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Improving Your e-Learning Designs: What I Learned from a Flower

Ethan Edwards

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

After the New Year I bought a couple neglected amaryllis bulbs that had been discounted.  I took them home, potted them, and was surprised but overjoyed to see them finally open up in full glorious bloom this weekend. I guess it’s a little late to be thrilled that these houseplants are blooming, as the Spring flowers in the yard are mainly already out, but I’m excited nevertheless.

But seeing big showy flowers blooming inside always puts me in mind of one of my most vivid childhood memories.  I was about 5 years old and we were given a night-blooming cactus to care for while our neighbors went on an extended vacation.  It was not at all a showy plant and my young mind really wasn’t sure of why such trouble was to be taken about this rather uninteresting specimen.  But then several weeks into our care of this plant, one night well after midnight, my siblings and I were roused from sleep and herded into the kitchen to see the cactus sprung suddenly into bloom, displaying a single remarkably huge white flower.  A call was made to another neighbor, and he came trudging down our long lane in his robe in the middle of the night, Polaroid camera in hand, ready to record this event for the plant owners.  NightBloomingCactus(A Polaroid camera was necessary, as our own black and white camera could not do just to such a marvel.) We all continued to sit up into the early morning hours, gazing at this bloom, listening to my mom read about it from the gardening encyclopedia, marveling at its very existence.  I’d had no idea that such plants even existed.  Eventually we went back to bed and woke in the morning light to find that the flower was completely spent, with only an out-of-focus, over-exposed photo to remind us of what we’d seen.  I’ve never actually seen a night-blooming cactus in bloom since then, but what I learned that night 45 years ago has stayed with me.

What made that such an effective learning event? 

  • It was distinctive—unlike any other experiences I’d had. 
  • It was rooted in the real world—I wasn’t learning about some hypothetical specimen I might encounter someday; I knew exactly what we were learning about. 
  • It was delivered just-in-time with a specific focus.  In fact, the training was triggered by actual events, rather than an arbitrary curriculum schedule.

We would be well served if we applied these principles in our e-learning designs.


You’ve heard me urge this many times—e-learning must have a meaningful and memorable context.  Context creates meaning, and when you create e-learning with a context void of significance or indistinguishable from a host of other e-learning lessons the learner has experienced, you dramatically increase the difficulty for the learner in creating specific memories.  Except in cases where students select to take training for themselves rather than have it assigned to them, before delivering the content even starts, the e-learning has to provide contextual elements and triggers to activate prior knowledge, establish need, set expectations, and define success.

Concrete, Real-World Context

So often, I see designers struggling with volumes of content that is far removed from the experience of the learners.  Policy training usually focuses on definitions and official language, ignoring the actual problems that make the policies interesting and relevant.  Systems training drills repetitive gestures in software programs without ever connecting those routines to a sensible reason for ever doing those tasks.  Subject matter experts can forget how disassociated from actual performance their “content” has become.  We need to remember to start with the tangible, the familiar, and the concrete when engaging the learner’s attention.


So many of the less effective approaches to e-learning are simply a result of thoughtlessly carrying over aspects of classroom teaching.  Traditionally, getting learners together in a physical classroom, could be a major disruption to work cycles and also a big expense.  Because it was such a big deal, it seemed right to want to cram as much into those sessions as possible.  e-Learning suffers none of those constraints, yet so often the idea that we have one opportunity to communicate everything possible drives the design, resulting in impossibly large, monolithic curricula.  Instead, think about designing small lessons—even single interaction modules.  Then instead of dumping them on learners en masse, allow actual events to trigger when training occurs.  Too often, learners take training only to have weeks or months pass before there is any chance of implementing what they learned.  Small, focused interactions have the benefits of being centered on specific needs, quick, varied, immediately-relevant, appropriate for mobile delivery, task-based, and overall, less boring.

While we can’t always expect to create in our e-learning the impact of a wondrous exotic flower blooming for a few fleeting hours in the dark of the night, we can extract some principles from that event and others like it to guide our design of e-learning experiences that will create long-lasting and beneficial experiences for our learners.