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Pillar II for Transformative e-Learning Instructional Design: Challenge


Pillar I Blog: Context 

I’m in the process of preparing for a four-part mini-webinar series where I shine a light on the four necessary pillars of instructional interactivity: Context, Challenge, Activity, and Feedback. Dr. Michael Allen introduced the CCAF Design Model for instruction and it continues to be a foundational idea that informs our custom e-learning work here at Allen Interactions. After kicking off the series with a session focused on Context, I find myself preparing for the next session on Challenge.



Challenge is an idea I’ve talked about for years. Desiring some insights that might inspire a fresh look at this idea, it occurred to me that I might discover something useful if I returned to fundamental definitions. To that end, I consulted the Cambridge Dictionary, and found myself immediately “challenged.”


challenge | verb (TEST) | to test someone's ability or determination

Hold on! This is exactly what I think is wrong with so much of the interactivity (or more accurately, the questioning) that we find in e-learning. The learner is always put on the spot to prove something. Learners are rewarded for getting the “correct” answer and punished or shamed for doing something “wrong.” And this relentless challenging of the learner’s abilities permeates everything, with pretests and posttests (largely meaningless), trick questions meant to obfuscate meaning (“which of these is NOT true”), and a determination to make sure failures are permanently recorded in the LMS student record.

Feeling a little troubled (Might I have been wrong in advocating for all these years that designers challenge the learner?), I continued reading and found that I had overlooked this definition:

challenge | noun (INVITATION) | an invitation to compete or take partespecially in a game or argument

YES! This is exactly it. The CHALLENGE in CCAF is an invitation. An invitation to engage, to be fully involved, to join in, to take part. Not as adversarial as suggested by being tested and threatened, but as a partner. A good mentor challenges a learner to explore, to seek new ideas and skills, and to question their own pre-existing ideas—not to prove them wrong but, rather, to expand their understanding.

It is imperative as designers of custom e-learning experiences, that we create a Challenge (the noun) that is sufficient, intriguing, relevant, and even uncertain enough to earn the learner’s full investment in the experience.

Creating good e-learning instructional design challenges is not actually that difficult once we shed the idea that interactions are not there to test the learner but rather to mentor the learner. When I consider Challenge in this light, these are the elements I always seek to enhance in an e-learning interaction:

Getting the CHALLENGE right is essential for instruction and for creating learning experiences that transform the learner to a position of competence that will carry over into the performance environment.


- Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist


5 elements to enhance custom e-learning Challenges

1. meaning

Is the heart of the Challenge tied to something authentic and meaningful in the sphere of real-life performance? Or is it bound in some artificial construct that tries to distract rather than engage?

2. active thinking

Does the Challenge require an actively engaged mind and purposeful actions? Or does its irrelevance urge and reward superficial strategies or thoughtless responses?

3. complexity

Is the Challenge rich in detail and does it offer an abundance of viable options in response? Or is it overly simplistic with a very narrow and trivial set of possible choices?

4. self-reliance

Does the Challenge encourage the learner to take responsibility for success, figure things out, explore, or take some risks? Are the learners' efforts rendered immaterial by over-explaining, giving away the answer, or by too easily letting the learner coast through without earnest effort?

5. risk

Does the Challenge represent meaningful consequences that focus attention, sharpen strategies, and reflect the true results of performance failures? Or is the e-learning course ultimately indifferent regarding success or failure (aside from the irrelevance of generating a particular score?)

Read More

Pillar I Blog: Context 

Pillar III Blog: Activity

Pillar IV Blog: Feedback

Download your exclusive copy of the 4 Pillars Playbook to create interactive e-learning instructional designs!

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Pillar I for Transformative e-Learning Instructional Design: Context
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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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