To Produce Effective eLearning, Focus on the Learner, not the Technology

April 20th, 2020

Like children in a toy store, we are drawn to the new ‘toys’ in educational technology. In fact, we are inundated with new development tools, modes of delivery, and varying learning environments. Ultimately, the excitement that these new toys bring, steals our attention away from the “Learning” part of “eLearning”.

Even though experts don’t agree on how to spell or even define elearning (electronic learning, elearning, e-learning, online training, web-based training or computer-based training) it can generically be said that it is a universal term that encompasses all forms of technology-enhanced learning.  

Within the last decade, many elearning programs have dazzled us with the glitz and glamour of their new technologies. However, an over emphasis on technology can undermine use of sound instructional design principles and modern adult learning theories. Designers and developers must remember that technology does not replace good instructional design; it should support sound instructional design.

So, if you’ve determined that a custom elearning solution is right for your organization, and you've completed the Analysis phase of the instructional design process, we suggest that you pause to answer a basic question:

What type of educational experience do we need to provide to the targeted learners in order for them to achieve the instructional objectives?

This seemingly simple question yields a complex answer that lies within an andragogical (the art & science of teaching adults) approach or perspective(s) that will determine how the elearning is designed and delivered.

With the answer to that basic question in hand, you also need to determine the educational approach to reach the goals for the proposed elearning, and apply what is known about how adults learn to the course design.  

This information will drive the optimal learning strategy to one that is truly learner-centered.

So let’s review… below is a familiar classification of educational approaches:

  1. Cognitive Approach – focuses on the cognitive (process of thought) processes involved in learning. (e.g., development of knowledge, recall, recognition, application, comprehension) 
  2. Emotional Approach – focuses on the emotional aspects of learning. (e.g., motivation, fun, engagement, attitude etc.) 
  3. Contextual Approach – focuses on the environmental and social aspects which often stimulate learning. (e.g., interaction with other learners, peer or mentor support) 
  4. Behavioral Approach – focuses on the skills and behavioral outcomes of the learning process. (e.g., practical skills transfer, role-playing) 

Your elearning can incorporate one or several of these approaches. In fact, doing so will ensure that your elearning accommodates a variety of learning styles and situations.

Once you’ve determined the appropriate approach, it’s also prudent to recall and apply basic adult learning theories and assumptions. For example, we recognize that adult learners learn best when:


  • they feel the need to learn and are motivated to do so
  • the learning climate minimizes anxiety
  • they have some input into what, why & how they learn
  • they are engaged and active 
  • the course content is real & immediately relevant
  • existing knowledge is demonstrated or applied


This fundamental information dictates HOW the design process should proceed with the focus remaining on the needs of the learner. These approaches, along with the WHY, WHAT, WHO, and WHERE answers discovered in the Analysis phase of the design process, provide the framework with which to select the technology to support the learning endeavors.

Focusing on technology first typically does not yield the desired results. An over-simplified example might be: if you are training veteran employees on a new assembly line process and recognize that the approach is behavioral or skills-based, the use of a Podcast is not likely to be the best solution nor is an on-line social community. However, if the workers are technologically savvy and the objective is to disseminate a new company policy update, a Podcast might be ideal. Remember, just because you have the technology, doesn’t mean it’s the optimal choice for the learner!

An Instructional Designer’s most challenging task becomes the art and science of blending all of the identified training elements and available technology into an effective elearning program. The ambition of the Instructional Designer and your elearning partner should always be to address the goals and needs of the learner first which will ensure a successful educational experience.

Remember that the newest instructional technology, no matter how sophisticated, is irrelevant if it is wrongfully applied.

“I never teach my pupils.
I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
- Albert Einstein



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