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E-Learning 101: Straightforward Answers to Fundamental Questions—Part 1


Mon Feb 29 2016

E-Learning 101: Straightforward Answers to Fundamental Questions—Part 1

At the 2016 ATD TechKnowledge Conference, I hosted a session designed for people just getting started with e-learning. If you are just getting started yourself, you might be curious about many of the same issues. In the first installment of this two-part series, we will look at some basic e-learning terminology and concepts questions that were asked during the session.

What is an LMS?


An LMS is a learning management system used to launch and track e-learning courses. Learners can log into the system to find and register for available or assigned courses; administrators can assign courses and run reports on completion and quiz results. Some LMSs offer advanced features that support performance management and social learning opportunities. 

What is Section 508?

Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act requires that electronic communication for the federal government be accessible to individuals with disabilities who use assistive technology, such as a person using a screen reader. E-learning falls under electronic communication and should be made to be accessible. Some resources where you can learn more include:

What is responsive design?

Responsive design presents content on a web page or an e-learning course in such a way that it works well on a number of devices. Think about how Amazon looks different on your phone versus your tablet versus your computer. A responsive e-learning course is designed so that buttons and interactive features are easy to use on smaller devices and text is always easy to read. The course might simply rescale to fit the device, or it might reconfigure the size and position of individual elements. 


In e-learning, what is a page turner?

In the world of paperback novels, a page turner is an engaging book you don’t want to put down. In e-learning, a page turner is a boring course in which there is little to no interaction other than clicking from page to page. In publishing, it’s what you want; in e-learning, it’s what you want to avoid. 

What is a MOOC?

MOOC is an acronym for massive open online course. Common with higher education institutions, a MOOC has an instructor, includes beginning and end dates over a series of weeks, and all participants start together and go through the learning experience together. Each week there is some combination readings, videos, individual assignments, group assignments, and online discussions to complete. A MOOC could easily have more than 1,000 participants, so most work is peer reviewed, rather than reviewed by an instructor. MOOCs are typically free and often do not award any college credits. 

Common MOOC platforms include:



What is the “m” in m-learning?**

It stands for mobile. In addition to smartphones, some practitioners include tablets and even wearables in this category. Meanwhile, other experts argue that tablets are not truly mobile because they don’t fit in a pocket. 

What are “AR” and “VR”?

AR is an abbreviation for augmented reality, and VR is used to abbreviate virtual reality. Augmented reality takes a view of a real environment and augments it with additional information or effects. For example, in a first aid course, you could put a special patch on your arm and then look at it through the camera on your phone via an augmented reality application. Through the app, you would see your actual arm, but the patch would be transformed into a wound that needs to be treated. 

Virtual reality is a fully virtual environment. For example, in a course on disaster response, you could put on virtual reality goggles and see a fully simulated town after a tornado. You could then make motions that various sensors could pick up, resulting in the feeling that you are walking around that town, interacting with things in the environment. 

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a type of copyright license wherein the creator of the content still retains the rights but allows others to use it free of charge with certain stipulations. Use of content under a traditional copyright requires the authorization from the copyright holder. Use of Creative Commons content is already pre-authorized with the terms and conditions set by the owner. 

Creative Commons is different from public domain. When a content owner puts something in the public domain, they are giving up all rights to it. With Creative Commons, the content owner still retains ownership. There are several levels of Creative Commons permission. All levels require attribution. Some only allow use for non-commercial purposes or for content that is also given a Creative Commons license. Here are two resources where you can learn more:

What is Tin Can API?

Tin Can API is the early working name for Experience API, which is also known as xAPI. It is a protocol that governs how learning events communicate with tracking systems. Historically, the primary protocol was SCORM, and it governed how e-learning courses “talked” to learning management systems. xAPI is an updated standard that also allows more flexibility. Rather than just tracking course completion and quiz scores, this standard can be used to track a whole host of online or offline activities such as watching a video or performing an action. Learn more at the Experience API website

What is HTML5 and why is it significant for e-learning?

HTML is the markup language used for creating web-based content. Previous versions of HTML did not allow for rich multimedia. Consequently, many web authors and e-learning developers turned to Flash for that type of content. HTML5 enables much more robust multimedia and interactions. As the HTML5 standard was being finalized, Apple’s iPad, which does not play Flash content, became wildly popular. Web authors and e-learning developers quickly started moving to HTML5 as a replacement for Flash so that their content would play on Apple devices. Many of the popular e-learning authoring tools output both to Flash and HTML5. 

What is a good source of information to further learn about e-learning?

The ATD Learning Technologies Community of Practice is a great place to get started. And I can’t help but mention my book, E-Learning Fundamentals: A Practical Guide. It’s an E-Learning 101 style book that covers many of the topics here in this Q&A blog series..

What is the common expectation of an instructional designer to gather content?

I would say that it is most common for instructional designers to be paired with a subject matter experts (SME). It is the designer’s job to get the information from the SME; sort out what will and won’t contribute to the learning objectives; and design the content in a way that supports learning, retention, and application on the job. Sometimes, the instructional designer is also supposed to be the SME, either because a SME isn’t available or because the designer has the expertise. In other cases, the designer might have to do research because there is no one with existing knowledge to assist with the project. 

What is the difference between content developers and learning builders? Which role should we pursue?

Each approach—content developer, learning builder, or some combination of both—is common. Some professionals focus on just content, some on just development, and some do both. Being able to wear both hats might make you more valuable on smaller learning teams or as an independent consultant. Be aware, though, that they are completely different skill sets. It’s not safe to assume that someone who is good with one set of skills will automatically be good at the other. Whatever you choose to master, make sure you get the skills you need, whether you choose to learn it on your own or through a formal program. 

Who are some of the main off-the-shelf e-learning content providers?

Some of the major providers of off-the-shelf e-learning courses include:

There are also specialized providers for many industries and topics such as OSHA training or medical training. Many professional associations also offer off-the-shelf content. 

Read on for Part 2 of this series, which looks at specific questions on authoring tools, LMSs, and e-learning course design.

For more advice on the basics of e-learning design and development, check out _E-Learning Fundamentals: A Practical Guide (_ATD Press, 2015).

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