The emergence of highly templated rapid e-learning tools and Learning Content Management Systems together with technical standards (SCORM) has been a mixed blessing.

Improved efficiency but at what cost?
These advances have clearly improved the efficiency of e-learning development (speed) and reduced the costs of development to make it easier for organizations to implement more e-learning than ever before. So, they’ve been great for developers and purchasers of e-learning, but the learner isn’t part of that equation and impact on performance barely registers in the mix.  The assumption has been that good “instructional design” tactics are built into the templates and are implicit in technical standards.  So if we just use the tools and abide by the standards by default we are producing effective learning.  Right? I’m not so sure.

Traditional instructional design

The instructional design approaches implicit in the authoring structure of most tools are of the traditional bent…

  • Step 1: Present information using new media (cool!…uh, don’t forget to click next)
  • Step 2: Quiz (make it fun,fun,fun)
  • Step 3: Test (time to get serious)

Quizzes and assessments are invariably at the lowest level (another multiple choice question anyone?) and predictable course/module/lesson hierarchies are the norm.  I’m oversimplifying to make a point (but not by much).  Many talented instructional designers have worked around the templates to produce interesting and effective simulations, case based scenarios programs, and problem based learning programs.  And many programs are now enhanced by collaboration and knowledge sharing tools to personalize the whole exercise a bit more.

What to do?
After years of seeing (and developing, I’ll admit) bloated, awkward e-learning and the underwhelming employee response it produces, I think we need leaner methods that are just as efficient to develop but more respectful of how people learn on the job–and that produce more immediate results.  Much of what we blindly use e-learning for may be better served by more minimalist information design, performance support, and mechanisms that integrate learning into the work process itself.  Well designed, highly interactive e-learning programs (simulations, case based scenarios etc.) should have a home for certain types of knowledge and skill development, but they should be more strategic and targeted so the investment sees a return.

I’ll offer some ideas and examples of these alternative approaches in my next few posts. They will include elearning 2.0 (web 2.0), performance support, minimalist instructional design and workflow based learning.

Care to share your thoughts on the current state of e-learning, rapid development tools or e-learning standards?

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4 Responses
  1. The emergence of so many rapid elearning development systems is a good thing in my opinion. They are making elearning readily available to everyone. And as you say, “talented instructional designers have worked around the templates to produce interesting and effective simulations, case based scenarios programs, and problem based learning programs”. You can work within the framework provided by rapid elearning tools to create inventive learning scenarios. I wonder if we in the learning industry are becoming “desensitized”, so to speak, by the proliferation of technology to the point that each successive elearning project has to be a new dizzying high, showcasing our elearning development and instructional design skills. At last week’s DevLearn 2008 in San Jose, CA, Ruth Clark’s session “Learning by Viewing vs. Learning by Doing” shared “research evidence showing that more passive instructional environments actually led to more learning than their active counterparts.” Just food for thought.

  2. Tom Gram


    Thanks for the link. The “rocket builder” post is very funny. I think Don Clark misses on just one point–that rapid development tools are money losers. Articulate for example, is one of the fastest growing companies in North America and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Adobe’s Connect and Captivate…also very popular tools that have now been around for a while, not to mention the LCMS’s that are growing. Microsoft’s (now free) Learning Content Development System also seems to be getting good traction. (

    >> David:

    Thanks for your post. I agree that that rapid tools are making e-learning available to everybody. But I don’t think more training means better training. There is a glut of powerpoint + narration programs being produced that are labeled “e-learning” but are really nothing more than …uh…PowerPoint with narration. I do agree rapid tools can be used to create meaningful e-learning (Tom Kuhlmann at the rapid e-learning blog often has great ideas for how to do that). My argument however is that there are other less clunky and more effective ways to avoid the “dizzying” high-end e-learning you mention and provide learners with more information and collaboration oriented tools. Stay tuned. I’m working on another post with an example of what I’m getting at.

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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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Recent Posts

The Learning Design Sprint
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Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)
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Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 2)
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