CEO of Easygenerator

150x150xSerious-eLearning-Signatory-line5-150x150.png.pagespeed.ic.DXeP5kemTe (1)This is the second post in the series of 22, that will form a how to guide to the principles of the eLearning manifesto. This is about Principle #2: “Do not assume eLearning is the Answer”. The principle sounds simple; however I think it needs additional groundwork to be able to give an appropriate answer. In order to make it more constructive I want to turn it around and change it into: “Only apply eLearning when it is the most effective option”.

First: What are we talking about? Is e-Learning a formal course or is everything you learn digitally eLearning? Wikipedia says: “E-learning is the use of electronic media and information and communication technologies.” This is much more than a course. In this definition eLearning can be either formal or informal. In this post I want to provide some rules of when to apply a formal course, when to apply a different form of eLearning or even when to apply something other than elearning. In order to do this we need a better understanding of the context and the type of learning you want to apply.

General indications
When you surf the internet you will find some indications when to use eLearning (mostly directed at a formal course):

  • When there is a significant amount of learning to do.
  • When self-study is an option; this requires motivated learners!
  • When there are many participants
  • When the participants are geographical dispersed
  • When the infrastructure is in place (connectivity)
  • When it needs to be more than a onetime event with additional learning opportunities available over time (a hit and run approach with one formal training and no follow up is something you shouldn’t do at all. It is not effective as you will read further on.)
  • When it is cost effective
  • And many more….

The challenge with these kind of rules is that they are very general (and there are so many), that they are quite hard to apply if they are only help you have.

In response to my first post Clark Quinn commented the following:

“Many courses are built when it’s not the best solution. I’d recommend looking at performance consulting, where you only create learning when it’s a skill gap: a knowledge gap suggests performance support, lack of motivation might mean a change of incentives or culture, etc. Courses, done well and right, are kinda expensive, so they should be reserved for when it’s the needed solution, not as the only tool in our toolbox!”

I want to explore this a bit further and will try to put some context around it. Specifically, let’s explore how we learn, and how we transfer what we learn to on-the-job performance. This will help us to recognize when learning is needed versus performance support as Clark Quinn identified. After that we can determine which forms of learning can be used in specific situations.

Different phases and learning needs
We need a model to capture (some of) the context. I like the model of Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson:


Their model has the following dimensions:

  1. Time to competency with the phases:
    1. Train
    2. Transfer
    3. Sustain
  2. Three types of learning:
    1. Concept & mastery
    2. On the job competence
    3. Innovation and continuous improvements

In this phase you acquire a completely new skill or knowledge. It is the phase where formal learning occurs most often. Alternatives are self-study, or an apprenticeship. But in the world of 70:20:10 (70%-learning by experience, 20%-from others and 10%-formal learning), this falls into the 10% of formal learning category.

If you choose a form of formal learning you have the choice between classroom / instructor led training (ILT) or an eLearning program. You can apply the general indications from above to help you make the decision. Please note that you still have to apply the other 20 principles of the manifesto  to create effective eLearning.

The transfer phase makes the connection between the initial learning and being completely competent. It is the phase where you need repetition of the knowledge you have gained and practice (also repetition) to apply it and further develop your skills. Will Thalheimer (one of the initiators of the manifesto) did a lot of research in this field. To learn more, check out his website Will at work.

The green dropping line in the image represents the ‘forgetting curve’. If you don’t use or repeat the things you have learned, you will forget 80% of it in no time. This means we need to identify mediums and deliveries that will bring what is learned to the top of the mind of the learner again, in order to reach the blue curve of full competency. A complete formal course is not an option here, however you can create a number of eLearning interventions that are effective in this phase:

  • Learning nuggets, small learning pieces that are pushed to the learner with repetition of what is learned. It should do more than repeat the content of the formal course; it should focus on application.
  • Repetitive questions.There are tools that push questions with regular intervals to the learner, via email or an app. By answering questions on the topic covered in the course retention will improve a lot.
  • Small games and quizzes. There are many creative interventions that you can create, such as, a competition, a game, quizzes, or meetings on the topic.

