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E-learning basics: essay: developing your e-learning for your learners

By Michael Feldstein / September 2002

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In my last article, I made the point that learners use e-learning courses for different purposes. Sometimes they may use a course as preparation for a certification test. Other times they may use it as just-in-time performance support. As I pointed out last time, these different uses of a course are often best supported (or "afforded," to use Don Norman's term) by different interface treatments. In other words, how "usable" a course is depends on what you plan to use it for.

I raised this point at the time because I was trying to outline some research goals for usability experts interested in e-learning. However, the idea has equally important implications for anyone in the position to make instructional design decisions about individual courses or purchasing decisions about learning management systems (LMS's) or other major e-learning infrastructure components. We tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach, acting as if there were one and only one "good" e-learning design approach that works well for all people in all situations. In fact, failing to pay attention to the differences in learner goals can make a huge difference in the level of success we achieve in our e-learning initiatives. Learner goals should motivate how we design our courses, how we present and market them, and how we measure their success.

In this article, I'm going to point out some of the critical issues related to learning-goals by examining two prototypical course design challenges. Both hypothetical courses will be taught with roughly the same content, but for different reasons. My goal is to highlight some of the fundamental yet critical design choices and how to make them.

The Scenarios

Let's imagine that two banks need to provide some of their employees with training about the Patriot Act. (The Patriot Act mandates that financial institutions must track certain information about their clients in order to help detect money laundering that may support terrorism or other illegal activities.) Already, we have some work to do here. More often than not, the sponsors of e-learning courses do not clearly articulate their goals. There are lots of reasons why these two organizations might want to train employees on this content. Maybe they want to raise employees' general awareness so that they are better able to understand the reasons for some changes in bank policy. Maybe they want their customer service representatives to be able to explain the changes in bank policy to the customers. Maybe they want to have all employees pass a certification test so that, should there be any future legal actions against the firm, they can demonstrate that they fulfilled their obligation by teaching the employees proper behavior. My experience is that when training departments receive mandates to create training (online or otherwise) that are motivated by external factors (such as a change in regulation), they often get little or no explanation as to exactly what the training is supposed to accomplish in concrete terms. As we'll see very shortly, this lack of clarity can cause very serious problems.

In our case, though, let's assume that we know what each of our two institutions wants. Bank A wants to train a broad cross-section of their employees to raise general awareness of the issues and to protect the company from legal liability by demonstrating that all employees were properly educated in their legal responsibilities. Bank B wants to train the software developers who create their customer-tracking applications so that the programmers will build in the features that the bank needs in order to comply with the Act.

Given the different goals of these two organizations, Bank A and Bank B will also need to motivate their learners in different ways. Bank A wants it's learners to care about passing a certification test. To put it another way, Bank A wants to motivate it's learners to memorize a set of facts about the regulations. Bank B, on the other hand, wants to get it's learners to develop certain software applications differently than they would have otherwise. Bank B doesn't care what facts the learners do or do not memorize, as long as the software gets designed properly.

Motivating the Learners

If you build it, will they come? And if they come, will they do what you want them to do? The goal of any course is to change the learners' knowledge, behavior, or both. In our particular scenario the courses are sponsored by organizations, not the learners, for reasons that are important to those organizations. So the first thing we want to do when designing any course (in the corporate world, anyway) is think about how we can align the learners' goals with those of the sponsoring institution.

In this regard, Bank A has the easier task. They can simply mandate that everyone pass a certification test and have managers check to see who has passed and who hasn't. Since the behavior you want to encourage is taking and passing the test, and since tracking that behavior is easy, creating a proper motivation is also easy. Bank B has a harder time of it. Suppose that, like Bank A, they decide to require a certification test. Learners will be motivated to pass the test. However, nothing motivates them to apply the knowledge they learned to software development. They have been given no reason to think about the content once they have passed the test. Lacking that motivation, they are likely to focus their attention on the numerous other demands made on their attention throughout the course of the normal workday.

In fact, having a certification test as the primary motivator can actually interfere with Bank B's goals. There are a number of interface choices that are necessarily affected by a certification process—choices like how often it's OK (or even essential) to force the learner to log in, when the learner may have access, how the course is written, and so on. The choices that make it easier to motivate a learner to take and pass a certification test often make it harder for a learner to return to the content and use it as performance support on the job. More on this later.

