The principle teaching of Buddha, The Noble Eightfold Path, will lead you to the end of suffering and the achievement of self-awakening.

When designing e-learning, there too, is a need for such a path; a light to illuminate our learners’ minds without weighing down their souls with content. This is our contribution to such a path. It is not perfect and it is not easy; you must squarely face the dark night of the soul as you walk these, the 15 paths to e-learning enlightenment.

1. Collaboration

You must accept that you cannot have all of the skills and knowledge all of the time. You must seek to invoke the wisdom of the crowd who have in turn attained their understanding of the world by standing on the shoulders of giants.

To succeed you must build teams from disciplines outside of traditional training departments. Project managers, programmers, graphic designers, animators, web designers, instructional designers and subject matter experts to name a few.

Working in small teams and brainstorming as a group will increase the fidelity of your learning designs and bring good karma to your project.

2. Subject Matter Expert

A master in their field, the relationship you forge with your SME will determine if your e-learning succeeds or fails.

A good SME is like the ocean. Vast and deep, SME’s are highly experienced with unequalled understanding of their discipline. Your e-learning is like a channel, cut into the land to direct some of that ocean to where it is needed. Without careful controls, the entire ocean will try to force itself through the narrow gap that you have created, rushing forward with the potential to overcome your learners.

Mastery cannot be achieved in a day and certainly not with e-learning alone. To ensure your suffering is lessened, awaken yourself and your SME by acknowledging their experience and their desire to pass on their knowledge. Remind them that your objective is not to train masters but to induct neophytes and that to open the spillway completely could drown those who are still learning to swim.

Refocus your SME by having them teach you the topic. Have them share their anecdotes about their most challenging and most successful experiences. Educate them on the e-learning process and work with them closely as you create your designs and stories. Action mapping is an excellent way to begin this empathic process.

3. The Instructional Designer

A designer of experiences, it’s the instructional designer who ensures that people can actually practice what they are learning in the online space. They know how people learn and what will help them to learn better. For e-learning they should bring experiences with interaction and communication design coupled with excellent copywriting skills. Instructional designers work to craft stories, experiences and interactions that bring relevance and realism to online training. They create the blueprint for the e-learning, whatever shape that may take.

More important than any pedagogical pedantry is the instructional designers’ ability to interview and collaborate with various stakeholders, particularly SME’s. They are the yang to the SME’s yin.

4. Audio

Audio should only be used where it is needed. For reasons of balance and respect to our learners, we try to steer people away from ‘content narration’.

Audio adds expense and weight to your file and has been linked to cognitive dissonance, which reduces the effectiveness of your solution. Restrict the use of audio to where it will have the most impact. The internet is mostly silent and yet it seems to be working just fine. So why is it that as soon as e-learning must be made, everyone thinks they need to narrate to the learners?

There are other ways. Use audio to explain visuals, try providing snippets from your subject matter experts and as a way to expand on bullet points. At all costs, avoid mixing detailed text and audio together.

5. Graphic Design

First impressions. Last.

The reality for many learners is that they’re not willing volunteers, brimming with excitement and willing to overlook any perceived flaws in the course; they’re more like hostages sent to do a course for seemingly arbitrary reasons. An ugly or unpolished looking course will serve to further disengage hostages.

The first impression you make comes from the quality and style of graphic design. Almost immediately it will set the tone and create lasting expectations about the quality and thus the value of your project. That said, graphic design should be the last thing you consider as you begin your journey.

As your team explores content and interviews SME’s, you will discover all sorts of interesting insights, some of which will inspire your e-learning look and feel. Experiment with different types of execution for the same idea, research popular web trends online, investigate colour theory and do not be afraid to challenge the Marketing Department edict that your internal training must adhere to the same style guide as an external communication piece.

The more effort you invest in your graphic design once your learning design has been nailed down, the better your first and lasting impressions will be.

6. Branching Scenarios

The modern workplace requires problem-solving and critical thinking skills to solve new and unanticipated challenges. Traditional training that uses a directive approach, while useful for procedural learning, lacks what is needed to build problem-solving skills.

Immersing learners in job-realistic media-rich scenarios enables them to practice solving problems which would have otherwise taken weeks in the routine of their usual work day to even present themselves, let alone show the impacts of decisions made.

The trick with scenario design is to craft options for selection that are not immediately obvious as correct or incorrect. Branching scenarios work best to bring context and relevancy to the content, and in the real world the right answer is not always obvious. Don’t be afraid to explore the grey areas.