In this phase, eLearning can play a huge role in activating the long term memory. Don’t use formal courses, but small attractive interactions.

When you have acquired competency you are able to apply it in your work, but that is not the end. The goal is to maintain your competency and to adapt to innovation as you begin the phase of ‘continuous improvement’. The world is changing so rapidly that you have to constantly acquire new knowledge and skills. As an example: think of all the skills and knowledge you had to learn to be competent on your smartphone or tablet in order use them effectively in your work.

Workplace learning
Is there room for eLearning in this phase? Let’s investigate. Bob and Conrad are there (again) to help us on our way. They teach us that there are 5 moments of learning needs in this phase:

  1.  When you need to learn something new
  2. When you need to know more
  3. When things change
  4. And when you have to solve something
  5. And last but not least, when you have to apply all this

This is interesting and very true. These are learning moments, but the question for this post is are they also eLearning moments?

Clark Quinn
Clark Quinn (another of the initiators of the manifesto) has a model that I tried to capture in the mind map below. He also look at the moments of learning need. The model he created “looks at learning as part of a larger picture of meeting information needs in the process of people accomplishing goals” (read the complete article here).


This model shows that when you are working you will have a learning need whenever there is a breakdown. You need information to analyze it, then you have to fix it and you have to reflect on it, in order to prevent it from happening again. It is only during the “breakdown” that Quinn mentions courses as one of the potential solutions. His breakdown matches with 3 of the 5 moments of learning need: New, More and Change. The remaining moments, Solve and Apply are in the Repair phase. Based on this I conclude that courses are only applicable when people need to learn something New, something more or something that has Changed.

eLearning in the Sustain phase
You can consider a formal course in this phase only when ‘new’, ‘more’ or ‘change’ applies. Don’t forget to check the general indications to see if an eLearning course or another solution would be your best option.

Some other potential elearning or eperformance interventions are:

  • Social knowledge sharing via tools such as Twitter or Yammer. You can ask questions to other people or just colleagues (in the case of Yammer) with a solution for your breakdown.
  • Online help – Some online help systems give you more than just information on how to use the software, but also procedural information and more to help you get on your way.
  • Frequently Asked Questions – Collect questions and answers (for example via Yammer) and publish them in a searchable list.
  • How to guides – Simple instructions on the steps to take when you need to solve a problem.
  • You tube video’s. If you have a breakdown that is not specific to your company you will have a good chance to find an instruction video on YouTube.
  • Search the web and find a solution.
  • Curated content – Use a filter on a web search to identify a specialist, or bunch of selected materials and links (like this post) that can help you out.
  • Ask a colleague (for the learning department this can be a strategy). Train a limited number of experts and have them help their colleagues.
  • ……..

The list is endless. Be creative and come up with more. There are some simple rules to consider here:

  • It is about the work, so the intervention should be fast so it will have the least disruptive effect on the work.
  • Make it simple.
  • Make it context aware. Location, working in a particular screen of an application, working on a specific task, if you are able to determine the context, you can help in a more effective way.

So where does this bring us?
Formal courses can be applied when you have to bridge a skill or knowledge gap in the Train Phase and the Sustain phase.

  1. In all other cases you have to turn to other forms of eLearning or eperformance.

How to convince your boss/client
I hope this post will help you start a discussion with your boss/client on what kind of learning intervention is most effective (if any is needed –see post one)-.

Now you’ll more background when you are asked to create an eLearning solution for a problem that shouldn’t be fixed with (formal) eLearning (a course). I have one simple tip, as a manager myself. Managers don’t like it when they are told a proposed solution won’t work. Because he will lose a solution and gain a problem. As we know, getting rid of problems is a manager’s job and they love solutions. So instead of arguing against the proposed solution, come up with an alternative (or more) and explain why this is more effective. Works like a charm!

This is the end of post 2, only 20 more to go. Please send me your ideas, suggestions, tips, theories or solutions on this topic and the other 21. If I receive this input before I write a post, I will include it (when I think it adds value). When I receive input on one of the already published principles, I will add it to the post and update it.

See the overview article for other published posts of this series.



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