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What does good e-learning look like?

Shape the MLearning RevolutionI think we’ve all seen and suffered examples of bad e-learning and I’m certainly building up a pretty good picture of all the ways in which eLearning can go wrong.  But I’m less sure about exactly what GOOD e-learning looks like.  I’m hoping that this blog post will be just the beginning of the conversation and that you’ll comment with your ideas of what makes good e-learning, or with links to good examples.


Shouldn’t we just drop the ‘e’?

One point of view that I’ve had shared with me frequently when talking about e-learning is that the ‘e’ is the barrier.  That e-learning is simply a new generation of learning and that that little old ‘e’ erects all kinds of unnecessary barriers.


I agree to a certain extent – yes, e-learning is learning and we need to apply all the rigour we would apply to learning in this newer context.  BUT we can’t forget the fact that it’s e-learning.  It’s special and different because of the way it’s delivered and we need to ensure that we optimise that channel.  In the same way that you can do banking and online banking and they both fulfil the same functions but in two entirely different ways; you can do learning or e-learning… I’m sure that banks invest a huge amount of time, energy and effort into ensuring their online banking systems are user friendly and effective and the same should be true of all e-learning.  It’s not enough simply to bung some learning materials online.  In my opinion you have to go far beyond simply making learning materials electronic before they can be classed as e-learning.


e-teaching vs e-learning

In physical classrooms, there was a time when it was considered enough to write information on the black board, tell the kids to copy it down and have them learn it by rote.  We’ve learnt a lot about pedagogy in the meantime and these days we would consider that practice to be a form of very bad teaching which was entirely un-learner focused.  A lot of e-learning is still at that stage – in that it is still simply e-teaching – and bad e-teaching at that.  Less enlightened e-teachers simply present slide after slide of information and expect their learners to take it on board in a way that their knowledge of pedagogy would tell them would never happen in the physical classroom.


It’s not just a jazzed up PowerPoint

So we come to one of the key issues with e-learning.  The tools that can be used to facilitate e-learning solutions seem very familiar when you start using them – it’s very much like putting together a jazzed up PowerPoint.  And if you’re not careful that’s exactly what you’ll end up with.  But e-learning should be a far deeper and richer learning experience than that.


Technology as a facilitator

Rather than acting as some kind of strait jacket – forcing you to produce a shallow PowerPoint style experience – technology should be used as a means of enriching and facilitating the learning experience.  When you’re working online you suddenly have access to limitless resources and a whole world of possibilities.  Many teachers are very gifted at embracing technology in the classroom and using it to enrich the learning experience and to really engage learners.  The skill is in bottling that excitement and passion and recreating it online, ensuring that technology enables the e-learner to embrace and explore the concepts being taught.


Engaging and relevant tasks

Creating engagement is absolutely key.  It’s hard enough in a face to face environment even though we have the opportunity to respond to our learners’ responses and tailor our teaching to match their needs and interests.  With a lot of e-learning (though not all) this facility is lost as the learning pathway is pre-prescribed so it’s more important than ever that tasks are engaging and relevant to your learners.  This is a tough job and one that can often be best found through trial and error.  In my opinion, it is critical that e-lessons should not ever be considered a finished product.  They should evolve and change in response to learners’ outcomes in much the same way you would adapt your offline lesson plans.


Tracking progress and tailoring learning

Good e-learning has the benefit of being a bit similar to those ‘choose your own adventure’ stories we all loved so much as kids.  It’s possible to build a wide range of possibilities into the learning and leading learners on a different path depending on how they’ve responded to or performed in different tasks.  In order to implement this effectively, your e-learning package needs to track progress or engagement of your learner in some way.  Then you’ll be able to send your learner in the right direction – this might mean them completing another task to reinforce points which they may not have fully grasped by the end of the current task, or equally it might mean fast forwarding them to a later task as they may have demonstrated that their understanding of this topic is already very sound and doesn’t necessitate the next task in the sequence.


So what does good e-learning look like?

