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No One Reads Online


by instructional strategist

Life is full of disillusionment. I had thought I had gotten through all the disillusionment the day I realized my mom really didn’t have eyes in the back of her head, and when I learned firsthand that real children are neither as cute nor as well behaved as those on television.

I was wrong. There was a lot more disillusionment ahead.

Since coming to Allen Interactions almost 2 years ago, I’ve had to face a few other facts. These have been even harder to accept than the realities about moms and my own darling children. Just to give you a sense of the depth of my naiveté, let me tell you what I used to believe:

  • Learners want to know what they will learn in an e-learning course, so all e-learning courses need to start with learning objectives. (Not true.)
  • Learners appreciate learning objectives that start with verbs indicating observable behavior, like: Explain, Define, Demonstrate, etc. (Wrong.)
  • If they get a question wrong in an online test, learners want to know what the right answer was and they always read the explanations. (Nope – not even close.)
  • People pay attention when I am conducting a webinar. (This is actually true for the first 7 minutes, then they are checking email, ordering holiday presents online, or feeding the cat.)
  • It would be really fun to have a T-Rex in an e-learning course. (The less said about that the better.)

But, the most difficult thing I’ve had to accept is this: no one reads e-learning courses. All that elegant prose, clever characterizations, and cogent explanations that I’ve written over the years? What about that? The sad truth is I have engaged in what amounted to writing exercises, pretty much for myself and the subject matter experts (SMEs) with whom I’ve worked.

ReadingAt best, learners tolerated my verbiage; at worst, I annoyed them as much as most people who design e-learning annoy them.

How do I know? We’ve watched how people behave in user testing and interviewed countless learners about their experiences with online learning. We’ve asked them what works for them and what doesn’t. What we’ve heard is that mostly people do not read what is on screen.

Not to be argumentative, but I believe anyone who designs or develops e-learning already knows that. Evidence to support my assertion? Read on.

Think about your own behavior online. What do you do? The answer is found in the name of the delivery mechanism. We get online via a browser because that’s exactly what most of us do online: we browse. I used to think the term “browser” was clever marketing, now that my disillusionment is more complete, I know the term is an accurate description of online behavior.

What was the last thing you read online? This morning, I wanted to confirm that the plural of memorandum is truly memoranda. (It is, unless one uses the shortened versions, memo and memos respectively.) I actually read two full paragraphs on Wikipedia, after first scanning those paragraphs to see if I could just pick out the information I wanted. Since I couldn’t, I sighed, and read the paragraphs.

What do you read online? Actually, I can tell you the answer to that question. You read what you are interested in. Not what someone else thinks you should be interested in, like product specs or sexual harassment policies, but what you care about personally.

You read what you are interested in and, further, only when you are interested in it. Next week, if someone assigned me an e-learning course on the plural forms of nouns like memorandum, datum, curriculum, etc., I wouldn’t spend nearly as much time and energy on the topic.

So, we have a couple of clues about online behavior: it’s called a browser for a reason and none of us read unless we want to.

I think there is more evidence suggesting we know learners don’t read what we write. Think of all of the tactics we’ve used to make them read:

  • Recording voice-over audio that reads every word on the screen to them
  • Disabling the “next” button until every question has been answered – or even answered correctly
  • Delaying activation of the “next” button for 3 seconds so learners have to read (I wouldn’t make that up)
  • Video-taping the Vice President of Something telling learners how important the information is and imploring them to learn it

What have we accomplished with those shenanigans? We’ve annoyed our already besieged and weary learners a little more.

So, what’s the answer? Very simply, the answer is to create learning that matters to learners.

