7 Questions to Ask to Create Effective E-Learning


We’ve all heard this before. I have, at least a few hundred times. A new client reaching out, saying: “We are looking to create an engaging course. Please make it as interactive as possible.”

And every time I hear this, I go “Hey wait! What about effectiveness?” I ruminate over why no one is talking about the effectiveness of a course, when that is the first thing we should be focusing on.

And then, one fine Sunday morning, it struck me. A light bulb moment!

We were talking to an interior designer for doing up our apartment, and before we met him, I had made a PowerPoint presentation, and as is typical of me, detailed every little corner that we wanted shelving in, including the length, width and height of each shelf inside the cupboards. And I had convinced my husband to not think about the style or the colors until we got this, the basics, right.

After all, form should follow function. And to me, this was the right way to do things, the focus on the effectiveness (the ‘livability’ of the house) before the engagement (the colors and the aesthetics).

When we met the designer with the presentation, he was not only stumped and taken aback, he told me he’d never seen anyone do this before.

People don’t necessarily go by effectiveness. They don’t say “I want my home to be functionally well-designed”. Instead they say something to the effect of, “I like contemporary, but I also like art deco, and I want my home to have elements of both.”, or “I love orange, and I want it in my living room”. And beyond outlining a few requirements, they leave it to the designer to figure out the rest.

That got me thinking. Just because the client (or the business head or SME) throws around a few terms, it doesn’t mean they are aware of what makes an effective course. That’s for us learning designers to think about and come up with.

Of course, we know engagement is really important. Only if the learner is engaged does their mind open up, and they become attentive and receptive to what the course is saying. And no matter how well we design the course, if the learner is not going to pay attention, then all our efforts are wasted.

But engagement alone is not enough. Movies, books and games have taught us that. Audiences take up adventures, go on journeys, and laugh and cry with characters, and once done, go back to being the same person they were before they went through the experience. Nothing changes. While this is okay for a work of fiction, it is not okay for a learning experience, because what we ultimately want is behavior change. We want to build the skill or ability for a person to do something they were not able to do before.

So how do we bring effectiveness to a course without having to lecture the client or other stakeholders about it? For starters, we can ask a few questions:

– What can they do after the training that they can’t do now?
– Why aren’t they doing it (or doing it well) now?
– What barriers do they face?
– What mistakes do they make?
– Are there some people in the learner group who are able to do this well now? If so, what are they doing differently?
– How will we know that our course is successful?
– Once they have completed the course, what can we do to:

  • Support them to do the task well
  • Motivate them to do the task well, and continue to do so

Once we’ve asked all of the above questions (and don’t for a moment think that we’ll get all the answers!), here are a few things we can do to nudge the course towards making it effective:

– Drop learners in a realistic setting, and have them ‘do’ the job they would have to do in real life. This could, depending on what the course is about, mean that they:

  • Make split-second decisions on the floor of a bustling hospital
  • Write code in a new program they are just learning
  • Talk to a customer, overcoming objections and trying to sell them a product or service

… perform any other job that the course is teaching them to perform

– For each action, show them the consequences of their action, and provide detailed feedback on why that action is right or wrong. And, when they have invested cognitive effort in working out the answer to a tough question, they are truly open to learning from the consequence, as well as the feedback. This is where real learning takes place.

– Create opportunities to support them and motivate them well after the training is over. Because after all, training is just the beginning of learning.

What do you think? What else can we do to make sure that our learning program turns out be not just engaging, but also effective?

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