So I guess for my money, I’d say that good e-learning is based on sound pedagogy.  It embraces technology as a means of communicating ideas, adding interest and creating engagement.  It tracks learners’ progress and responds to their needs and as a whole it is in a state of constant evolution.


What do you think?  Please share your ideas and link to any particularly good (or bad) examples you may have come across.





  • Where to start?
    Your penultimate point ‘responds to their needs’ is really almost your starting point. Not every learner starts at the same point, has the same background or previous experience. In a classroom, we can accommodate this by personalisation and group work. It is more difficult online as the learner will often be participating on their own and in isolation, especially in an asynchronous approach. It is useful, therefore, to have a way for the learner to offer some form of analysis or self-assessment of need, both to the ‘teacher’ and to themselves. A successful elearning course would then have different ‘starting points’ based upon this assessment.

    • This is a really good point – what do you think is the best way of assessing a starting point – doing a test or asking learners to rank their own skills and knowledge in an area?

      • There could be many ways, the simplest would be to simply indicate all possible starting points and let the learner pick the one their starting point.
        Generally, I believe that few learners like being assessed or tested; they’d much rather spend the time learning. This is why I am often against the idea of regular assessments in elearning courses. However, asking students to assess, perhaps via a simple quiz, their prior experience and knowledge and using this to indicate a starting point could be useful.

        • Thanks Doug, that’s a helpful suggestion. I suppose it’s important too to allow learners the opportunity to revisit their choice if they find that they’re out of their depth / finding it too easy.

  • Moving fast today so apologies if written in haste but you nail alot of the issues in what you have written above. For me, I’m interested in the tension between what happens on screen and off screen together – the blend of experiences – I am also very concerned about seemless e’ experiences with tidy beginning middle and end that are more about throughput than learning in an open ended way. This obviously then ties in with the debate around ‘measuring’ and ‘check box’ systems that chart completion of an exercise, but pays little heed what the student is left with, and how the teacher follows through… I hope this is useful and not just repetitive of your own…

    • Do you mean that e-learning shouldn’t be seen as an isoloated learning experience but rather as part of a broader approach and that we should be measuring and expecting outcomes beyond that one session (or sessions). I agree that the ticking boxes approach is unhelpful to learning ultimately, it is very easy to build ‘assessment’ into e-learning but I’m not sure how helpful it necessarily is without the opportunity to fully explore the depth of that knowledge – the type of assessment tools available are usually simple multiple choice etc which are unlikely to get to the heart of any issues a student is likely to have. But what is a better alternative?

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  • herrn96

    Enjoyable post. You raise some valid points, in particular about creating engagement. Good e-learning fosters effective collaboration. It brings learners together with an exciting immediacy. When done well, it keeps work relevant and facilitates self- and peer-assessment. The teacher can work more effectively as facilitator.

    I would echo your points about e-teaching and see two challenges. Firstly helping teachers overcome the barrier that e-learning is something mystical that they will never understand. Secondly, never losing sight of the pedagogy: there are too many instances of the ‘toys’ being paraded as the solution to everything. Classic examples are VLEs which are only used by the confident minority.

    E-learning works well when embraced as a concept, a set of rules/expectations that guide development.

    • What do you think we can do to help break down the barrier that the technology sometimes becomes – I agree that this is a key issue that must be tackled.

      • herrn96

        Quick response:

        Setting clear minimum expectations: that all involved need to be able to do, and providing effective, frequent support to ensure the expectations are met by all.

        Creating a learning culture where all are encouraged to experiment with new ideas, reflect on and share their experiences, and be recognised for their efforts.

        As leaders keep the pedagogy at the heart of any work with e-learning: this is a no-brainer, as learning is what we’re all about!

        • Thanks for your response – I especially like the idea of a learning culture where everyone is encouraged to experiment with new ideas – I wonder how this can best be achieved with e-learning?

  • Being a Math tutor, the first time I start teaching a student I challenge the kid with some basic elementary knowledge of his existing class. E.g. if the student is in the 6th grade, I give some examples of fractions. decimals and percentages on a paper and subject him to a written test. Then once I realize his level, I teach the student either going higher than his level or lower than what is known to him. E-learning plays a very important role here. Being a Math tutor for quite some time I surely know that Math is not easily the favorite of any student. So besides the regular topics in Math as per the students curriculum, I also encourage them to play Math online games which tests them as per their level, topics, speed and accuracy.

