The “big five” e-learning pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Interested in e-learning? Thinking of building, or commissioning your own?

Before you do – check out these handy tips to make sure you don’t get caught out by the “big five” blunders.

We use these pointers with our digital learning clients – if you can successfully navigate past all five of them, you are well on your way to creating some meaningful and constructive e-learning!

If you like the look of  my presentation, read on for my (somewhat fragmented) notes from the talk (given at BETT 2010).


I guess the problem we are looking to solve with the “big five” is this:

I have a limited amount of money, and want to get the most effective digital learning possible. How can I make sure that I invest it for maximum impact, yet not fall foul of the endless standards and structures imposed on digital learning?


pitfall 1: The right subject matter, but the wrong learning

Good e-learning is all about the Learning. The ‘e’ represents a great opportunity for enhancement, but it can also distract you from the main game.
Look at the structure of what you are trying to achieve.  Think about the structure of the learning. 

Get to know your learners. What problem is your learning resource going to solve for them? Are they going to do it alone or with support? What devices will they use to access it? Where will they be when they do it?

Ask the right questions at the outset, and you’ll have fit-for-purpose learning at the end.

We ought to be trying to solve the learners real world problem, not push content at them that they might not need or want!


pitfall 2: not making the full use of digital, or even making the wrong use of digital

Higher on Guerra / Interactivity scale doesn’t mean better

The tools and methods don’t themselves make good learning, it’s what you do with them that counts.

examples of this going wrong:
classic mistake 1: “paper behind glass”, batch converting your paper-based course materials or concepts into e-learning equivalents.

This never works – You are failing to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital media.

The flexibility, portability, and community aspects of digital media offer a great opportunity to tell immersive, engaging, contextualised stories in your learning materials. Look for those opportunities and exploit them – think about other ways of adding the ‘e’ to ‘learning’ beyond simply posting documents online

classic mistake 2: focus on pumping up the number of interactivities to make the learning more engaging.

Higher up on the on Guerra (interactivity) scale doesn’t equal better. There is no direct relationship between degree of interactivity and quality of the learning experience – interactivity alone is not enough.

Design an effective learning experience with your repertoire of digital – and non-digital – tools and delivery methods in mind. The tools and methods won’t themselves make learning more effective, it’s what you do with them that counts

classic mistake 3: hoping bling will cover up poor learning.  If all the facts are there, and it looks good people will learn, right? Wrong! All that glitters is not gold. Pouring money into visual glitz, 3D avatars, virtual worlds, and other trappings of ‘high-end’ commercial content doesn’t automatically enhance the learner’s experience. There may well be a better initial impression, but for the learning to empower the learner they need your e-learning to offer them a meaningful learning journey. If good (and expensive) visuals are going to be an integral part of, or genuinely enhance, the learning experience, only then are they worth considering.


pitfall 3: messing up on accessibility and usability

This looks like a great course, but… I’m going to need transcripts for the videos… and why did pressing that button delete all my work?"

The flexibility of digital is a blessing and curse. Done well, digital resources can be opened up to a much wider range of learners, including those with disabilities, than many non-digital resources. And, done well, the experience of using these resources can be a delightful one.

If it’s digital, it’s got an interface, and a poorly-designed interface – or navigational structure – can become a barrier between the learner and their learning. There is a battery of cheap-and-cheerful usability techniques which will help make sure learners spend their time thinking about the content, and not about how to get from one screen to another (and will make sure they won’t lose their work at the press of a poorly-labelled button!)

There’s a wealth of good information out there about making your learning accessible to the widest possible audience. Published accessibility guidelines provide a useful framework for this, but at the same time you shouldn’t necessarily feel constrained by these ‘rules’ – there’s nearly always a way to ensure that a learner can have a worthwhile learning experience in order to achieve their learning outcomes


pifall 4: excluding your champions

Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. It is scaffolded by other stakeholders (other learners, tutors, systems etc). To make sure the learning works, make sure you have thought about these stakeholders’ needs too:

  1. make sure tutors have support / training so that e-learning empowers them
  2. keep the content structure as open ended as possible, to encourage tutors / mentors to remix it into their own lessons.

This second point is critical – if you get it right, you are future proofing your course. Good tutors find ways of using resources in new and different contexts, and if you support them in this (with open structures and technologies) they will help keep the course alive, and adapted into the future.


pitfall 5: Preparing for the unknowns

But it worked fantastically in the labs!

There are loads of seemingly small pitfalls that can suddenly become large when least appropriate: Your college changes their VLE just when you finish developing for the old one. A new browser gets released that breaks your materials. Your learners are supposed to learn online, but can’t get access. They use tiny-screen mobile devices, but the materials require a big screen.

