ATD Blog

How to Make E-Learning So People Really Learn: Q&A With Ethan Edwards

Friday, July 8, 2016

In this Q&A podcast, I speak with Ethan Edwards, who facilitates ATD’s E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate and Advanced E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate.

Ethan has been designing online instruction for almost 25 years, beginning with work at the PLATO laboratory at the University of Illinois, continuing through positions at Authorware, Macromedia, Microsoft, and as a consultant with a host of top companies in the United States and abroad. As chief instructional strategist at Allen Interactions, a nationally recognized company dedicated to creating the world's best custom e-learning applications, Ethan is responsible for internal and external training and communication regarding Allen Interactions' unique perspective on designing and developing meaningful and memorable e-learning programs.

In other words, Ethan knows a lot about designing effective e-learning. I asked him to share some insights he has learned along the way.

For starters, Ethan lays out some basic aspects of a quality e-learning course. Surprisingly, the key elements are the same as traditional, face-to-face training. There is a specific outcome that is clear to the learner, and information is provided to help the learner achieve some specific goal. The design still needs to be learner-centric, “where the learner is driving the process, and it adapts to differences in the learner,” he says. More importantly, he explains that the challenge the learner is engaged in needs to have meaning.


Sounds simple, right? The problem with most e-learning courseware, according to Ethan, is that designers get caught up in the media. Meanwhile, on the end of the spectrum, subject matter experts are applying pressure on designers to “just present content”—a lot of content. Consequently, too much e-learning—and training, for that matter—is presented like a trivia contest. What’s more, Ethan reminds, that “reading or listening to content without purpose is one of the most dull things in the universe.”


So what’s the solution? Just don’t say so much. Learners don’t need to know everything. The key to remember, says Ethan, is that “no learning module is going to make someone an expert.” Instead, try to achieve a few key outcomes. Get to the problem or challenge quicker, then let the content “flow” through that exercise and interaction, he advises.

This begs the question: Is gamification of e-learning a potential solution? Ethan responds positively, noting that there is little doubt that games engage people. The trap, he warns, is that people think they just need to add a little color and cool avatars and people are engaged and learning. But those elements are just superficial. Rather, “context, risk, and consequences” are the most important factors for gamification success.

For more tips on how to increase learner engagement and insight on some common mistakes people make when designing e-learning and how to avoid them, listen to the complete podcast. Also, join Ethan for an upcoming offering of ATD’s E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate and Advanced E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate.

About the Author

Justin Brusino is director of content at ATD. In his role, he’s responsible for developing new content and products, including articles, webcasts, books, conferences, workshops, and more, on a variety of talent development topics. With a strong interest in technology, Justin is always looking at new trends and emerging topics that can impact the talent development industry. He is the editor of the book ATD’s 2020 Trends in Learning Technology.

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