The best strategy for Bank B is to measure on-the-job performance. First, have the learners' managers share a check-list with them of Patriot Act concerns for their particular projects. Then have the managers and learners perform audits together at various points in the project. The course becomes a means for the learners to achieve their goal of passing those performance audits. Actually, if presented properly, learners at both banks should see their respective courses as aids to perform certain on-the-job tasks. At Bank A, the task that the course supports is the passing of a certification test. At Bank B, the task is writing software that complies with Federal regulations. In each case, the course should be framed as a tool to help learners perform their required tasks, not as a requirement in and of itself.

Helping the Learners Meet Their Goals

Now that we have helped the learners set goals that are aligned with those of the sponsoring organizations, how can our courses help them meet those goals?

The learners at Bank A could use the following support to help them pass the certification test:

  • Content organization that reflects the test's organization. For the learners at Bank A, the course is really a study guide. It should be organized like a study guide, with a "table of contents" (i.e., course menu) that reflects the test itself.
  • Content narrowly focused on the test. Most subject-matter experts care about their content. They care about the details, the history…the minutia. The learners at Bank A care about different things. First and foremost, they care about passing the test. If the content isn't going to be on the test, they are likely to view it as an anxiety-provoking distraction. So it's best to keep content that's not on the test to a minimum and to clearly mark it as "extra credit" when you absolutely must have it.
  • Pre-tests and self-checks. We all understand test anxiety. Pre-tests and self-checks are good ways for learners to find out how ready they are.
  • Competency or learning maps. The traditional roadmaps found in most learning management systems today are designed to help show learners what content they need to internalize. Certification courses belong on those maps.

The learners at Bank B need rather different support:

  • Content organization that reflects the learner's job. For the learners at Bank B, the course is really a giant performance support tool. It should be organized according to it's relevance to specific job tasks, with a "table of contents" (i.e., course menu) that reflects the manner in which the learners would organize them in their daily work lives.
  • Content narrowly focused on job tasks. This course is not about what the learners need to know; it's about what they need to do. In fact, as long as the programmers do their job right, Bank B doesn't care if they remember a single fact about the Patriot Act after the relevant projects are finished. Therefore, the content should be role-based and action-oriented.
  • Tip sheets and job aids. Unless there are specific reasons why certain content has to be memorized, forcing the learners to memorize facts (and test themselves on those facts) is a waste of their time. It's better if they simply had the information at their fingertips. The course provides them with a way of mentally organizing that information so that they know where to go to find it (and that it exists in the first place).
  • Project Portals. You want the learners to think about the course in the context of getting the job done, not in the context of meeting their training requirements. You want them to remember to go to the course whenever they need relevant information, and you want to make it easy for them to do so. Don't put the course in an LMS or a competency map; link it directly off the main portal for the software development project itself.

Tracking and Metrics

OK, so you've identified the institution's goals for the course, you've aligned your learners' own goals with those of the institution, and you've designed the course to address the needs of the learners. Or so you think. How can you tell if you were successful? Tracking and metrics are issues that you need to think about at design time. In addition, the methods that you use should also be profoundly affected by user goals.

Once again, Bank A has an easier time of it:

  • The Certification Test. Obviously, since the certification test is the performance being targeted by the course, then the post-test score counts. You can even look for patterns of wrong answers to see if there are certain questions that your course is not teaching well to anyone.
  • Pre-tests. By adding a mandatory pre-test, you can see the degree to which your course is helping them pass the test by teaching them what they didn't already know.
  • Learner Feedback. Ask the learners how well they felt the course prepared them for the test.

Bank B has a harder time:

  • Audits by the manager. What you want to know is whether the ideas in the course are making their way into the software designs. Have the managers check into this.
  • Page hits. You want to see which pages the learners come back to frequently. This will tell you which pages they are probably using on the job. (Note: if you require learners to log in every time they want to access the course, you may discourage them from using the course in this way.)
  • Learner feedback: Ask the learners whether and how they used the course content on the job.


The assumptions that we make about the course goals drive everything, from where students find the course, to how they log in, to how the content is written and organized, to how managers measure the success of the course. More often than not, e-learning development teams (including the clients and subject-matter experts) tend to think about course design in terms that are appropriate to Bank A's situation. Why? Because Bank A's situation more closely resembles our traditional concept of school. We need to learn something, we take a class, we memorize stuff, we take a test, and then the class is over. However, my experience is that most corporate e-learning is more like Bank B's situation. Organizations are more concerned with how learners perform on the job, rather than on a test.

The best way to avoid the trap of the school model is constantly and relentlessly ask yourself whether each design decision you make will serve the specific, concrete goals of the learners and the sponsors of the course. It's hard work, but it can make all the difference.


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