    I also prepare worksheets with the help of many existing Math sites which gives us lots of goodies to download and make them of our own by customising and editing them. I also make powerpoints slides to explain / elaborate some of the topics which are generally considered a problem area for most of the students by way of separating them into slides/pages etc.

    Lastly, I would like to add that Technology is definitely here to stay and we must take every effort in encouraging it and benefiting out of it.

    Cheers Pooky :)


    • Thanks Vijay – sounds like you’re using e-learning well to engage your students. Are there any particular sites you’d recommend for maths games?

  • “I’m sure that banks invest a huge amount of time, energy and effort into ensuring their online banking systems are user friendly and effective and the same should be true of all e-learning”
    I really really hope that ‘e-learning’ never becomes analagous to the usability of online banking, if so, we’re doomed ;) perhaps more to signing into flickr with a google account, just a few clicks? UX & UI design is incredibly important, especially when you’re conveying information to students, it’s very easy to turn off if the website is boring, then again, it’s easy to turn off if the website is too colourful, for example my own college’s website: It’s an assault on the eyes; to reiterate my point, design to your target audience.

    I’m a student and find Khan academy to be a great resource to learn from, I think that’s a good example of a virtual learning platform, though e-learning sounds quite dated and unattractive in my opinion (as a student). One of my favourite aspects of Khan Academy is the intimacy of it. Sal sounds like he’s sitting next to you teaching you in a friendly jokey manner, also it’s nice not having the pressure of having to ‘please’ the teacher. A lot of sound points are raised in the GEL talk with Mr. Khan –

    • It’s a fair point re online banks but I just genuinely feel that they spend a lot more time and effort trying to make them user friendly than a lot of eLearning… and that’s just wrong!

      Thanks for the links, great food for though especially Mr Khan’s talk.

  • Oh, and one more thing. Listen to your students, they are your target audience and know what they want. If you’re doing something wrong, they’re your best bet of finding out how to solve it.

  • Last month I Googled the term “e-learning” and had 149 million results returned. Yesterday I performed the same search but this time I received 157 million returns. That is a staggering increase in such a short amount of time but to be honest it makes me groan.

    As a company developing online learning, the hardest thing to overcome is the fact that the term e-learning is so polluted. I’m not suggesting that all 157 million returns are dreadful – but a very large percentage of them would be. Who learns from a pdf with a next button stuck on it? Not I that is for sure.

    As for what makes good e-learning, well I think that depends on what type of material you are teaching. I specialise in soft skills (communication, problem solving, coflict resolution, time managment etc). I really believe that these skills cannot be taught via text based material. Soft skills can only be taught in an environment where you can model these skills for the learner. My company uses drama for this modelling. If you have a spare 2 minutes this promo will give you an idea of the kind of e-learning we’re engaging in

    We like to think of it as an immersive television experience.

    Happy to send a free login to anyone who wants to check it out in the flesh.

    Thanks for the article and response. It was a good read.

    • Thanks Tracy, I’ll definitely take a look at your link and might be interested to talk to you further. I’m currently developing a training programme for teachers to help prevent and manage self harm and eating disorders which I hope will be delivered via e-larning but I’m finding it hard to make it as engaging and impactful as I’d like. I know the information inside out but developing engaging e-learning is no mean feat!

  • When this article was published in 2005, there were only 13.5 million results returned… .

    Entitled junk food, junk elearning it makes the comparison (drawn on work from mathematics) between junk food and junk elearning, but also some suggestions based on how games designers thought good online games work.

  • The Marine navigation game and CFT food safety examples here are two examples of good self-paced eLearning:

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  • This is a clip that shows a tool I invented, using technology to demonstrate the value of a variety of learning experiences. (the clip focus on science but I use it in a totally cross curricular way)

    Basically it was born out of frustration with other systems that were meant to aid my teaching, it also takes into account many of the headings listed in your article.

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