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The Evolution of eLearning for the Modern Learner

Back in the day, eLearning started as a way to get information out to a large audience, and it proved to be a useful method for tracking course completion. In the early days, it came in the form of a CD-ROM. People would run the disc and go through a course. This was especially useful for learners who couldn’t always have access to an instructor.

But the approach to the early courses were very book-like. We grew up with textbooks, and so the courses offered followed this idea with clicking the “next” button being synonymous with turning the page. You open the course, start in the beginning with a table of contents, work your way through the material, and by the end you understand American history, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or the importance of corporate compliance.

And that’s still how companies often approach e-learning today. It’s something we start at the beginning and go all the way through. And, at the end, we’re supposed to know something we didn’t know before.

There were and are benefits to this approach, if information is your primary goal. Compliance training was an easy candidate, and the book approach to eLearning was a comfortable way to give out information that you could be assured was consumed.

Over time, eLearning moved from those simple page turners to interactive screens and interesting graphics and began to involve the learner in the experience—to a point. That point seemed to focus everything on the concept of “interaction.” If the learner was interacting with the content, they were learning (we thought), and for many years the industry seemed to settle into the idea that if a learner could click something onscreen, they were learning. We’ve found interactive learning doesn’t always translate into actual learning.

The Evolution of eLearning for Customer Need

The definition of eLearning has evolved and expanded due to customer need. Learners want smaller bits of learning? We’ll make it in bite-sized chunks. Learners want communities where they can discuss the learning? We can deliver an online experience complete with conversations in discussion boards.

Instructional designers are addressing these needs and expanding our designs further to answer questions like:

  • How do I create an effective learning experience for different moments in that learner’s journey, such as when information is new, or when it needs to be applied in the flow of work?
  • How do we make learning portable and effective?
  • How can learning be combined and recombined to create new experiences?

One of our customers, for example, thinks of learning like individual LEGO® blocks: different, reusable, pieces of content brought together in various combinations to form customized overall experiences.

Today, as always, eLearning needs to be designed and delivered to meet the diverse needs of the learner. So, what is evolving now? Learners expect to receive learning and information in easily digestible methods “just-in-time” to meet their needs.

eLearning for the Modern Learner and a Variety of Needs

One key way eLearning has changed is it has shifted some of the responsibility onto learners, who increasingly demand relevant experiences. Just as they rely on the internet for more and more information, learners want to be able to control how, when, and where they access the learning needed for their jobs. This brings up the concept of accessibility for all learners. As we learn more about the evolving needs of the workforce, eLearning must evolve to keep pace, and we must bring learning to everyone who needs it.

In response to ever-evolving learner demands, learning professionals are taking a page from other areas such as their marketing partners or technology partners and thinking more about modern strategies to help inform employees where and how to access learning content.

eLearning Is No Longer a Closed System

It has always been the job of an instructional designer to know the learner and deliver what’s best for them. The growth of the learning field means that learning professionals must gain new skills, keep abreast of new technologies, and have a current understanding of the learner (micro preferences, on-the-go mobility, accessibility, etc.).

We used to think our job was to create a course where the learner logs into the learning management system (LMS), moves through the entire course from beginning to end, and then logs out. Learning accomplished!

Instead, let’s consider learning experiences that are closer to a molecular structure, which can be recombined into something else, either through our broader design or by the learner themselves. Let’s take a step back and think about breaking the boundaries and changing the way we traditionally view eLearning as a closed system.

Instructional designers need to think of ways to remove barriers to learning—whether that barrier is an LMS or the limit of our own belief in what is possible. The designer needs to consider ever-evolving goals. It is less about learning information and more about applying relevant, meaningful learning whenever, wherever, and however it is needed.

About the Authors

Judy Lowder

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