Dr. Michael Allen, Ethan Edwards, and others at Allen Interactions have written extensively on the topic of how to create learning that matters. We won’t go through all of it again here, but I do want to offer you a couple of reminders:

Follow the structure of Context-Challenge-Activity-Feedback(CCAF):
  • Know your learners and identify desired behavior change
  • Create learning that takes place in a true-to-life context and offers real-to-life challenges
  • Structure feedback that follows the natural consequences of a choice the learner makes
Try test/tell:
  • Let learners try something on their own and make mistakes. That will create motivation to learn the right procedure or the correct answer.
  • Start with the challenge, and present information upon learner request or as part of the feedback
  • Use humor, surprise, curiosity, sensory input and the like judiciously, but do use them. They serve to heighten interest and keep learners engaged.

The reality I have had to face is this: If you want to write elegant prose, keep a journal. If you want people to learn, stop talking and start creating learning that matters.

Dr. Linda Rening is studio executive for one of Allen Interactions’ Minneapolis/St. Paul based studios. While not coping with disillusionment, she works hard to enable clients to reach their business goals by helping design learning experiences that matter.


Great true!
Posted @ Wednesday, May 16, 2012 9:11 AM by Steve Wade
Wow! Impressive; I actually read the whole thing online. Wait. . . should that make me doubt the veracity of your point? No, I'm sure that you just captured my interest. Good job!
Posted @ Wednesday, May 16, 2012 9:30 AM by Connie Neal
I really enjoyed this. And I read it all the way through! 
Now, if you could just tell me magically how I can do CCAF and Test/tell, I would be fulfilled. I am not a developer; I am a trainer, and I would like to know how to convert the "reading matter" I get from developers to what you recommend. Reading Allen's and Edwards' works? Maybe the free stuff will help, since I'm interested, but financially challenged.
Posted @ Wednesday, May 16, 2012 9:45 AM by Paul Safyan
Actually, I do read a lot online. But some of it has been curated before it gets to me. Or I have been enticed by a good description in Twitter. I teach online and so I suppose I am an exception. My students have done more online reading and posting since I have engaged them. Some methods I use: post your favorite youtube video and why; or what are the questions you need to ask the author of this (text, article, etc.). They do not read my syllabus but I am required to post it. Some do not read the grading rubric nor the grade spread sheet. Some only read if they can not get the info elsewhere.
Posted @ Wednesday, May 16, 2012 12:42 PM by Anne-Marie Armstrong
Agreed - as others above have said - with the one exception (as you have just proven): People do read well-written blogposts.
Posted @ Wednesday, May 16, 2012 6:20 PM by Joe
While I agree with the general thrust of the article on the importance of creating active, engaging e-learning, it's a tad simplistic to suggest - and perhaps intentionally provocative, which is fine! - to suggest that "no one reads online"  
Some years ago I studied online for MCSE certification. This involved reading thousands of pages on a PC, some of it online, some of it as WBT on CD-ROM. And very little, if any, of this was flash or engaging in any way.  
But the information was important to me, and it was well written and well structured, and well illustrated where necessary, so I persisted. The proof was in the pudding -- I passed every certification exam first time (although, in the case of TCP/IP, only just, with seconds to spare!) 
The moral of the story is: If the information is important enough, you can display it in dark red,6 point Comic Sans font on a black background -- and the user/reader/trainee will still read it.  
No, I wouldn't suggest to instructional designers that they should adopt such an approach, or anything resembling it, but neither is it correct to assert that people simply don't read online.  
As the previous posting suggested, the gazillions of blogs out there, many of which are, shall we say, text heavy and engagement light, testify to the continued importance of the written word, sans embellishment, sans engagement, and sans multimedia song and dance.  
Posted @ Thursday, May 17, 2012 4:34 AM by Johan van Eeden
I appreciated John's contrarian view above. There is no stopping human motivation and/or passion! And I think Linda's article leaves plenty of psychological space for people reading through what is of interest. I think the main thrust of the article, though, is engagement of groups of learners of different levels of interest or motivation. Taking that into consideration as well as "nice to know" vs. "need to know" elements helps streamline presentations. I also wonder, given John's example, whether technical material may lend itself more to a linear organizational framework. I'm not sure this is true. Even with the notion of designing for different learning styles having been somewhat discredited over the past several years, I still have a feeling that multiple ways of presenting the same ideas give people a better chance to learn. It is challenging to work these different opportunities into a limited time frame for completing most learning events.
