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Embracing the Serious eLearning Manifesto

DownwardTrend Michael250-1

Given decades of informative research on instructional paradigms, human learning, and performance measurement, it seems the burgeoning e-learning industry would have achieved enormous success in bringing each learner to a state of performance mastery economically and as quickly as possible.

Instead, however, it seems the industry continually degrades its offerings—relying on technology for learner engagement and focusing more on content presentation than on learner needs and performance improvement.

In disappointment and frustration and as an attempt to disrupt the current, discouraging trends that have diminished prospects of beneficial impact, the Serious eLearning Manifesto has been put forth to bring attention to the foundations of effective e-learning.  In this blog, I’d like to review the eight values and characteristics of Serious eLearning. Although each topic is worthy of a focused treatise, let’s step through the comparison briefly.

Typical eLearning

Serious eLearning

Content focused
Efficient for authors
Knowledge delivery
Fact testing
One size fits all
One-time events
Didactic feedback

Performance focused
Meaningful to learners
Authentic contexts
Realistic decisions
Individualized challenges
Spaced practice
Real-world consequences


1. Content vs. performance focus.

Perhaps most detrimental to achieving both individual and organizational goals is drowning learners in quickly forgotten content presentations. Typical e-learning does exactly that. Subject matters experts and designers concentrate on presenting exhaustive volumes of information. With development time and resources constrained, learning activities that lead to skill development are given short shrift. This approach leads to minimal outcomes. A better alternative is to narrow content scope and provide carefully selected and sequenced situational practice based on identified, high value performance skills.

2. Authoring efficiency vs. meaningful learning.

Because positive impact is so often assumed and not measured, project managers respond to what is measured; and that’s usually production cost and speed. In a truly odd and iron twist of logic, authoring time has become treated as a more precious commodity than learning time. Yet, a few more authoring hours can result in many less training hours and significantly lowered training costs. In any case, the focus needs to be on providing learning experiences that are meaningful and helpful to each learner; that is, we need to produce effective learning. If it takes more authoring time to do that, it remains a wise investment rather than wasting huge volumes of expensive learner time.

3. Driving attendance vs. attracting learners.

With inefficient and boring e-learning, organizations must often mandate learners wade through their e-learning. The assumption is that if people attend, the goal has been achieved. If they can, learners will obviously opt out of boring experiences, often preferring instead to interrupt another person to get direction—direction that may need to be offered hastily and may be far from the best advice. In serious e-learning, designers work to engage learners who may, because they benefitted so much, become promoters of the training and encourage their peers to give it a try.

4. Delivering information vs. emersion in authentic contexts.

Serious e-learning focuses on the learner and the learning experience rather than on content presentation (which is really more of a publishing activity than instruction anyway). Effective experiences take into account helping learners to identify when certain behaviors are appropriate as well as to perform those behaviors. Beginning with an authentic context helps learners determine the relevance of the instruction. If they can imagine themselves being in such a situation and needing to decide what to do, their motivation to take advantage of e-learning rises and it becomes more effective.

5. Fact testing vs. observing realistic decisions.

A valuable outcome is rarely having learners simply remember facts; it’s usually more important to ensure leaners can make effective decisions and perform important tasks correctly. While typical e-learning is often satisfied with outcomes through the convenience of multiple-choice questions that generally assess only fact recognition, serious e-learning, with its performance orientation, looks to having learners doing things while they are learning to do them and to measuring outcomes by assessing authentic performance. Fact testing is an insufficient and nearly irrelevant measure of progress. Learners need to be challenged to make realistic decisions and measured by their ability to do so.

6. One size fits all vs. individual challenges.

From the origins of e-learning, the primary benefit sought from technology delivery was the ability to adapt the learning experience to each individual in real time—a powerful technique used by mentors, but one that’s very difficult to achieve in a classroom environment. Typical e-learning has a single path, tends to give the same corrective feedback to everyone—sometimes regardless of the learner’s response, and offers no option for accelerating the pace for some learners while providing remediation or extended practice for those who need it. Individualized instruction has not only the advantages of minimizing learning time, but also elevating interest because challenges are interesting, being neither too great or too simple.

7. One-time events vs. spaced practice.

It’s an optimistic wish to think a single touch—a couple of hours, or even a couple of days—will result in significant behavior change, especially when learners have little opportunity to practice. Multiple events with performance opportunities sprinkled through maximize retention and synthesis of new understandings and skills. Ideally, practice sessions are resumed after increasing spans of time.

8. Didactic feedback vs. real-world consequences.

Most of us become used to didactic feedback in school where we are told when we are correct or not. We may not understand on what basis a judgment is made and therefore gain only superficial knowledge. Far more effective from many perspectives is witnessing the consequences of actions. It’s best when learners can determine for themselves what is effective behavior and what isn’t by observing the consequences of alternate choices. 

While the gap between what’s being practiced today and serious e-learning is wide, it’s important to point out that serious e-learning is achievable and more practical than it may appear. The Manifesto goes beyond listing values to identify research-based principles that offer critical guidance to the use of e-learning as a means to better performance, so please read those too. 

We know that there is more effort to building an individualized experience than just passing through a deck of slides, perhaps with narration and quizzes added. But making the transition to serious e-learning is mostly a matter of using resources differently and making better design decisions. We’re already seeing workshops, webinars, and other initiatives to identify practical means of implementation. These are much needed. We hope that soon we will see serious discussions and serious action to revive e-learning back into the powerful learning tool it once was. Please join us, and over 700 other learning professionals in supporting this manifesto. Become a signatory today!

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About Author

Michael Allen
Michael Allen

Michael W. Allen, our CEO, has been a pioneer in the e-learning industry since 1975. He was the innovative force behind one of the most successful authoring tools ever created, Authorware, and our recently launched authoring and publishing system, ZebraZapps. Michael Allen has nearly 45 years of professional, academic, and corporate experience in teaching, developing, and marketing interactive learning and performance support systems. He has led teams of doctorate-level specialists in learning research, instructional design, computer-based training, and human engineering. For decades, he has concentrated on defining unique methods of instructional design and development that provide meaningful and memorable learning experiences through “true” cognitive interactivity. He developed the advanced design and development approaches we have used at Allen Interactions for the past two decades, including CCAF-based design and the SAM process for iterative, collaborative development. Michael is a prolific writer, sought-after conference speaker and recognized industry leader. In 2011, he received ASTD’s Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance Award. In 2012 Michael was selected by The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) Advisory Committee as a recipient of the 2012 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He holds M.A and Ph.D. degrees in educational psychology from The Ohio State University and is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Michael Allen was the director of advanced educational systems research and development of Control Data Corporation’s famous PLATO computer-based education system used around the world. He was the founder, and former chairman of Authorware, Inc. and also the primary architect of Authorware Professional, which was based on Allen’s extensive research on creativity and creative problem-solving. It became a groundbreaking authoring tool combining power and ease of use, and ultimately the industry standard. Authorware, Inc. merged with Macromind/Paracomp to become Macromedia, which was later acquired by Adobe.

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