Types of eLearning: The good, the bad and the ugly


Earlier this year, I wanted to run a webinar to help people be able to differentiate between what effective eLearning looks like, and what ineffective eLearning looks like. I felt quite strongly about putting something together on this topic as I personally felt that a lot of organisations where ending up with ineffective training, simply because they hadn’t ever had someone take the time to show them what was possible, and what to look out for.

First things first, I needed a catchy name for the event that people would immediately relate to and give them a sense of what would be covered.

“Top 5 things to that makes eLearning effective” - Urgh, lists are so overdone

“eLearning, know what to look for” - Hmm, nope. That sounds like a public service announcement about a skin condition.

“Know what you’re buying when it comes to eLearning” - I think it’s time for a coffee as things are going from bad to worse.

And then, in a moment of random inspiration it hit me…

“Types of eLearning: The good, the bad and the ugly” - Perfect!

Being a bit of a Eastwood fan and knowing that even people who hadn’t actually seen the movie still knew the quote, I found myself dancing across the keyboard as I put together ideas and material.

Then… disaster!

I wasn’t able to present the webinar as a last minute trip to New Zealand came up. Matt Smith came to the rescue in finishing off the presentation and doing a spectacular job of presenting the material. I was happy as the webinar was a spectacular success, but there was a "Types of eLearning: The good, the bad and the ugly" webinar shaped hole in my heart.

And so here we are, with me getting a chance to put together something which is hopefully insightful and informative; how to tell the difference between good eLearning, bad eLearning and ugly eLearning.

The Ugly…

While I do appreciate the irony of starting with "The Ugly" when I just talked so much about a webinar titled "Types of eLearning: The good, the bad and the ugly", but I feel it’s easiest to get the ugly stuff out of the way first.

Ugly eLearning is the reason no one talks to me at dinner parties when I say I work in ‘eLearning’.

Generally speaking, ugly eLearning is:

  • Digitised content with a ‘learning objectives’ page at the start
  • Visually unappealing
  • There is no content flow
  • Very long and text heavy
  • Audience, language, messages not considered or addressed.
  • Cheap but not cheerful

Ugly eLearning exists due to there being a common misconception that when you take a powerpoint and put it online, it becomes ‘eLearning’. It’ll have no thought given to what the learning objectives are (for the learner, not the business) and no thought about how those can be delivered through eLearning.

Here are a few examples of what ugly eLearning looks like:

money laundering good bad ugly elearning
harassment good bad ugly elearning
personal information good bad ugly elearning

Boring, text heavy, generic, dry and ugly. Yuck!

Why ugly eLearning is dangerous

The danger of ugly eLearning is that from a learner's perspective it’s going to be boring and effectively tell them that the topics being discussed isn’t seen as valuable.

Because we live in a world where everyone is connected and has a good sense of quality when it comes digital and online solutions, your learners are in a position to accurately judge the quality of their eLearning. They will see if their organisation has invested as little as possible in their training and will invest the same when it comes to their efforts in learning the material.

The danger of ugly eLearning is that an organisation will have potentially spent money on something that will deliver negative change.

The Bad…

So, when we are talking about bad eLearning, we are talking about something that is shiny but shallow.

Popular phrases that come to mind when looking at what bad eLearning is are:

  • Clicky, clicky - bling, bling
  • Dancing monkeys
  • Pig in lipstick
  • Rolling a ‘you-know-what’ in glitter
  • Bells but no whistles - I made that one up just then, let me know if you like it.

What I mean is that bad eLearning is taking a piece of training that isn’t great from a learning perspective and then try to dress it up to look better than it actually is.

A lot of organisations fall into the trap of purchasing bad eLearning because all of the trending buzzwords were used when they made the purchase.

Gamification, mLearning, highly interactive, narration, video, interactive activities; all these things are used as our metaphoric ‘glitter’ and to give the purchaser a sense of getting a great solution. But really, the end result will be like a bad action movie; all effects and no story.

Here is a screenshot of a drag and drop activity that looks exciting and shiny as a game show.

bright drag and drop good bad ugly elearning

In this example, the learner needs to drag the names of the companies onto the logos. This is a pretty worthless task, but it’s interactive and it’s bright and playful and pretty.

You often find this in eLearning where activities are used to give the learner a 'break' from the rest of the course. Essentially you're giving them something pointless to do in an effort to distract them from how boring the learning is.

In short, bad eLearning is ugly eLearning dressed as good eLearning.

Ugly eLearning...

Ugly eLearning...

...and bad eLearning.

...and bad eLearning.

See how easy it is to make ugly eLearning look better? Yeah, I know right! Scary.

Why ‘bad’ eLearning is dangerous

The biggest danger when it comes to bad eLearning is that there was most likely an opportunity to create a piece of good learning, but this opportunity was squandered by investing time and effort in the ‘shiny’ interactions and buzzwords rather than creating solution that will deliver real learning outcomes through clever instructional design.

