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No More Slimy e-Learning

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategistIt’s been a strange growing season here in Southern Illinois…with too much rain followed by drought, by a too cool summer and too warm autumn…so that everything in the garden is a little off schedule.  The result is that I am enjoying a bumper harvest of okra in October, when normally production would have trickled to nearly nothing by this time in any other year.

Yes, I said okra.  For some of you, that may have immediately sent you salivating in anticipation; probably for more of you, your reaction was “Yuck!”  Clearly, I’m in the former camp.  I could eat okra at every meal and not tire of it.  Okra’s detractors, though, claim that it’s “slimy.”  Yes it can be slimy.  If you (over)boil it just as one might with peas or corn, it can certainly be unappealing.  But with just a little care it need not be that way at all.  Unfortunately, it is hard to counter habits and direct experiences.  Without any better example to follow, cooks often prepare okra as slimy dishes.  “That’s just the way okra is!” they claim as an excuse.  Diners either refuse it or push it to the side of their plate long enough to get through the end of a meal.  But there’s nothing wrong with the okra.  It gets blamed simply because of our unwillingness to address its special (but not necessarily difficult) preparation requirements.

The training world has done the same thing with e-learning.  You can look at some of our e-learning demos and those of other e-learning developers as well and see that e-learning can be fascinating, life-changing, empowering, and as I like to aim for—irresistible.  But if you look at the perspective of many e-learning students (and also many e-learning practitioners) you’ll find an overwhelming number who view e-learning with distrust, resistance, and avoidance.  It isn’t e-learning’s fault.  The problem is that poorly-designed e-learning is dished up regularly—so much so that even experts can become resigned to mediocrity.  (As a parallel back to the case of okra, this should be familiar to any of you who watch Top Chef.  Host Tom Colicchio regularly rails against okra as slimy.  It’s disappointing that someone who should otherwise be diligent in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of all sorts of food is willing to be so lazy in accepting an uninformed position.  He’s free to dislike okra, but it’s dangerous to dismiss it out of hand by misrepresentation.)  I frequently encounter designers, administrators, and leading software companies validating really bad models of e-learning who are satisfied with delivering distasteful e-learning with the excuse, “Hey what do you expect, it’s compliance training?” 


OkraDeveloping e-learning requires a realignment of the design priorities we’ve grown comfortable (or maybe complacent?) with in designing for classroom training or other modalities. 

For e-learning, one MUST…

  • account for how the lesson itself will motivate the learner to fully engage in activities
  •  very carefully think of the behaviors that can be suggested by clever design, circumventing the traps laid by most authoring systems to suggest that simplistic A-B-C-D multiple choice trivia questioning is an appropriate way to rehearse and practice new skills for optimal retention and transfer
  •  create memorable and meaningful experiences—interactions that highlight the considerable value embodied in the performance outcomes rather than hide beneath the banal surface of seemingly irrelevant content

And for new e-learners, we simply may need to do some marketing.  “I know you hate this, but you have to eat this okra…or no dessert!” or “You are required to complete this three-hour e-learning prior to your annual performance evaluation/salary increase.”  There’s really not much difference in these statements, and it’s equally silly to imagine either as a particularly useful avenue to success.  Instead, first make sure you’ve created an attractive product—then connect your learners to elements that they might care about―direct usefulness, real-world relevance, short completion times, learner-centered focus, etc.  Model appropriate behavior—have managers and supervisors complete training along with their direct reports.  (I was dumbfounded to learn from a large client that they actually created two versions of an annual training program.  The first was traditional e-learning for the bulk of the employees; the second was a quick hit PowerPoint deck that was for the executives because they couldn’t be bothered to sit through what they were forcing on the employees!)

With a tiny bit of care, e-learning can be the highly-sought centerpiece of your training initiatives rather than the required but undesired side dish.

And as a post script, if any of you are tempted to give okra another try, here’s a suggestion for an irresistible okra dish:

Stewed Tomatoes and Okra 

Cut fresh okra crosswise into roughly ½” disks.  Scald and peel a roughly equivalent quantity of fresh ripe tomatoes.  Cut the tomatoes into chunks and combine with a small-medium onion cut in slices and some salt and pepper.  Heat the tomatoes over low heat.  When enough water has been drawn from the tomatoes so there is no danger of burning, bring the tomatoes to a boil for about 10 minutes.  Add the okra and cook just long enough for the okra to be tender—about 8 minutes or so.  Just don’t over cook it.  Add a tablespoon or so of sugar and serve it up.  Serve it with some fried catfish, boiled potatoes, and coleslaw and you’ll have a truly memorable feast.

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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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Allen Interactions and New York Life Win 2 Brandon Hall Group HCM Excellence in Learning Awards
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