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Elements of an E-Learning Course

Asynchronous e-learning courses can take many shapes and sizes. However, there are certain elements that are common among most courses. Starting out with an understanding of these elements will help prepare you for discussions on planning and analysis. 


The interface is the visual framework for each screen. It includes the branding, titles, buttons, features, and navigation used throughout the course. Think of it as the elements that are the same on every screen. 


In an asynchronous course, text can be used either as the primary way to communicate content or as support for audio narration. 


The navigation for a course allows the learner to move through the course. Navigation buttons such as arrows, hyperlinks, and menus all guide the learner through the course. Navigation can be fixed (where the learner has to proceed in a linear fashion from the beginning to the end) or flexible (where the learner can choose where to go). 


Interactions are any events or activities that require the learner to respond in some way. Examples include a spot that the learner clicks to get additional information, a question the learner must answer, or a practice simulation. Interactions help to reinforce key teaching points and keep the learner interested and engaged. They are often the most interesting part of the e-learning course. However, they can also be the most time consuming to create. 


The ability to administer a test is a very popular feature in e-learning. Tests questions can use several formats:

  • multiple choice
  • drag and drop
  • true/false
  • fill in the blank
  • short answer
  • essay
  • simulations. 

Some of these question formats (such as multiple choice) can be graded directly in the course; others (such as essay) cannot. Tests can be used at the beginning of a course, at the end of a course, at the end of individual modules, or scattered throughout the course. 


Technically, an e-learning course could consist of only on-screen text. But a more engaging course would use a number of different media elements, such as:

  • audio—used to deliver the primary content, as with a narrator, or can be used in specific situ­ations, such as an introduction from the president of a company or characters in a scenario

  • video—can be used as the primary method of content delivery or to provide additional infor­mation for specific teaching points

  • graphics—include still photography (stock photography or custom), clip-art pictures, illustra­tions, graphs, or diagrams

  • animations—include moving graphics; for example, for a course about a manufacturing process, a moving graphic could simulate the flow through the different production departments.


Collaboration is the activity of learners working together to reach a learning goal. In the classroom, collaboration occurs anytime one learner turns to another and makes a comment, asks a question, or works with someone on a project. In e-learning this might occur in discussion forums or social media sites. 

Discussion Forums

A discussion forum is a collaborative learning experience where questions or comments are posted and a trail of responses are posted and archived regarding the original message. Often called threaded discus­sions or message boards, forums are asynchronous forms of communication and message sending. Self-paced courses can encourage learners to participate in discussions about the course content. In some cases, an instructor or moderator reviews the discussions to provide guidance and answers questions. 

Social Media Integration

Sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook can be used to foster collaboration. For example, a course could be given a Twitter hashtag with students encouraged to post and search for tweets using that hashtag. Some corporations have their own internal social media system (such as Yammer or Jive) that allows such communication to happen privately within the organization. 


One of the many reasons companies choose e-learning is the ability to track progress, completion, and test scores. If set up to do so, e-learning courses can send this information to be tracked. In the simplest forms, the information might be sent via an email. In more formal situations, the information is fed to a learning management system (LMS) that compiles and stores the information, as shown in the examples. Especially when a course is mandatory per regulation, it is important to be able to prove a learner did take and pass the course. 

In Summary

E-learning uses an electronic medium to allow learners to learn collaboratively or on their own, at their own pace or at the pace of a group. It has multiple advantages as well as disadvantages in comparison to other platforms. So, it’s important to weigh the options and decide what is best for your particular course and objectives.

Want to learn more about the most essential topics in learning and development and learning technologies? Check out our brand new event, Core 4, in New Orleans this September. 

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from E-Learning Fundamentals: A Practical Guide. Each of the elements listed here is explained in more detail in the design phase discussions in chapters 6, 7, and 8 of this ATD Press book.

About the Author

Diane Elkins is the president of Artisan E-Learning, a custom e-learning development company specializing in Articulate Studio, Storyline, Lectora, and Captivate. She has built a reputation as a national e-learning expert by being a frequent speaker at major industry events such as ATD's International Conference & Exposition, ATD TechKnowledge, DevLearn, and Learning Solutions. She is also the co-author of the popular E-Learning Uncovered book series as well as E-Learning Fundamentals: A Practical Guide from ATD Press. She is a past president of the Northeast Florida and Metro DC chapters of ATD.

About the Author
Desirée Pinder is a co-founder of Artisan E-Learning, where she provides custom e-learning development, specializing in Articulate, Captivate, and Lectora. She is also co-author of the E-Learning Uncovered book series.
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