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It’s Online, but is it Learning?

Discover the three key aspects of effective eLearning. Elevate your understanding of impactful online learning.

July 27, 2023

Just because content is available online, this doesn’t mean that you’ve got eLearning……

This article looks at three key aspects of sound eLearning. You might like to think about a particular eLearning module from your organisation as we explore the key aspects of Instructional Design, Navigation and Structure, and Screen Design.

Instructional Design

Instructional design is the key to the creation of an effective learning module. The purpose of instructional design is to assist the learner to achieve the specified outcomes as effectively as possible. All of the established instructional design principles are relevant to eLearning, however there are two principles which deserve special mention.  

The first is a fundamental instructional design principle; every learning module must have objectives. Objectives set out specifically what learners must achieve by the end of that module (and these should be available to learners so that they are clear about required performance and standard). Every piece of content and every learning activity within the module itself must then be designed to assist learners towards the achievement of those objectives. Further, for module assessment to be valid, it must allow for achievement against each and every objective to be proved. For online content to be classified as eLearning there must be a set of learner-centred objectives, with associated assessment.

  • Are objectives the foundation of your selected piece of eLearning?  
  • To what degree do objectives determine the design of learning and of assessment?

Another key principle for eLearning is that of interaction. This is just a variation on the principle of participation. In relation to eLearning, a learner must be able to interact on every page (over and above page-turning). Interacting with the information, rather than just reading, gives learners the opportunity to absorb, understand and recall what they are learning. One basic technique is to give learners the control to reveal information on the screen (through rollovers or clicks) ideally using an exploratory rather than linear style. Using this technique also reminds the designer to keep textual chunks small and, where possible, to use visual methods to get the message across instead.

Online learning provides for many and varied forms of interaction, even though in reality there are only a few true interaction techniques – rollover, click, drag, type text. It is the presentation and layout that adds variety and interest. For example, rather than a series of textual True / False questions, two large coloured buzzers can be presented which learners press to respond to each question. This activity can be further enhanced with sound effects if permissible. The learner is still clicking for the answer, but it feels very different.

As well as creating interactions for the delivery of information, review activities must be built into each section. In general, a review is their final preparation before assessment. Reviews use the same interaction techniques as the learning interactions, however the purpose is to assist learners to integrate, recall and apply their learning from the whole section or module.

  • How interactive is your selected module?  
  • How well do the activities assist towards learning and achievement of objectives?

Media can be used to either detract from or to enhance learning. Graphics and animation can be of great value if they assist in the learning process and reduce the amount of text required. Some graphics or animation may be included to add interest or to reward achievement. This is acceptable as long as they are bound to their purpose (not merely gratuitous) and do not steal resource from learning efficacy. Voice and sound effects are rarely allowed in workplace learning but, when appropriate, voice is an excellent way to give instructions, explain visuals or expand upon key text points - as a facilitator or coach might do. In contrast, using a voice to talk through a page of text does little to enhance learning and often frustrates learners.

Navigation and Structure

Navigation in its broad sense is critical when it comes to eLearning. A good eLearning module will have a well-designed structure, menu and navigation tools.  

Adults like to have choice when they’re learning, so providing a menu of options gives them a mental sense of control whilst also giving them practical choice as to what they learn. A well-structured module will return to the menu after each section is completed, thus giving the learner a sense of achievement as well as grounding them in the main menu. This return to base point is also important because business learning typically requires key information to be learned (in order to meet objectives) and is vastly superior to forcing learners through long linear learning - or letting them “wander” in the hope that they come across that key information.

When looking at a screen, learners don’t automatically get all the visual clues that they would have if they had a paper-based module. With a paper module, they can see the tabs or section dividers, they can flick through the pages to get a feel for it, they can see how big or thick the module is, what page they’re up to and how far through they are. So to avoid learners feeling lost, confused or frustrated and to give them a sense of control, it is important to let them know where they are at all times, through the use of title bars and sub titles. It is also helpful to indicate the size of sections and how far through the section they are, through page numbering, progress bars or other symbolics. Ideally the menu will further reinforce the learner’s progress by visually indicating which sections have been completed. And more obviously, navigational buttons must provide a minimum of Back, Next and Menu.

  • How easy is it to navigate within your selected module?  
  • How much control do learners get?  
  • To what degree do learners know where they are and where they’ve been?

Screen Design

The most important thing about graphical design in eLearning is to not let it take on more importance than the instructional design. The opening page should grab attention and create interest, thus setting the scene for the learning experience. The screen design and layout must enhance the learning, not detract from it. To achieve this it will have a clean base design, use design elements consistently and ensure that key elements take priority. It will be pleasing to the eye, and visually lead the learner as appropriate, rather than creating confusion as to what to attend to first.  

  • To what degree does the screen design contribute to the learning in your selected module?

Of course there are many other elements that contribute to an effective piece of eLearning, however the three aspects of Instructional Design, Navigation and Screen Design are the most critical. And within Instructional Design, the principles of Objectives and Interaction add the most value to the effectiveness of eLearning. In conclusion, online content cannot be called eLearning unless these elements are adequately addressed.