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e-learning – the promise and the pitfalls

Experienced trainer Leah Guren discusses what E-learning is and what to consider when creating your own material.

This article was published originally in Communicator (Autumn 2013). Communicator is the authoritative, award winning, journal for UK technical communicators. It is home to high quality, objective, and peer-reviewed features – current, relevant, and in-depth.

If you are a technical communicator involved in documenting a highly complex product, you probably have had some exposure to instructional design. Instructional design is the process of creating training material. Traditionally, this means creating slides and workbooks by working with the corporate trainers, product managers, and tech support teams. The trainer then uses the material in frontal training, either at the corporate site or at the customer’s site, to train new users of the product.

The world of training has changed significantly in the past 20 years. Increased travel costs, significant budget limitations, and a wider global audience have combined to make E-learning an attractive alternative to conventional frontal training.

But before starting an E-learning project, there are many potential problems that you must address.

Instructional design basics

Before anything else, you need to understand the difference between writing end-user product documentation and writing for training. Documentation is usually heavily task-based, focusing on how to do things. This kind of writing, known as read-to-do documentation, provides the minimal essential details to enable a user to successfully reach a goal; for example, configuring a new printer on the LAN or creating a new user account. Consider the clock on my car’s dashboard. I only need to reset it twice a year (when we go on and off daylight saving time). I can never remember the sequence and combination of tiny buttons. But I don’t need to; I simply turn to the dog-eared page in my owner’s guide (cleverly kept in the glove compartment), read and follow the instructions, and happily forget about it for another six months.

Training, however, is the process of instruction. Participants need to acquire skills, learn concepts, and develop appropriate responses to a variety of real-life scenarios. It is not enough to tell them the bare basics; rather, they need read-to-learn documentation, which goes into more detail about underlying reasons, the theory of operation, tips and techniques, and more. Further, training material is essentially sequential; participants learn in a series of planned units or lessons, each of which builds on previously acquired skills and knowledge. Traditional product documentation, on the other hand, is (and should be) profoundly non-sequential. Consider something such as a graphics application. Using Photoshop is far more complex than a collection of independent tasks. I must learn how to do a long serious of complex actions with even more complex decisions at each step. I can’t just look up individual tasks unless I have already learned enough to understand the overall workflow. More than that, there is a certain skill involved in perfectly airbrushing away those pesky under-eye bags! Telling me how to do it is not enough; I need to understand, practice, practice some more, and apply.

Therefore, any instructional design project requires the technical communicator to know how to:

  • Identify key learning requirements
  • Chunk information into units
  • Build validation (in the form of testing or confirmation) into each unit
  • Create training materials that meet the needs of the instructor.

What is e-learning?

E-learning is a form of training that occurs in something other than a frontal delivery. That’s a pretty broad definition! Some people consider any form of technology-supported training to be E-learning, which further confuses the issue. Every different field of education has added its own acronyms to the mix:

  • CBI (computer-based instruction)
  • WBT (web-based training)
  • IBT (Internet-based training)
  • VLE (virtual learning environments)
  • CAI (computer-assisted instruction)
  •  … and the list goes on.

The point is, everyone has a different idea of what E-learning is. One way of simplifying it is to ask how, where, and when?

  • How: how is the training delivered? Recorded lecture with slides? Video only (no audio) and text? Text and audio (no video)? Interaction embedded within lecture or separate?
  • Where: is the training provided with the product (on a CD-ROM or DVD, for example, so that it can be run independently of an Internet connection)? Or is the training hosted on a corporate site or in a special VLE, such as Moodle or other virtual classroom environment?
  • When: when is the training delivered? Set times for all participants to attend, or can participants do a unit at any time? For live lectures, this is called synchronous training. If self-paced, it is asynchronous.

And the complexity doesn’t end here. You may discover that the best solution for your users is a form of blended learning, combining frontal training with self-paced homework and review units.

E-learning vs. frontal learning

Any discussion about E-learning needs to address the pros and cons of this type of learning.

I’ve been leading workshops, seminars, classes, and conference sessions for over 30 years. There is no question that frontal training offers some compelling benefits, but it also has some disadvantages. Similarly, E-learning is not a perfect solution either.

