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Go Beyond Busy Work: e-Learning Design with ACTION

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan Edwards

One of the most common complaints I hear from designers of e-learning is that the learners are disengaged and find the e-learning boring. They know this by seeing how strategies for guessing and skipping content are more prevalent than elevated attention. They know this when they see students reading emails while waiting for the e-learning narration to complete. They know this when learners take great effort to get the “answers” from co-workers rather than figuring it out on their own.

There are many design factors that account for failure to engage the learner’s attention and energy, but chief among them is the fact that a lot of e-learning doesn’t expect the learner to DO anything significant – making the course feel more like busy work than an opportunity to learn.

In general, here’s the extent of what many learners are asked to do “to learn”, in my best guess as to amount of time spent, from most to least:

  • Read (without knowing the purpose)
  • Press the NEXT button
  • Move the cursor to a button labeled A, B, C, or D and click
  • Move the cursor to a button labeled T or F and click
  • Click a button to Play audio (or more commonly, mute audio)
  • Click on section labels to get out of whatever is happening now
  • Move a word into an arbitrary region

Of course this is just a generalization, and there are any number of variations on these elements. I challenge you to reread the list and think about what is memorable or engaging or even instructive about any of those elements. In what way do they correspond to the work environment that your learners perform in?

I’ve been consulting in training organizations for almost 30 years, and I have yet to come across a position where the listed actions matter. Reading is the only one that comes close to being useful, but on the job, reading is only done as a means to solve a problem—not as an end in itself. 

No wonder learners fail to connect with the training. They feel the requirements are busy work because, indeed, most e-learning training IS filled with busy work.


There are many ways to try to fix this, but one of the easiest is just to start asking the learner to DO something that feels real and relevant. In the CCAF-based Design Model for creating instructional interactivity, this is the ACTIVITY, or as I like to think of it, the ACTION. What actual physical actions are you going to have the learner do? Discard the idea of learner RESPONSES and instead focus on learner ACTIONS. Responses lack initiative, are passive, and are often not compelling. Actions require energy, initiative, purpose, and intent—all factors in helping learners own the learning process. 

  • Clicking the letter “A” is a response. Examining an image of a malfunctioning piece of equipment and clicking on the faulty component is an action.
  • Dragging a letter to match a corresponding definition in a list of distractors is a response. Generating data and manipulating a software screen to input that data in the correct field is an action. 
  • Reading a description and deciding if it is true or not is a response. Participating in a conversation and deciding when it is appropriate to apply a policy or correct improper behavior is an action.

When I face a new design, often it is the Activity that demands my attention and imagination first. The actions are going to be the most significant thing the learner can easily take away from the modules. If those feel trivial, it matters little what else goes on in the module. 

If you are interested in designing engaging activities, consider joining me for a complimentary webinar from Training Magazine webinar, “Actions Speak Louder than Words” this Thursday at 12:00 PM Central.

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About Author

Ethan Edwards
Ethan Edwards

Ethan Edwards draws from more than 30 years of industry experience as an elearning instructional designer and developer. He is responsible for the delivery of the internal and external training and communications that reflect Allen Interactions’ unique perspective on creating Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational learning solutions backed by the best instructional design and latest technologies.

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