Determining what can be and cant be e-learning?

Mar 08, 2012

So I am running up against a problem in my company where people are assuming that everything works as elearning. I have found this is untrue but I am having trouble getting this point across to those individuals.

Does anyone know of any prebuilt criteria/checklists that can help determine if a subject is suitable for elearning?

Or how do you determine this when a new project is brought to you?

10 Replies
Brian Houle

Hi, Aaron:

Great question!  I'm in the process of developing a course development process for an organization, and have been putting a lot of thought into this very thing since folks often start with the product ("We need a one hour webinar on X") rather than looking at the problem that is causing them to ask for a training.  Here's what I've been thinking about and exploring.

A needs analysis is key. It helps you define the problem to be solved.  Once you've got that, it's easier to determine whether or not training is the answer.  There are lots of needs analysis approaches out there, but I rather like how this one is laid out (it's a ppt). 

Once you know the problem, then you can investigate the causes of the problem, then categorize them.  Joan Strohauer here breaks down problem causes into three kinds: skill, will, and obstacle.   Will and obstacle causes tend NOT to be training issues, but rather management issues.  Now, convincing management that training is not a cure-all is a tough sell, especially when you're essentially putting the onus for resolving the problem back on them.

But, once you establish that training will solve the problem, you've got to determine what type(s) of training are appropriate.  It's been my experience that people bring to the workplace a lot of received ideas (for good or ill) from schooling, and I spend a lot of time trying to get people to give up on these notions and focus on real workplace activities and adult learning principles as the core of sound instructional design, rather than a lot of acontextual information dumps.  The guiding principle being that if people don't find your training directly applicable to their jobs, you're training will fail.

This is where I find Cathy Moore's ideas about action mapping in ID helpful, because in this approach your primary focus is on the business goal (i.e., the resolution of the problem identified in your needs analysis articulated on the map as a measurable outcome) and specific on-the-job activities that will lead to the achievement of that goal.  Learning activities are then designed around those OTJ activities.

(Action-mapping is cool, too, because you can get the SMEs involved in designing it step by step.  If that's not feasible, and you have to do it largely on your own, you still have a clear visual to communicate your thought process to stakeholders).

Now you can decide on the best format(s) for training, because you know a) your goal for the training, and b) the OTJ activities that need to be addressed to get your there.  Whether or not elearning is an appropriate medium for training becomes clearer:

  • If the goal is to reduce the number of errors per worker per day when working in the company accounting system, then maybe an interactive software simulation that includes immediate feedback per operation along with a job aid is the answer;
  • If the goal is to improve the viability of soil samples collected by staff working in the field, and that staff comes into the office only once a quarter for staff meetings, then classroom training might not be the best (or only) training option.  This is where you might want some initial classroom training, but have the core of the learning be in the form of in-the-field coaching/mentoring/job shadowing.  "Elearning" could still fulfill a role here in the form of a job aid (an interactive checklist) delivered to their mobile device.
  • etc

I think the key is to work with stakeholders to define the problem, from which solutions can then be identified.  If training is part of that solution, then it's key to get stakeholders to understand that elearning is not a cure-all, but yet another tool in the toolbox, and that the application of those tools depends on the specific job behaviors that need to be changed.


Holly MacDonald

Aaron, check out Connie's blog post as well:, it's a nice quick way to think about it. I like the book (Innovative Performance Support), but Connie has captured the essence. Cathy Moore's stuff is excellent as well.

I also like The New Learning Architect

Don't forget to check out some other threads in the community, this seems to have been a common topic lately, and people have shared other helpful things around analysis:

To me one of the missing pieces of the analysis is once you determine it IS a training need (totally with you on the make sure it isn't Brian), then what? How do you know when to make it an elearning course/solution. I think there must exist some rules of thumb that can be used in an organization to help choose the delivery method (if it's more than x number of people, then do this kind of training/performance support). I seem to remember a Learning Solutions article several years ago (like 2005/6) that had some of this, but can't seem to find it. If I do, I'll post it up. I have my own guidelines, but not sure if they are universal.


Holly MacDonald

I found it, this was a series by Ray Jimenez: and and (but I'm not sure that link title is correctly associated with the part 3, but you should be able to find part 3 from the others in the series if the link doesn't work).

I had tried to create a type of checklist a few years back and I think it was related to the series by Ray on Learning Solutions (obviously going by memory here), and I had it in excel, but can't find that, I did capture the gist of it in ppt.

Aaron Schweizer

I spent some time going through this information and it made me think of another question. If the content we are being asked to create eLearning for is not task oriented (process, procedures etc..) but is heavy on information should eLearning be used. For example, we work with a lot of insurance products. I have been asked to create eLearning that will explain the different riders (additional benefits) that can be added to Life Insurance policies. This is heavy on information and there are no tasks associated with it. When attempting to build this eLearning I keep arguing that explaining what a rider really should be a wiki or job aid and not a  eLearning course built with PowerPoint and Articulate. This turns quickly into a mundane task of reading information on screen and listening to someone narrate that same information.

Are there any opinions on information heavy modules that don't seem to fit that task oriented framework?

Brian Houle

Hi, Aaron:

Yeah, been there, too.

Honestly, it's a constant process of educating stakeholders and getting them to think about what they REALLY want.  In other words, if you asked them why they wanted that information on different riders in the first place, they'll probably respond:  "So that more benefits can be added to policies thus increasing revenues" or some such.  The assumption I find lurking behind a lot of "info-dump" course requests is that "knowledge about domain X will naturally and without complication lead to desired outcome Y" with Y usually being increased sales, lower costs, or increased compliance with regulation Z.

With info-dumps, I try to get them to think about a) the audience for said info dump and b) what will justify this audience's viewing of this info-dump -- what value is added from taking them away from their work to click-and-read/listen to this?

I realize I'm barking up the same tree here, but you can still push them on this.

If an info-dump is inevitable, I usually design the "e-learning" as a stealth job aid.  Engage interactions can be helpful here with a well-indexed sort of navigation option and a modular design (i.e., break that sucker down into discrete, useful units).  Sure, you can give them the "Clockwork Orange" linear, watch-every-slide-and-despair navigation if that's called for, but you can also provide an alternate navigation scheme that helps learners get the precise information they're looking for without having to slog through endless text they don't need in the moment on the job.

Aaron Schweizer

I have considered just building it as a dressed up job aid. I wanted to use the FAQ interaction and just post to our web page. It's impossible to remember every detail with the amount of information they need to be given. We should just be providing them with an extrememly easy to use reference. That way they can access it quickly when they need to know it. Thanks for the support and ideas.

Holly MacDonald

I agree with Brian, you may not be able to win every battle, but it is constant "education" in organizations. I have also found if it is framed as cost vs benefit ratio or ranking priority, then you can get the attention of decision-makers. Remember Dave Ferguson's great chart: in part 2 of this series (ask the task):

If this is for learning something for the first time, I would think about how you could create scenarios - pick out the few key distinctions between riders and frame them that way. Highlight the differences. Put people and describe who/why they'd choose one over another, and make it a branching scenario. Then you can build a dressed up job aid. Focus on why they'd need to know it. If this is for experienced people who are just learning more about riders and they are already familiar with them, go with the job aid and call it e-learning. Just say that it's a type of e-learning that's more effective!

If I have time I'll mock up what I mean, but in the meantime you could search for branching or branched scenarios, David Anderson and Tom Kulhmann have done some great ones.

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