Getting started

  • Stop and think. I have been training for over 30 years, and while I am a pro at frontal training, I made some serious mistakes during my first few attempts at E-learning. Simply put, you cannot use your frontal training material as-is. You cannot hold the interest or keep the interaction with E-learning participants the way you can in a frontal classroom. You need to take a big step back and rethink the content.
  • Plan smaller units. Each learning module should be small. Really small. Really, really small. More than 20 minutes? You are going to lose participants. If you can chunk content into ten-minute units, you have a better chance. If you can provide no more than five minutes of content before forcing interaction, so much the better!
  • Force interaction. Experienced trainers are used to reading the classroom constantly. We ask questions, move around, challenge participants, crack jokes, and in general do whatever we can to keep people engaged. But with E-learning, you need to build the interaction into the tool itself. Think about embedded surveys, collaboration pages, chat boxes, and other ways of getting your participants out of a passive listening mode.
  • Slow down. Participants in E-learning are not getting the visual cues that help provide context for speech. Trainers need to slow down and enunciate carefully. Whether a recorded session or synchronous (live lecture), limitations caused by bandwidth filters and poor-quality loudspeakers can make it very difficult for participants to understand. This means that as the instructional design developer, you have to further reduce the amount of material per unit.
  • Test, test, test. Your trainers won’t get the instant feedback that they get during frontal training, so you need to test your E-learning units thoroughly. Apply the same principles as those for usability testing.
  • Keep learning. Subscribe to an E-learning or instructional design newsletter. Join a group; for example, the STC (Society for Technical Communication) has a special interest group for Instructional Design and Learning (IDL). They provide their own newsletter and a steady stream of good tips, resources, and a whole community of other instructional design practitioners to talk to!

Table 1. E-learning vs. frontal learning

Learning Issue

Frontal Learning


Class size

Limited to facilities. Classes of over 25 people are also less effective.

Limited only by infrastructure when synchronous training. Large classes are not necessarily less effective.


Travel expenses for either trainers or participants. Potential additional expenses of renting conference rooms or other training facilities.

VOIP or telephone-supported webinar software for synchronous training; almost no additional cost for asynchronous training.


Trainer can instantly see (through body language, expression, and more) when a participant is bored, confused, or just not participating. The trainer can immediately take steps to get the participant on-track and

Impossible to know if someone is avidly listening or just zoning out. Despite the excitement about VLEs that incorporate participant video feeds,
the reality is that we seldom have the bandwidth to support that kind of environment. Trainers have to work much harder to check that participants understand, are on-track, and involved.


Exercises are limited to what can be done right here, right now. Time for exercises is usually set to the average time needed; some participants will finish faster and be bored, while others will struggle to finish and
feel pressured.

Exercises can be self-paced and done offline from the actual lecture (or incorporated with the lecture material). When self-paced, the participant can take as much time as needed. Also, there is no limitation to what can be
done. Participants can be given much more in-depth assignments that requiremany hours, or even days, to complete.


Feedback is immediate but usually verbal. Trainers cannot take the time in the middle of a frontal session to sit down and carefully review all exercises. Therefore, the feedback tends to be more general (for the whole group).

Participants can get automatic feedback in the case of VLEs where suggested answers and automatic correction has been set up. In other cases, homework assignments may be reviewed by the trainer (or even teaching assistants) offline. This allows for much more detailed feedback, in writing, and specific to each participant.


Difficult in frontal training. Administering a live test means taking valuable time from the training, which is often time limited because of
associated travel expenses.

Online tests are easy to create and maintain. A numeric score is a clear indication of whether the participant passed or failed. Some forms of
self-paced learning have validation built in throughout the unit, so that the participant cannot progress to the next screen without correctly answering questions. (Note that this kind of validation is extremely superficial and does not correlate to any long-term learning.)

Participant satisfaction

Varies. Some people prefer frontal learning; these tend to be more gregarious extroverts who thrive in group settings. Others prefer the privacy of E-learning, where they can be invisible passengers. In some cases, the participant’s preference may be based on schedule, motivation, and previous experience with E-learning.


Luskin B (2010), Think “Exciting”: E-Learning and the Big “E”, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, March 2010 www.educause.edu/ero/article/think-exciting-elearning- and-big-e

STC’s Instructional Design and Learning Special Interest Group, www.stcidlsig.org/wp Their website provides an excellent list of resources, including other organisations.

Leah Guren began her career in technical communication in 1980. Her career has spanned a wide range of technical communicator roles, including technical author, editor, tech pubs manager, Help author, usability consultant, and trainer. For the past 15 years, Leah has focused on consulting and training. She has trained technical communicators and engineers all over the world, both in frontal and E-learning environments, though she still prefers frontal training where she can pull faces and toss chocolates. She is an internationally recognised speaker in the field and is an Associate Fellow of the STC (Society for Technical Communication).