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Ask the Right Questions Before Designing eLearning

by Pamela Hogle

September 7, 2016


by Pamela Hogle

September 7, 2016

If employees find eLearning overwhelming, frustrating, or over their heads technically, they won’t engage and the learning won’t stick. … Asking and answering these questions can aid a manager, a design team, or an eLearning consultant to stay focused on the learning goal.

Successful eLearning engages learners; they want to stick with it, to continue playing, experimenting, strategizing. Successful eLearning is sticky; the learners can use what they’ve learned, whether moments after completing the training or much later. Successful eLearning achieves measurable outcomes; it has clear learning goals, and managers can measure whether learners have achieved those goals. How can you design eLearning that meets these benchmarks?

Clear goals and a design that focuses on these goals move eLearning from forgettable to successful. Keeping the questions presented here—and their answers—firmly in mind throughout the design process can help.

Why do you need the training?

Corporate training falls into a few broad categories: information transfer, instruction on performing a procedure, and simulations that enable people to practice resolving challenges or hone skills. Identify which of these best describes your training need. That will help you decide what type of training is most appropriate.

For information transfer, something that offers drills and practice recalling and applying information might be best, or perhaps a searchable database with information—a job aid rather than training. Simulations and some types of serious games work well to help people resolve challenges, practice some kinds of encounters, and solve problems. A video can be a great way to teach the steps in a procedure.

What is the desired outcome?

“When you are designing a course, whatever it is, you need to be able to get it to one single sentence: In the end, the learner needs to know ____ and be able to ____,” said Jean Marrapodi, Guild Master and chief learning architect at Applestar Productions. “If you can’t get to that point, you really haven’t defined the point of the course well. And you should state that goal in the course.”

Some highly effective training focuses narrowly; it might have a single learning goal or desired outcome. If a course has multiple goals, each should be measurable separately, and they might be best presented in distinct sections or course modules. Decide what you want to measure and how you will measure that: Define what success looks like.

“Identify what people need to do, not what they need to know,” advises Cathy Moore in her eBook, Training Designer’s Guide to Saving the World.

For example, “Everyone should know how to use Adobe Connect” is a vague, unmeasurable goal. “On completing the course, learners will be able to produce an interactive webinar and stream it to 50 remote users” is more concrete.

What are the constraints on our design?

In an ideal world, we’d all have the time and budget to create the best eLearning that money could buy. But not many of us live in that world; the reality of budgets, schedules, and technical and personnel constraints intrude on our design planning. When is the training needed? Who is developing it? What is that person’s or team’s knowledge, ability, and availability? What is the budget? What tools are available? What technical parameters (Internet speed, processing power, mobile or desktop devices) does the training have to work within? Until you can answer these questions, any design planning you do might just be fantasy.

Reining in your thinking with a reality check is important when considering the format of the eLearning as well. Many designers or managers are enamored with the latest technologies or trends. They might say they want a serious game or that the training should use augmented reality—but these features might not be feasible within the time and budget. Or a game might not be the best way to accomplish the learning goal.

Who will take the training?

Is your audience made up of employees who are in one office, or are they scattered among several office locations or out in the field? Do they work with laptop or desktop computers? Use tablets? Do they even work with computers? What computer skills do they have? How much knowledge do they already have of the training topic?

Learners who typically spend several hours a day using a computer and those who do not will need training that has a different starting point and different base assumptions. You will design training delivered via a kiosk at a warehouse differently from training used on smartphones and tablets.

Asynchronous eLearning could be a better choice than a facilitated or instructor-led course for a target audience where learners have varying levels of preexisting knowledge of the topic. The eLearning should provide basic information but allow more advanced learners to skip ahead.

If employees find eLearning overwhelming, frustrating, or over their heads technically, they won’t engage and the learning won’t stick.

Stay focused

Asking and answering these questions can help a manager, a design team, or an eLearning consultant stay focused on the learning goal. Remember Marrapodi’s guideline: one sentence. Once your focus is clear, use the information gained from answering the other questions to select the best format and approach to achieving the desired outcome.


Moore, Cathy. Training Designer’s Guide to Saving the World: 6 Steps to Relevant, Powerful Training. eBook downloaded from:

Ghirardini, Beatrice. E-learning methodologies: A guide for designing and developing e-learning courses. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011.

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To the well-made point of asking “What is the desired outcome?” I would add that sometimes it is not only about defining what you want the student to know and do, but also under what conditions that performance is expected. The learning outcomes must be clear, specific, learner-centered, and measurable.

This is why it is important to have in place, before instruction begins, a method to assess instructional effectiveness. It is not enough to assess what the learner knows and can do under specified conditions. You also need to know what role the instruction played in the learner getting to that point. If you want to know whether the learner already possessed the knowledge and skill or whether they acquired it from the instruction, consider administering pre- and post- measures. The type of measurement, or assessment, that is appropriate will depend on the nature of the learning outcome.

If the learning outcome is to acquire knowledge of a topic and be able to articulate objectively correct responses to inquiries, then an object-based assessment (true-false, multiple choice, multiple selection) is appropriate. Sometimes the learning outcome is not objectively measurable. Instead, the outcome may require the exercise of discretion within parameters and inclusion of specific elements. For this type of outcome, the learning can be assessed through application of a rubric that contains the required elements and allowed parameters to the learner’s response.

Other learning outcomes involve the acquisition of skills and knowledge that enable the learner to perform a specific task under certain conditions. For example “Following completion of this training, the learner will be able to dismount a tire and rim from a passenger vehicle, remove the tire, install a new tire, inflate it to the indicated pressure, and remount the assembly on the vehicle within 10 minutes.” Here, a performance assessment would be appropriate. The only way you will ever know if the task can be performed adequately is to have the learner perform it. The details of the performance that may need to be assessed can be done so as part of the assessment criteria that is shared with the learner. For example, not scratching the paint on the car, not damaging the rim, not stripping the lug nuts, tightening the lug nuts to the appropriate torque – these can all be aspects of the performance that are assessed with a rubric.

It is not enough to deliver the instruction, the learning has to be assessed and the results of that assessment utilized to continuously improve the instructional process.
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