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Why Do We Continue to Perpetuate & Promote Ineffective e-Learning?

Ethan Edwardsby Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

In teaching the ASTD e-Learning Instructional Design Certificate Programs, I come in contact with countless instructional designers, both inexperienced and veteran, sincerely attempting to create the best e-learning modules possible.

Usually I notice two things:

  1. Their instinct is to do the standard design activities that are suggested by tradition, by the authoring tools, and by example.
  2. Following tradition, doing what is recommended by many authoring tools, and patterning one’s work after many examples in the workplace is going to result in pretty ineffective e-learning.

It’s interesting to contemplate why the field of e-learning perpetuates—and even encourages—ineffective practices for so long. In other fields, ineffective procedures become extinct. For example, doctors quit using leeches to bleed illness out of people when we realized it did no good. In the field of e-learning, millions of dollars are spent each year on ineffective page-turners (“PowerPoint on Steroids” has become the common term) that authors, administrators, and learners alike freely admit are not even paid attention to as learners press NEXT as quickly as possible to complete.


I think part of the problem is that the push to adopt e-learning is only partially led by an urge to improve instruction. In fact, it is hard to find someone with a particularly deep understanding of e-learning’s instructional strengths. What everyone seems clear on (especially administrators) are the delivery benefits of e-learning. And since these logistical advantages seem to outweigh the need to actually teach anything, we are too often content to continue down the same path taken for decades, leaving the instruction and the learner nowhere.

Each one of us needs to come to a decision within our own organization about our goal in creating e-learning. If it is only to reap the operational benefits of automating your training efforts, then we should just quit worrying about design. A boring page turner is just as effective as an engaging simulation in providing training to satisfy the checklist of requiring less training time, reducing travel expenses, being available 24-7, being trackable in an LMS, or providing a consistent message for compliance requirements.

On the other hand, if our goal is to create performance-changing training, we need to figure out what is essentially valuable about e-learning as a training tool. For me, the top benefits are:

  • individualization (not just working alone or at one’s own pace, but instructional interactivity that adapts to the performance of each learner),
  • a non-judgmental environment that encourages and rewards learning behaviors (including forming hypotheses and testing them, making mistakes, exploring alternatives), and
  • recurrence (training need not be a one-time event but can be distributed over time and reviewed for relearning as needed by learners over time). 

All of these are nearly impossible to achieve in the classroom or other non-interactive media.

If you are interested in understanding how some of the accepted practices in e-learning are counterproductive to creating effective modules, you may want to join me for a complimentary ASTD Webinar on Tuesday, July 22: Ten Ways to Ruin Your e-Learning – A How-To Guide In Reverse.

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