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What New Instructional Designers Need to Know About E-Learning


Wed May 04 2016

What New Instructional Designers Need to Know About E-Learning

Are we doing enough to help new instructional designers produce the types of e-learning experiences that we want to see? 

I trained as an instructional designer throughout the 2000s. I say “trained,” but it was more a case of, “Read this and learn.” I became familiar with the notorious idea of learning styles. As one of my mentors told me back then, “If you needed a learning theory, you could find one to support most of your notions about learning!” 


Over the last few years, I have focused more on the psychology of learning and getting a better understanding of our cognitive architecture. Concepts such as the forgetting curve, multimedia presentation research, schema formation, spaced practice, habit formation, and behavior change have been more useful to me than all the training of my early days. There are some useful insights emerging from neuroscience, too—although we have to be careful that we have sufficient evidence to back up the “brain-friendly” training claims.

Top 10 Instructional Design Skills

I have been fortunate to mentor quite a few new instructional designers over the past decade, and the same challenges come up. These are my top 10 challenges for new instructional designers: 

  1. How do you conduct a thorough analysis to ensure that your e-learning project is necessary and will meet the needs of the business and its staff?

  2. How do you select the best learning approach for your target audience?

  3. How do you work effectively with subject matter experts to ensure the best focus for your e-learning project?

  4. How do you master specific instructional or presentation techniques, such as scenario design, game design, simulations, and explainer videos?

  5. How do you help people transfer new skills to their everyday jobs?

  6. How do you keep people learning beyond the initial course or resource that you present?

  7. How do you encourage more “pull learning” than “push learning”?

  8. How do you write well enough to engage your audience? (Sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to this skill.)

  9. How do you visualize key concepts and communicate them to your audience?

  10. How do you evaluate the success of your e-learning project for the client (and set goals for yourself to keep getting better)?

Redefining the E in E-Learning

When we read articles about modern instructional design, we see new trends; “resources not courses” and microlearning are hot topics right now. Multidevice content has added a new layer of complexity for modern instructional designers, although one that I think will help them better structure learning experiences. It is much harder to cram lots of content into courses that will be accessed by a range of devices. 

As e-learning has become more mainstream, it’s moved beyond its original focus on compliance training. For me, even the definition of e-learning has changed. Back in the 1990s, we did focus on courses, but now e-learning covers a whole range of experiences. So maybe it is time for the e to stand for experience rather than electronic. I know people have talked about this before, but we need to shout a bit louder about it!

From Instructional Designer to Learning Experience Engineer

When I talk to clients and friends in the industry, many say that the range of technology-based learning tools available can be overwhelming. In the past 10 years, we’ve gone from a single-authoring-tool ecosystem, in which only a few vendors dominated, to a variety of tools covering a wide range of learning experiences. Along with the multipurpose authoring tools such as Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate, we now have a proliferation of smaller, more agile tools that focus on a particular type of learning experience. Interactive video, branched scenarios, 3D animation, gamification, infographics—you name it, there is a tool for it. If you are a new instructional designer, how do you keep on top of it all? 


When you talk to consumers of e-learning content, it’s clear that they want better and more sophisticated learning experiences. The traditional learning management system (LMS) does not play nicely with modern content creation tools, simply because many organizations still want everything inside the LMS and all learner activity tracked. 

The unlocking of the LMS has already started with the introduction of xAPI, the Learning Record Store, and other interoperability standards. We don’t quite have an open learning technology architecture yet, but that shift is well underway. 

The challenge for the modern instructional designer is to weave all of these content and technology options into a cohesive set of learning experiences and make them easily accessible. This is a vital role for a new generation of instructional designers: Be the learners’ voice and use the best tool for the job, LMS or no LMS!

Core Instructional Design Skills Still Matter 

The two core skills that an instructional designer needs are synthesis and communication. A great instructional designer is able to take in lots of new information quickly, synthesize it, and communicate it in a way that helps others learn. These core skills have not really changed; it’s just that now we apply them in a changing working environment that demands more focus, brevity, and business alignment. And we now have a whole new set of tools that help us do this. 

So, I ask the question again: Are we training novice instructional designers for new types of e-learning experiences, or are we just creating another generation who will produce the same old, same old?


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