Posted @ Thursday, May 17, 2012 9:42 AM by Paul Safyan
Thank you to everyone who has responded to my recent blog posting. I’ve exchanged notes with a couple of you whose postings came directly to me, but I thought it might be a good idea to share some of those thoughts with everyone. 
Someone asked about the methods I mentioned in the post: If you want more information on CCAF and Test/Tell, Dr. Allen’s books are wonderful, as are the e-Learning Instructional Design classes offered through ASTD and taught by Allen Interactions Instructional Design specialists.  
I also want to let you know that you’re right: I was being overly-simplistic, purposefully overstating my case to provoke reactions, and – I was hoping – providing some entertainment!  
And, yes, people do read online, when they choose to. Close to 500 people have read this online blog about how no one reads online. The irony of that has not escaped me.  
All the best to you as you go forward to motivate learners with learning experiences that matter!  
Posted @ Friday, May 18, 2012 4:36 PM by Linda Rening, PhD
Interesting to note that I actually read your whole post online. Glad that you qualified that nobody reads online unless they want too. Great read, thanks. Really made me think
Posted @ Saturday, May 19, 2012 2:22 AM by Pauline Wilson
Dr Allen has about 5 or 6 books. Can you tell us which one has the most complete (i.e. useful) description of how to use the CCAF approach? Thanks.
Posted @ Tuesday, May 29, 2012 8:45 AM by Larry Nardolillo
Hi Larry - 
I would suggest starting with Michael Allen's Guide to e-Learning to get an introduction to the concepts of CCAF. 
You can download a free chapter of the book here: 
Or purchase it on Amazon here: 
Posted @ Tuesday, May 29, 2012 4:04 PM by Brittany Dengerud
Right on the button, Linda. Elearning is finally growing recognizing itself from the learners' eyes instead of being self-congratulating for simply getting a small budget. WELL WRITTEN, and how are you doing?
Posted @ Tuesday, June 12, 2012 4:37 PM by Leo Rickertsen
I agree overall with the points made here, especially that the best learning activities include CCAF components. 
However, heaving read Michael Allen's book Successful e-Learning Interface, I'm more aware now of when and why I compare learner interface designs with traditional user interface designs (like websites and browsers). Sure people skim and scan articles and web searches, because their goal is to look for something within the content. But employees being paid by their employers to receive training don't necessarily have the same motive. 
Now, that last point doesn't subtract from your overall one that we should consider the participant, what's best for them, and emphasize behavior changes, but since the context of reading in an eLearning course is different than the one where you're reading an article online for your own purposes, I think there's a stronger case for people paying attention to the text on screen in a course.
Posted @ Friday, February 22, 2013 3:34 PM by Danny
Dan, I wish learners were as cooperative as we would like them to be. While it's true, in some regard, that employers are paying the workers to be in training, rarely are they actually rewarded for being in training. One of the chief drivers of e-learning is not as much to improve the training as it is to reduce the time spent in training away from the job (for which the employees actually are rewarded for). As a result, I think you would find that the top goal of learners in e-learning is to get finished more than it is to necessarily learn. When readers have no personal goal in mind when reading, there is near zero comprehension and retention, even if going through the actual process of reading. That's why so often you see the student behavior of skipping through the reading as quickly as possible, taking the test to find out what is important, and then going back and reading only those sections related to the test. This is a big waste of time. 
I think the important insight is to just be up front with the learner about what they need to know...and the best way to do that is to actually present the challenge. Until this is known, the learner is operating in the dark and will have a hard time knowing what to take from any reading assignments given. However, once the purpose is known, a great deal of reading can be done to positive effect. 
Posted @ Friday, February 22, 2013 7:16 PM by Ethan Edwards
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