38 E-learning traps and how to avoid them

by | Dec 7, 2013 | Articles

Sharing the collective wisdom of 70 delegates at Online Educa Berlin 2013 #OEB13

Typically you don’t go to a conference to hear speakers boasting about all the mistakes that they have made, even though they would probably be the most helpful sessions on the programme. So it was great to take part in the Business EDUCA crowdsourcing event today as part of the Online Educa Berlin event.

70 delegates from around the globe gathered to share the un-shareable- confessing their e-learning mistakes and lessons learned from them. During the event we defined e-learning in its broadest sense any form of learning on-line via the internet.
Charles Jennings from the 70:20:10 forum lead the session but the content came from good old fashioned data gathering techniques – interviews and conversations. Each person was given one of 4 questions to ask 3 of their colleagues which meant that 75% of the participants provided unique insights into each of the 4 questions. The feedback from the participants was captured on notepads and flip charts.
Here are the 4 questions discussed and the lessons shared by the delegates:

What mistake(s) have you made or seen in e-learning design? – What did you learn from them?

1.    Changing tools mid project – make delivery channels clear from the start
2.    Poor conversion from traditional learning such as taking a book and turning into an online page turning exercise
3.    Teams lacking knowledge in production meant they can’t handle tools
4.    Apply classroom pedagogy on line
5.    Too much content meant that the programme lost structure and students got lost– instead use less content or smaller pieces, so students feel good about achievement
6.    Unclear structure results in frustration and confusion
7.    Trying to fulfil everyone wishes – it’s just not possible
8.    Starting too big or too small in vision
9.    Lack of context for the audience as some examples just don’t work across all audiences – instead make examples relevant for local culture
10.    Not learner centred – pushing all learning out rather than asking ‘what you need from us?’
11.    Learning objectives in the wrong place- sometimes it is not good put them first as students might thing they don’t need it – context is important
12.    Lack of usability – instead focus on good interface design, so that the user knows how to use the product
13.    Ignoring feedback from students – involved them up front in design
14.    Creating condescending and patronising content for adults such as cartoons and annoying beeps not everyone likes them – on participant commented ‘ learners are not stupid just ignorant’


What mistakes have you made or seen in engaging stakeholders? – What can you learn from them?

Who are our stakeholders? – Senior management, subject matter experts, instructional designers, End users and more!

Mistakes made:

15.    Missing impact and benefit for individual stakeholders
16.    Not analysing the business and learning need effectively – sometimes the solution isn’t learning
17.    Missing clarity on relevance for individual stakeholders
18.    Lack of involvement with key stakeholders during the production process
19.    Promising too much – e.g. ‘This can work on every browser every device’ but then not being able to deliver
20.    Missing support e.g. subject matter experts are rarely supported enough to turn their content into more powerful learning interventions
21.    Proper needs assessment to be done – will then be more likely to be supported
22.    Cultural differences are not acknowledged
23.    Not reporting back frequently enough
24.    Missing evaluation – no evidence that the programme is delivering
25.    Even with evidence we are not feeding back to our stakeholders (both negative and positive)

Recommendations from the group on how to avoid the traps:

In addition to the obvious, the group also suggested:

  • Consider putting proper project management in place
  • Solve user’s problems rather than add to them
  • Put a proper communications plan in place
  • Consider developing programmes that can adapt to individual needs so that learning personalised rather than push everyone through the same content
  • Involving IT earlier in the process – what can be delivered vs. what can’t

What examples of great e-learning measurement approaches have you used or seen? What about terrible ones?

Bad examples –
26.    No measurement/data gathering at any level
27.    Mistaking measurement for ‘did you like it?’
28.    Happy sheet
29.    Ignoring data gathered
30.    Testing immediately at the end of the programme and mistaking the results for knowledge transfer

Good examples

  • Measuring knowledge transfer rather than did you like it
  • Peer to peer benchmarking where all users see their scores (however there are cultural concerns)
  • Testing regularly throughout to help learning process plus provide feedback on progress
  • Manual and automatic feedback – assessments scored automatically
  • Adaptive testing and personalisation of assessment

Recommendations from the group:

  • Making sure reports are available for managers
  • Rewards and recognition for users
  • Work with business manager to define the metrics that you are looking to change

What is the overall worst mistake you have made or seen in implementing technology based learning, what would you recommend to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

31.    Reinventing the wheel when someone else has already done it
32.    Not facilitating the learning (e.g. (making the time, encouraging manager support)
33.    Offering only one option of where and when to do e-learning – removing choice
34.    No overall company policy resulting in user confusion– different parts of the company with different approaches and motivation and results
35.    Bad, Bad learning design – see above!
36.    Not taking in consideration your audience – mismatching users to levels of comprehension – underestimate and overestimate means they tune out of the programme
37.    Anonymous learning with no identification required – no reporting, who has done what, what progress has been made (editor’s note – this might not always be a bad thing when reporting isn’t necessary but behaviour change is!!)
38.    No clear purpose or requirement at the start of the process- you can’t report on progress if you don’t know where you are going!


Recommendations from the group:

  • Do the opposite!

Final 2 examples

Two final  examples were given from Charles Jennings’s as he closed:

  • Worst example – 26 years ago Charles saw a university proudly show off a new graphical user interface by rendering a book on a HyperCard where the learner could click the page to turn it. Someone rightly asked why not just write book?!
  • Best example was a project that looked at 107 things to do with a broken calculator –the teacher  teach could take away the multiplication or division sign on an online calculator so that children did the calculation themselves. A great example of using technology to support learning in ways that would be impossible before!

Other resources to consider:

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