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What Happened to E-Learning Instructional Design?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

E-learning has been around for a long time. I started designing e-learning modules in graduate school back in 1983. It was already an established field back then. Granted there was not yet an internet, but the basic challenge of designing instruction for automated individualized delivery was well underway. 

It is surprising, though, that after so many years of effort, the field still seems to be perceived as new. The e-learning field continues to grow impressively in both practitioners and dollars spent. Yet everywhere there seems a pervasive agreement that most e-learning falls short of being everything it should be. Students find it tedious, evaluation is questionable, transfer to performance is largely undocumented, and basic models for excellent instructional design are scarce. 

So what’s the problem? 

I think in large part the nature of e-learning is daunting due to the multiple disciplines—such as project management, technical content, technology, and instructional design—that designers must master simultaneously when attempting to create powerful online learning programs.    

Unfortunately, the most immediate concrete challenges seem to be attended to first. Authoring tools provide powerful means to present media and to construct prompts to which students must respond. But too often technical functioning of any sort (“Yay, we got it to run on our LMS!”) stands in for actual sensible learning interactions. 

Once the technical hurdles are harnessed, the next burden is to grab existing content and slam it into slides punctuated with standardized questioning. I don’t mean to belittle that effort; even when this is done unimaginatively, it represents considerable work. However, drowning the learner in excessive volumes of content is rarely instructionally helpful. 


Finally, layer on top of this process the difficulty in managing one’s limited resources to deliver a product on time and within budget. It’s no wonder that any actual instructional design is all but forgotten. 

With a little bit of redirection, we can get an instructional design focus back into e-learning design. We need to be unwaveringly dedicated to three core ideas that will automatically nudge us to better instruction: 

  1. Think about performance outcomes rather than content. This will automatically cease the mindless conversion of Power Point presentations, which, for the most part, are entirely content-bound and allow the instructional focus of the e-learning to be performance-oriented. The resulting action-based, goal-oriented lessons will be a huge step beyond rote page turners.

  2. Think about interactions rather than questions. Questions are limited by the outcome being the correct answer. Interactions are about how the learner is thinking and actively engaged in manipulating the outcomes.

  3. Think about learner motivation rather than imposition of objectives. Formal learning objectives are an important step in defining desired outcomes for the designer. Rarely are objectives written in a way that is compelling to a learner. Instead, use them to understand the factors and actions that will provide meaning and relevance—factors that will motivate the learner to take control of the individualized e-learning experience. 

Perhaps these three core ideas aren’t such a big surprise. Indeed, I’m just reinserting some basic aspects of good instruction that have been shoved aside. While technology, content, and project management are still essential pieces in building e-learning, they add up to nothing if the instructional design is absent. 

If you want to get these design ideas back into the forefront of your e-learning design, then ATD’s E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate Program is a great route to begin that journey. The two-day workshop covers a full range of topics related to creating the very best e-learning possible, but focuses most on the three areas listed above: adopting a learner-centered approach to e-learning, understanding instructional interactivity, and designing to maximize learner motivation. 

About the Author
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 Knowledge Officer 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. While focused primarily on corporate training, Ethan has comprehensive experience with education and government institutions, having worked extensively in libraries and schools as a full-time consultant with the Lincoln Trail Libraries System in Champaign, Illinois. He is also a licensed secondary mathematics teacher. He is the primary instructor for ASTD's Instructional Design for E-Learning certificate course, and has spoken at conferences and private presentations throughout the world.
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