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The Fundamentals for Successful Program Design
Book Review: William Horton's 'E-Learning by Design, 2nd Edition'

By Susan Knight / February 2014

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There's enough material in William Horton's E-Learning by Design, second edition for even the most seasoned of designers to come away with new insights and ideas. But if your career path led you into the world of eLearning with little in the way of formal instructional design training (which is the case for many eLearning professionals), this book is especially for you. It covers everything from high-level planning to designing relevant activities and crafting assessments. Beyond telling readers what to do, Horton explains the "why" behind everything. I found this to be one of book's best features, as it allows readers to assess when and how best to apply various tools and techniques. He also points out common design pitfalls to avoid.

I was introduced to E-Learning by Design while taking a course on eLearning program design at the University of Toronto. Although published in 2011, this book continues to be required reading in many eLearning courses, which speaks to its standing as a widely-respected reference text. The depth and breadth with which it covers key areas makes it ideal both as a course textbook and as a resource for real-world projects. Horton focuses on the fundamentals of good planning and design, which apply to any project regardless of the development tools used. This allows the content to remain relevant and useful even as eLearning technologies continue to evolve.

Sound Instructional Design

Horton's main premise is effective eLearning starts with sound instructional design, and this is the key to delivering an effective eLearning program. Proper attention to instructional design in the early planning stages will help to guide a project successfully through to completion. Instructional design is covered in the first chapter of the book, and while it is only meant to be an overview of the subject, it's quite detailed and thorough. Readers are encouraged to read this chapter first, and will benefit from doing so. Poor instructional design models are also identified, allowing readers to anticipate and avoid the most common pitfalls.

Learning objectives are an important aspect of instructional design and are critical to delivering an effective eLearning program. You'll learn about the different types of learning objectives, and how to use them to anchor and guide every step of an eLearning project from start to finish. Beyond contributing to the successful design and development of an eLearning program, good learning objectives also help to improve communication with stakeholders by providing a clear and consistent point of reference. Personally, I've found it's easier to present and justify recommendations to project team members when learning objectives are kept front and center, and everything is assessed in relation to those objectives. For those trained in instructional design, this section will provide many useful reminders. For designers coming from other backgrounds such as IT, this foundational information and the insight it provides will be a huge asset.

Absorb, Do, Connect

Horton gives a substantial amount of attention to learning activities, as these are the means by which learning objectives are achieved. Learning activities are divided into three categories: absorb-type activities, do-type activities, and connect-type activities. "Absorb" activities present information to the learner, and the learner is expected to learn (absorb) the information. "Do" activities are used to transform the information presented into knowledge and skills, by having the learner complete a task (do) that relies on the information presented. "Connect" activities allow the learner to link the knowledge and skills acquired to real-world situations (connect) that the learner must deal with. For each type of activity, Horton outlines how it might be implemented, along with recommendations for when one activity might be preferable over another one. Summary tables at the end of each chapter consolidate this information for quick and easy reference.

It can be tempting to include interactive elements to try and prevent learners from becoming bored while completing an eLearning program. The absorb-do-connect formula ensures the interactive elements serve a clearly defined purpose. And of course it reflects how the learning process works for most people in terms of receiving and processing information. As a technical writer, I focus on delivering information clearly and efficiently. The absorb-do-connect formula is a great reminder that eLearning can and should do more than just deliver information. eLearning should provide a learning experience in which the learner is actively engaged and interactivity should be carefully selected to support the learning process.

Examples, Examples, and More Examples

One of the great features of E-Learning by Design is the wealth of examples provided. Wherever possible, concepts are illustrated with examples. Horton also shares screen shots from actual eLearning programs. Combined with practical and comprehensive summary charts at the end of each chapter, this brings the text to life. As a result, nothing seems purely theoretical; readers see how everything has real-world application.

In many of the examples used throughout the book, the designs are relatively simple yet surprisingly effective in achieving the intended learning goal. For those who are new to the field, this is incredibly reassuring, as it shows how much can be achieved once you have clear objectives and a solid design plan. For more experienced professionals and those working under fewer budgetary or time constraints, the volume and variety of examples provided is sure to spark some fresh ideas and perspectives.

In the final chapters of the book, Horton addresses social learning, mobile learning, and the virtual classroom. He covers each area thoroughly, and a lot of useful information is provided. However, it would be impossible for a single chapter to do any of these areas justice. Furthermore, these areas are still evolving, being shaped by the availability of related tools and the ways in which those tools are used. In view of this, readers will likely want to access additional resources specializing in these areas, and the book contains some helpful links.

Although this book is long (600-plus pages), the format makes it easy to locate relevant information. Each chapter is completely self-contained, so you can dive in anywhere and the content will make sense. It's rich in substance, but entertaining and easy to read; packed with useful information, but not dense and definitely not boring. What could easily have turned into an overwhelming read is in fact a fun, enjoyable one.

Whether you're designing a small online training module or a comprehensive online education program, E-Learning by Design has something useful to offer. It outlines everything you need to know in order to deliver a successful eLearning project: What you should be doing, and why you should be doing it. Unlike many reference books that offer great theories but fall short on the practical application side, this is a book that you can turn to on a regular basis to get real help for real projects.

About the Author

Susan Knight has worked in Ontario's community services sector for more than 20 years. In addition to technical writing, software testing, and user training, she has provided technical and project support for the implementation of several province-wide healthcare initiatives. Knight is also familiar with online learning from the learner's perspective. She recently completed a university certificate in public administration through distance learning, and is currently enrolled in two distance education programs.

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2014 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/14/02-2582017



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