The other danger of bad eLearning is that it can cause a rift between an organisation’s learners and senior management.

From a senior management perspective, they will hear about all the awesome gamification badges, the highly interactive activities and when the look at the first few pages themselves, it will be all about ‘wow’. Based on this they will assume that they've invested their L&D budget wisely and their staff will be more productive, engaged and knowledgeable after completing the eLearning.

Unfortunately for the learners the ‘wow’ wears off after the first 5 screens. Then they are stuck sitting through boring, largely irrelevant and dry content that is regularly peppered with unnecessarily complex and unrelated activities. They will be half asleep about halfway through the course and they will be ‘The Learning Dead’ by the time they shuffle to the end.

Having learnt not much at all but spent a long time doing it, they will have a great big ‘completed’ next to their name in the LMS report.

In the not too distant future management will be asking piercing questions about why productivity hasn’t increased, why innovation hasn’t become the organization's culture and why no one is improving after completing this amazing and costly eLearning.

The learners will not have the right answers.

On the back of this, eLearning will be deemed a waste of time and money and again, I won’t have anyone to talk to, at even my own dinner party.

And finally; The Good…

So now that we have an understanding of what to avoid with both ugly and bad eLearning, let’s cover what ‘good’ eLearning is.

It's actually rather challenging to try and talk about what it is, as good eLearning can take so many forms. If I show examples and talk about what good eLearning looks like, there's nothing to say what I am showing couldn't be bad eLearning.

After some thought about how to best frame what good eLearning is as simply as possible, I’ve decided it can be done by answering the following question:

"If your learner didn’t have to complete the eLearning, would they do it anyway?”

If the answer is ‘yes’ then we are on the right track.

Good eLearning will always:

  • Provides an enjoyable learning experience. (Not necessarily always fun, but enjoyable)
  • Treats the learner as an adult (provided we are talking an adult audience of course)
  • Delivers relatable and relevant information
  • Puts the learner in control
  • Looks outside of ‘eLearning’ for inspiration on design, UX and engagement. Look at what your learners do when they are not being ‘learners’
  • Purposefully and strategically uses gamification, interactivity and rich media used to build learner engagement, rather than as a distraction

You’ll notice that this qualification of ‘good’ eLearning is all about the learner. I haven’t mentioned ROI or Business Objectives or Learning Outcomes anywhere. eLearning should be designed with the learner experience in mind as the first priority. The ROI and meeting business objectives will happen organically if the eLearning is a well designed piece of good eLearning, that the learner enjoys and actually learns from it.

Why ‘good’ eLearning is dangerous

"What? Good eLearning is dangerous? But I thought it was all good and would solve all my problems!" I hear you exclaim.

Well, not quite. There are some traps organisations can fall into even if they have great eLearning available for their staff. Here are two common traps organisations need to avoid.

#1 If you build it, they will come!
While this may have worked for Kevin Costner in that timeless classic ‘Field of Dreams’ (I’ll leave it to you to decide if that is sarcasm or not), it doesn’t work for eLearning.

Even if you have amazing eLearning, it’s not going to be effective if it’s sitting in a dark corner of your LMS and you don’t communicate to your staff why it’s of benefit to them to view it. And sending out an automated email from the LMS is not classed as communicating with your staff.

boring email good bad ugly elearning

Yeah, that’s not going to get me excited about completing my privacy training. I might watch some cat videos on YouTube instead.

You want to spark someone's curiosity. Start building engagement before they have even started the eLearning.

#2 The silver bullet
The biggest trap is that organisations sometimes look at eLearning as the answer to a problem, rather than as being part of the answer. I cover this in a bit more detail more detail in the blog on 5 Assumptions that you shouldn't make about eLearning.

The short version is that eLearning is a tool you use to achieve a result. It doesn’t matter how good the tool is, if it’s not used properly the end result will be far from successful.

Often we see organisations who see eLearning has been effective with certain topics, they fall in love with it and what to make everything eLearning. There needs to be a level headed approach to deciding what will work as eLearning and what should be delivered in other ways.

Usually the best way to use eLearning is to have a solid idea of what will happen once the learning is completed.

  • How will success be measured? (Don’t say completions in the LMS)
  • Who will follow up with the learner?
  • What other learning should be available to the learner to support what they just learnt?

These are questions you have to ask yourself to ensure you don’t end up with eLearning that is a series of individual events, but rather a continuous journey.

So as you can see, when we are talking about good eLearning, we not only have to focus on the course itself but the strategy around how it will be used and communicated.

For me, good eLearning shouldn’t feel like eLearning. It’s something that people shouldn't feel like they are being forced to endure, but rather something they seek out and enjoy. Finally, and by far most importantly, good eLearning makes my dinner parties a lot more enjoyable.

It has been a lot of fun writing this series of posts, and I hope you've all enjoyed reading them. If you have any questions or feedback, please post them below or you can contact me directly.

If you would like to watch the "Types of eLearning: The good, the bad and the ugly" webinar recording, select the link below.