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Michael Allen: Hitchiker’s Guide to the e-Learning Galaxy

Zsolt Olah, Director of Innovation and Learning Solutions at Performance Development Group 

Zsolt Olah.pngThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a story about a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who built a computer named Deep Thought to calculate the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. And the answer is: 42.”

Here’s 42 deep thoughts about Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning (second edition):

Theory + Research + Practice

Someone who grew up on Authorware and pretty much torn apart the first edition of this book, the flashbacks of the author’s life bring back lots of memories… If you’re new to the field, some of it might feel like a trip to the museum with your parents to teach a point. What I like about the book is that it brings together theory, research and practical examples. And the stories from the past illustrate well how technology, innovation and novelty come and go. Learning and people are here to stay.

The Business Perspective

While the book is about how to design and develop effective e-learning, it does start with something much more important than buttons on the screen: the business perspective. L&D is more than courses stored and tracked in an LMS. 20-something years ago my thesis was building an artificial neural network that learned how to add numbers together. On its own. Without an e-learning course. Today, in the world of AI, machine learning, big data and superspeeds, we’re facing a competition. If L&D wants a seat at the table, we must be viewed as a critical player in the ecosystem, and not the asset provider for training.

Experience vs. Presentation

Michael Allen points out the dangers in user-created content without the basic understanding of instructional design. While I agree that we should consider the dangers of handing the tools to the subject matter experts, I don’t believe that L&D will be able to keep up with the speed of change and the cost playing the provider of learning services. Whoever creates “learning” in the future, must understand the difference between experience and presentation. In fact, I would argue that a “presentation” is worthless, unless it’s focused on the experience.

Magic Keys

Personally, my favorite part of the book is exploring the magic keys. Magic keys are essential elements in designing and developing effective e-learning that engages and motivate learners throughout the process. Learners are valuable human begins. So, please! Do not kill them with instructionally perfect measurable learning objectives on page 1!!! Did you notice they list the cast and crew for movies at the very end? Yes, they are very important but that’s not going to motivate people to sit through the whole two hours!

The LFANT in the room

Of course, we’re not talking about a real elephant. We’re talking about Lumpy-Fight-Noway-Terrifying LMS you’re facing. Dealing with a learning management system is often compared to bad marriage. High hopes gone, not easy to dump, too much investment already, full of workarounds and restrictions… Often, those who select, purchase and implement an LMS in the organization, those are the ones who never use it.

Finally: game thinking

Yes, I admit, I skipped the forward and early chapters and read the very last one about games, gamification and game thinking. I was curious what Michael Allen has to say about engagement and motivation in the L&D space.

“Gamifying e-learning doesn’t substitute for an effective instructional approach…”

Backed up by Karl Kapp’s research, Michael Allen explores the pros and cons of using game thinking (gamification and serious games) in instructional design. I often get this question as well: Isn’t adding game elements just sugarcoating bad content? How would adding more noise make the message more clear?

CCAF-e-Learning-Design-Model.pngMichael Allen’s CCAF framework (context, challenge, action, feedback) is the very essence of game design. Combining the vision with Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow, this is a powerful approach that forces instructional designers to shift from content to action. From presentation to experience. Starting with Cathy Moore’s action mapping to nail down the ACTIONS allows us to find the right context, the appropriate level of challenge, the interactive actions that SUPPORT the performance goals, and the positive feedback loop that guides the learner the right directions. And so, game thinking for learning does not start with game mechanics. It ends there. It starts with solid action mapping, clear performance goals and supporting CCAF elements. It’s the EXPERIENCE we strive for and not the content outline.


In today’s world, it’s not enough to take learners from point A to point B. The journey itself matters. The expectations from the ride itself are much higher than early hey-days of e-learning. Novelty comes and goes. Technology comes and goes. People are here stay. Don’t rely on technology and novelty to provide the magic for people. The magic comes from enjoying the ride to the destination, not just simply getting there. And if you do need a guide to the e-learning galaxy for your travels, Michael Allen’s book is a good one to turn to.


Visit my blog for further readings on e-learning, game thinking and other thoughts on how to "Engage the WORL&D!"

Download a free chapter from Michael Allen's Guide to e-Learning: Second Edition > 



CLICK TO TWEET: Michael Allen: Hitchiker’s Guide to the #eLearning Galaxy by @rabbitoreg 

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Zsolt Olah

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