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Ask a Trainer: Tips for Designing Interactive E-Learning

Tuesday, August 4, 2020
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Hey Tim,

I’m an instructional designer, who has recently been tasked with developing a series of e-learning courses. While I know the basics concepts of e-learning design, I’m struggling with how to make my courses interactive. Should my interactions be simple or complex? How do I brainstorm ideas for interactions? The truth is, I’m just not sure where to begin.

Any tips you can provide would be super helpful.


Thanks for reaching out! This is a great question. When I first started as an e-learning designer, I remember being reminded of the importance of making my e-learning content interactive. I was told that interactive e-learning equaled engaging e-learning. And to be 100 percent honest, when I look back on my early work as an e-learning designer, I can say that I had no idea what I was doing.

So here are my top two tips for building interactive e-learning and brainstorming new ideas.

#1: Make Each Click Meaningful

As a new e-learning designer, I figured the purpose of interactivity was to help maintain and engage the learner’s attention—as long as the learner was required to click on something, it would keep them “engaged” in the course. So, that’s exactly how I designed my e-learning courses. Several of my first courses included content that was organized into simple, click-to-reveal interactions. Whether it was a series of tabbed buttons or pulsing icons, the interactions were essentially the same: The learner would click a button, and it would reveal some content for the learner to digest.

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The truth is, it wasn’t until I was required to sit through an e-learning course that was full of click-to-reveal interactions that I started thinking about whether my e-learning interactions were meaningful or passive. I realized that I was designing e-learning interactions that were displaying additional information for the learner to consume rather than helping to drive performance by having the learner apply the skills being taught.

This is because knowledge and behavior aren’t mutually exclusive. You can make a highly interactive course, but if all that’s happening is the learner clicking to reveal additional information, then you can’t expect them to actually develop any skills that will be applied back on the job.

Instead of designing a bunch of click-to-reveal interactions, try designing decision-based interactions, which are ideal when you want to challenge your learner to use their critical thinking skills to make some sort of choice or take some action. Whether it’s a simple multiple-choice question or a complex branching scenario, decision-based interactions should be designed to help your learners achieve a specific performance objective. Ideally, decision-based interactions are based on real-life situations or scenarios that present your learner with real-life choices and outcomes.

#2: Get Away From Your Computer

When designing e-learning interactions, it’s easy to become overwhelmed trying to envision the actions the learner will take, how you’ll build them in your e-learning authoring tool, and if they’ll actually be effective.

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I’ve learned the best methods for designing e-learning interactions are to get away from your computer, think visually, and remove any sense of technical limitations. This usually results in creative solutions that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. Here’s how I like to brainstorm new ideas for interactive e-learning:

  • Sketch Your Ideas: When you’re storyboarding your e-learning content, it’s difficult to describe a complex interaction on paper. And even if you do manage to write it, it can be helpful to visualize your ideas first. When designing your e-learning interactions, try sketching your ideas. If possible, find a whiteboard and get away from your desk and computer.
  • Focus on Behaviors: E-learning interactions come in all shapes and sizes—some are as simple as the learner clicking to reveal content, and others are complex learning scenarios with multiple branches. When designing your e-learning interactions, focus on the real-life behaviors you want the learner to emulate on the job.
  • Ignore Technical Limitations: One of the biggest barriers to designing e-learning interactions is thinking through and overcoming technical limitations. When designing your e-learning interactions, ignore your technical limitations—don’t worry how or if you’ll be able to build these interactions in your e-learning authoring tool. The goal of brainstorming your e-learning interactions is to think outside of the box. Once you’ve finished generating your ideas, you can worry about the technical aspects when building an e-learning prototype.

I hope these tips help. Designing interactive e-learning can seem like a daunting task, but just remember to keep it simple and focus on what you want your learners to be able to do. The rest will fall into place. Good luck!



What other tips do you have about designing interactive e-learning? Share them by commenting below!



Check out the new ATD Ask a Trainer Video Series on YouTube. Each month we’ll publish a new episode in which Tim Slade answers questions submitted via social media.



Do you have a learning question you’d like me to tackle? You can email them to [email protected] Also, visit the Ask a Trainer hub to check out all of your questions and my answers.



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Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Tim Slade is a speaker, author, award-winning
e-learning designer, and author of The eLearning
Designer’s Handbook.

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Too often we get stuck in limiting ourselves when developing e-learning. This was a good reminder to get away from the computer and develop behavior-driven, engaging, learning.
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