When people talk about the principles of e-learning design, there's a tendency to speak in bold truisms. These broad-brush statements can sound thoughtful and impressive in the moment, but there's a real peril in oversimplifying every potential consideration into a single soundbite. That sticks in my craw, personally, because it's just not how we do things. We make custom e-learning. That means the instructional design for any project—from the big, fundamental decisions, down to the tiny finishing touches—is tailored to the needs of that audience and that content.
So let's talk about a few e-learning lessons I would strongly caution you against over-learning.
"Always take advantage of the latest technology"
One of the exciting things about working in the world of development is that the landscape itself is always developing. As more programmers share resources and strategies with each other and apply creative new solutions to technological challenges, the state of tech is always in flux. There's a new thing, and then a newer new thing makes the new thing totally obsolete. The fast pace of technological development is exciting, really! But that also means you can really hamstring yourself constantly chasing the newest new thing, all for the sake of newness.
Of course, functionality and fidelity can benefit greatly from more modern technology—and we encourage everyone to leave the past behind—but don't let the cart lead the horse. Does this hot new piece of tech actually help you get to success in a way you couldn't otherwise? Does it actually suit your content in a more robust, effective way than a desktop browser would? Or does it just sound cool?
This often comes up in conversations about mobile learning, which can be the perfect solution for some audiences—and completely inessential for others. Listen to your learners, and make sure you're building training that really meets their needs. Don't let your goals be crowded out by the shiniest new gadget on the market.
"Social interaction makes everything better"
Social functionality can help learners take engagement to the next level: whether it's something as simple as a leaderboard for high scores, or a complex social feed with users issuing challenges, racing to unlock trophies, and curating content for one another. But when we consider these options for a particular project, we like to start with a simple question: Will anyone actually use them?
Many learning cultures are a perfect fit for robust social interactions. Learners who are naturally competitive with one another or who have a drive to share content and help each other learn can dive in and build a thriving social foundation. But the honest truth is that just might not be right for every audience.
Some learners don't want to compete. They don't want to unlock a new badge. They don't even want to share. Sometimes, learners just want to learn. They want to take their training, be engaged, bring their new knowledge back into their jobs, and get to the next thing. Don't just focus on what kind of training your audience needs; think about the environment they'll learn best in.
"People hate to read"
In the e-learning world, I think onscreen text gets a bad name. And sure, I get it. There's nothing worse than a wall of text, deeply over-explaining some simple concept, where just a few words would do. But let's be honest about this: Sometimes, people need to read stuff. Sometimes, the best way to convey information is with words. And not just single words, not just sentences, but whole darn paragraphs of the stuff.
As always, it comes back to your content and your learners. If you're creating training for people who are taking training on their phones or in a busy, distracting environment, it may help you to find places to strip the language down to key phrases and help learners focus. However, your learners may have plenty of time and no distractions, and they may need training on complex concepts that require in-depth explanations. Don't be afraid to let people read.
Furthermore, don't let reading automatically equal a dry, by-the-numbers learning experience. Focus on incisive writing with evocative language and engaging examples. Consider vibrant visual treatments to accompany the text. Think about the news or commentary sites where you read freely, willingly, eagerly. Borrow from the best and let great writing speak for itself.
These are just a few of the things you'll hear thrown around from time to time when people talk e-learning. It's important to focus on what's right for your project—and don't be afraid to challenge assumptions in the process.