These is no single solution for this, but here is a set of starter questions to keep your eyes open …

  1. Keep all stakeholders informed (Does your tech support team know? and the bursar?)
  2. Use open standards (the more browsers your content run on now, the more likely it will still look good in 5 yrs time)
  3. Plan ahead for mobile learners (remote learning. possibly unsupported. smaller devices)
  4. Is the platform right?
    Are learners (and tutors) ready for it?
    Do courses integrate into your own processes?
    Can you edit the content yourself?
    Do you need to track learners / measure progress?
    How do you contact and communicate with remote learners?


Thanks for sticking with this – what do you think? Could these tips help you? Please let us know if they did – or if you think we have missed something big 🙂


8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning

Tell a story. Make a plan. Think and do. Draw it. Take it outside. Try a new way. Watch first, then do. Share it with others

Humans have a fantastic lack of perspective. We keep trying to solve our own problems, ourselves, without stepping back and looking for help from further afield. Sometimes this comes out as a “not invented here” syndrome. Other-times in niche specialisms that lose sight of the broader cross-discipline knowledge.

This morning I got (yet another) reminder of the huge value of stepping back, and looking further afield. The diagram, below, is part of a pedagogical framework that attempts to model Aboriginal learning processes in Australia. Have a look at the 8ways wiki – it is ripe with ideas that can help enliven teaching even in the most western / urban classroom!


If you DO end up using these ideas, please respect their ethos and give something back to the 8ways wiki … or post a response to my blog and I will collate them!

Making sense of corporate e-learning with Action Mapping

How much information it TOO much when you are creating corporate e-learning?

In the past few months I have ended up in the same conversation often enough with prospective clients, that I felt it may be worth a blog post!

Typical scenario: We meet an enthusiastic member of a large company (often in the HR team) who would like to use digital learning as a tool to help share corporate learning. This is clearly a good idea. But as soon as we start looking at the details, it becomes clear that there is an awfully large amount of information to put across.

This is where the unsuspecting learning designer may foolishly start to design a MEGA course. Or the more experienced veteran may suggest a smaller, more focussed course with supplementary reference material (possibly in a wiki-style for easy updates).

My preference at this point is to use what Cathy Moore calls “Action Mapping”, focussing rather on particular behaviours you wish to change in staff, rather than all the information that needs to be imparted.

As always, her pictures are worth a thousand words – see what you think?

Is this something that may have resonance with your organisation? Talk to us!

Heard of the Learning Score? You will soon!

One of our pet projects going on in the labs is “Learning Score” – a lateral (and we hope creative) way to plan lessons.
We were in the middle of a fairly low key user-trial, but it got “leaked” last week, and all of a sudden we are popping up on tweets and blogs all over. It is great fun, because already we have been sent some amazing feedback, and ideas for future directions.
Stephen Heppell ( took time out to help us spread the word:

Jon Davitt mentioned us during his keynote at the Apple Education Leadership event.
Doug Belshaw and a couple of other bloggers picked up on the trial version, and started sending us some great feedback, as well as posting this lovely intro:

Thanks, all, for the amazing feedback. As well as all the related tweets:

If you want to try it out for yourself, grab a trial version today.

e-learning scenarios made simple

We are loving this presentation from Cathy Moore. She explains perfectly why “scenario based e-learning” is spectacularly more successful than more traditional methods …

Inspiration from India

“i can”

We are loving this TED talk from Kiran Bir Sethi, talking about her work at the Riverside School in India … inspiring her kids, and the entire nation to say “I can”

A healthy reminder us what education is REALLY all about

The Accessibility Passport

No matter how well you plan your digital learning, you can’t possibly know what every user might want to do with it. Or in fact what kinds of devices they may be using to access it.

This is especially true with accessibility, where tutors and learners often need to find alternative routes through their online resources to help students learn from them

Old-school e-learning made this more complicated than it needed to be by not publicising the thinking that went on during development, believing that learners and tutors did not need to know. But accessibility champions have been changing this, arguing that if tutors can understand a bit more of the technical thinking that went on, they can use the materials in new ways.

The Accessibility Passport from JISC TechDis (due to be launched shortly) will offer exactly this – encouraging e-learning development teams to publicise their thinking, outline in-built accessibility features in a resource, and highlight any specific areas which may be problematic for some users. The online passport will also provide an opportunity for learners to give feedback – so that the current e-learning assets can be used more creatively and future resources be developed more inclusively.

To quote the techdis team directly:image

“The Accessibility Passport has been developed to enable a dialogue
between the specifier, developer, tester (including teacher/tutor) and user (student) of software or learning objects in development. By stating the original brief, the specifier can express what accessibility requirements were, or were not, expected to be included. The developer can outline any accessibility features
built in and any user testing undertaken. Crucially users of the software or learning object (teachers and learners) can communicate their experiences back into the development process for future modifications or adaptations.”

The Tribal team are very proud to be part of the early trials, and look forward to its imminent release