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Preparing an e-Learning Feast

Ethan250-1by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

As we all get ready for joining with family and friends for the Thanksgiving holidays and prepare for the big meal, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the endless advice on TV and radio about how to prepare the perfect feast.  As it turns out, so much of that advice can easily be turned to planning and preparing the perfect e-learning.

Plan Ahead and Allow Enough Time

People so often underestimate what it takes to put together a piece of e-learning.  Before you begin, create a realistic timeline, plan for how you’ll have the right resources in place, and conduct a thorough analysis.  Last minute changes, shortcuts, and substitutions almost always end up costing more and end up with an inferior end product.

Know Who’s Coming

Be mindful of your learners.  Try to find out as much as you can about them before they arrive.  Understand what they like, where they are coming from, how long they will study, what they don’t like.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push your learners in new directions, but it will help you be most successful in creating a satisfying experience.

Get the Right Sized Turkey

TurkeyTradition suggests that big is always better.  By experience we know that isn’t true but it is so easy to fall into the trap.  Don’t try to prepare as much content as you possibly can and then be surprised that it’s more than learners can process.  Sometimes a very small, focused bit of instruction is actually a lot more satisfying than a comprehensive all-encompassing curriculum.  There’s a lot of evidence that smaller bits of learning spread evenly over time is more effective than the same content presented at once.

Don’t Overstuff the Bird

Many a good learning opportunity is squandered simply because too much content is forced into a learning situation that can’t support it.  A learner can only process, practice, and review a limited amount of information in a single session.  Even though the mechanics of an e-learning structure can hold an enormous quantity of content, in the learner it often creates short-term stupefaction with long-term insignificance.shutterstock 64767511

Don’t Be Surprised When No One Eats the Brussels Sprouts

The more e-learning you create, the more you’ll know what works with your learners and what doesn’t—but only if you actually pay attention to users.  It is easy to keep on doing what we’ve been told to do even when we know that no one’s buying it.  For example, a hallmark of many designs is to start with a screen listing the objectives.  We know that communicating objectives enhances learning.  But that can’t happen if the learner doesn’t bother to read them.  This doesn’t mean don’t serve up the objectives; rather it means figure out how to communicate them in a way that learners actually comprehend.

You Don’t Have to Make those Canned Green Beans with the Cream of Mushroom Soup

So many people build e-learning by just recreating what they’ve seen others do: list the objectives, give a pretest, deliver content, insert knowledge checks, display a summary, and deliver a post test.  It’s a perfectly functional structure, but it isn’t particularly good.  And it’s utterly forgettable.  With each e-learning project, push yourself to make sure that each element is there because it serves a specific purpose, not simply to implement it because it’s something the organization has always done.

Go Easy on the Marshmallows on the Sweet Potatoes

Don’t decide your content is boring and the only way to make it palatable is to hide it behind elements of no lasting value—superficial animations, misapplied media, or irrelevant distractions.  Too often designers completely derail the real value in the content and distract the learner with elements that draw attention but actually make it harder to grow meaningfully.

Try Something Unexpected—Like Putting Horseradish in the Cranberry Sauce

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try something new that might enhance motivation, increase engagement, and broaden the learner’s expectations.  Everything might not always work the first time, but it’s necessary to introduce variety and delight into your e-learning.

Set A Pretty Table


Experience matters.  Before learners read a single word of content in an e-learning piece, they’ve already made judgmentsabout the experience they’re starting based on immediate first impressions.  The look, feel, and visual appeal of the context surrounding the instruction can be invaluable in creating the conditions for effective learning to occur.

Plan to Use the Leftovers

Too often designers plan an e-learning lesson and make no accommodation for how the learner is going to benefit from the lesson moving forward.  Don’t be afraid to create take-aways, such as workbooks or performance support documents that learners can use after the e-learning is complete.  Or follow up with a second short review module (or even simple email challenges) a couple days later to extend the impact of the experience.  Your learners will thank you for it.

If you take care of these things, everyone will enjoy the feast!