a learning-related topic you want to know more about? If so, please share in the comments or drop us a note.

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Jill Parman

Jill is the owner of ForWord Consulting, LLC, which provides instructional design, technical communication, and business analysis services. She is a master of useless trivia, has a slight obsession with Pilot fine tip pens, and spends her free time chasing around a toddler and two dogs.

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