7. Video

Often desired, seldom executed effectively. Video is a great medium if well produced and strategically used with other e-learning methods.

Video is passive and brings no guarantee of ‘engagement’. However, videos can provoke discussions, invite learners to analyse and think, contain smaller chunks of information which are easier to absorb and can emotionally engage people, especially when well produced.

Use video to model behaviours, ‘how-to’ and ‘how-not-to’ and to provide small chunks of information. Most importantly, keep it short. Any given video should go no longer than 5 minutes, generally speaking, the longer the video, the less likely your user will be paying attention by the end.

8. Guided Approach

The 6 Steps To Customer Service, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, The Managerial Grid. All theoretical models that have been designed to explain and visualise.
People have created models to bring meaning to chaos. They are examples that we want our learners to follow or imitate. They can bring harmony and consistency to the way a workforce approaches a certain task, increasing productivity and reducing errors.

Models provide a mental anchor for recall and empowers your e-learning with authority and structure. They are useful because their visual nature is easier to remember than dense text explaining the same concept.

Invent models with your SME or research and adapt existing ones to suit your needs. The models must be applied in the e-learning. Get your learners to apply the model, demonstrate through branching scenarios how it can be used in a workplace context, and strive to sell the benefits of using the model.

9. Work Examples

People want to know how to do their jobs in very clear and concrete terms. We often hear from learners that they’ve grasp the basics of the topic, but struggle with the nuances of ‘how is this applied?’ or ‘what does it look like?’. Being able to judge what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ look like when it comes to doing the task in the real world is a sign of e-learning success. So enlighten your learners. Provide them with plenty of examples and go one step further and have them do the task in a scenario and compare their inputs against your examples.

10. Text

The most ubiquitous and common form of communication. Text has effectively spread ideas for centuries, upheaved governments and changed the face of the world forever with the invention of the printing press.

And yet when it comes to e-learning, suddenly text is seen as some kind of unwanted growth. A long precedence of content-first e-learning still prevalent in the industry has led to beliefs that text cannot be ‘engaging’. To bring about effective use of text, keep your copy concise. Instead of writing content, use a metaphor to help paint a picture.

11. Topsoiling

Your learners want to get in and get out, don’t make them dig, because they won’t. Many e-learning projects begin with pre-existing materials. However, this material is not fit for purpose, or it wouldn’t need to be made into e-learning. Don’t embrace or seek to replicate this material, but don’t reject it out of hand either. Instead seek out the nuggets. There is often gold buried within a 60 slide course that got buried in content. Increase its visibility. Discard the overburden and bring the really good stuff to the surface.

12. Feedback

Use feedback to deliver content. An effective learning design delivers content only when the user demonstrates a need for it. Online, this is through searching and clicking links. In e-learning, it is through making choices in activities.

When a learner makes a poor choice in an activity, this is an opportunity to provide small chunks of content. The learners want to know why their decision wasn’t ideal, so give it to them. Similarly, provide positive, reinforcing content when learners are doing well.

13. Devices

It may seem obvious to catalogue all the devices you want your project to work on, but doing it right is harder than it seems. What browsers do you want it to work on, what versions? Are there different operating systems to consider? Does your LMS work across these devices? What is your IT attitude towards updating software across the organisation? All of these can impact on your projects development time and budget requirements.

The technological side of online training is often one of the hardest things to grasp when you are first getting started. Enlist the help of your IT staff to ensure you understand the implications of all those details.

14. Context

Context provides inspiration. Discover the nuances of where the task takes place and bring these details into your e-learning. It demonstrates to the learners that you ‘get it’; that the e-learning is speaking to their experiences. This lowers your learners resistance to the e-learning and makes them more receptive to your message.

15. Challenges

Enlightened e-learning challenges the learner. It acts against them, forcing them to engage and make meaningful choices and apply them to the situation correctly. People learn through their failures, so long as they’re given help, or in this case feedback.

Start by identifying the things that prevent your learners from doing a task perfectly. Analyse the motivations of the learner group. Use this information to craft agents within your e-learning that act against your learners in a realistic way.


While these are but some of the many paths one must walk when considering an e-learning project, it is these which are most often traversed in the wrong direction, or slowly, or under burden. Remember these dharma as you walk your path to e-learning enlightenment.

Instructional Design