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Does Your E-Learning Create Learner Indifference? Try These Five Ideas

By Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist


One of my greatest frustrations as an e-learning designer is how impervious the field seems to be to improvement. I began my interest in computer-based instruction back in 1982 as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I undertook an independent study involving the PLATO instructional system, which had been invented there at the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory.


30 Years and No Improvements?

At the time, the field was dominated by a lot of text-bound page-turners (especially those lessons created outside of the university environment), with a small segment of the design community really pushing boundaries with immersive simulation activities, actual instructional interactions, inter-terminal games, intrinsic feedback, and creative use of media. Here we are more than 30 years later, and not that much has changed. Authoring tools, in general, still are optimized for creating the sort of e-learning that should have been cast aside years ago, organizations choose unrealistic strategies for developing e-learning modules with little awareness of instructional effectiveness, and focus remains locked on delivering content rather than changing performance outcomes.

But while I seem to be complaining about how we need to abandon the past mistakes that still limit us, it was pleasant this week to stumble across a bit of history that reinforced for me, once again, that we at Allen Interactions are on the right track in our insistence that e-learning has to be grounded on the three success factors of:

  • motivating the learner to learn
  • enhancing behavioral outcomes of the training
  • creating memorable and meaningful learning experiences

First a little background. I live in Belleville, Illinois, a small city in Southern Illinois that was an industrial and cultural hotspot in the mid-nineteenth century. The home of the first public library in Illinois, the first public kindergarten, the second oldest orchestra in the United States, and (for any trivia nuts) the location henry_raab of the longest continuous Main Street in the country, Belleville is known to historians as the destination of the so-called “Latin Farmers” who immigrated direct to this region from Germany begnning in the 1830s and failed in farming but succeeded in establishing arts and education in the American frontier. One of these Latin Farmers was named Henry Raab. I happened to attend Henry Raab Elementary School as a child, and was pleased in the oddity but also puzzled by the rarity of a school named for an obscure personage, in contrast to all the other grade schools in town named after famous historical figures:

But Henry Raab emerged from the shadow of history this week in a column in the Belleville News Democrat in which a reader raised a question about the fate of the original school building (it burned to the ground in 1962 and was rebuilt). In his answer, the columnist included more background information about Mr. Raab, than necessary, noting that he served as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Illinois  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Thomas Dewey, etc.and is remembered for the statement:


No instruction is of any avail when it leaves the child indifferent.

I want you to read that again with a tiny word substitution:


No instruction is of any avail when it leaves the learner indifferent.

I can hardly think of a more succinct criticism of where so much e-learning fails. We can get so hung up in arguing details of methodology, or of standards of a corporate template, or use of a particular authoring tool, or of reporting a particular assessment result, that the end goal becomes irrelevant or forgotten. And the result of our efforts is often exactly what this quote warns against: learner indifference.

Five E-Learning Design Tips To Avoid Indifference In Our Learners

I suspect the answer is still the same as it was in Henry Raab’s time:

  1. Make sure that instruction is relevant to the learner
  2. Require meaningful activity
  3. Involve the learner fully to create impactful memories
  4. Reward desired performance
  5. Provide appropriate review and practice

I challenge you to examine your own e-learning in this light. How are you working to prevent indifference in your users? If you can’t articulate a strategy, perhaps I can suggest a visit to the superintendent’s office!



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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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