How to Make E-learning Course Design Purposeful

According to a study by Masie Center, one of the two biggest factors in determining whether a learner dropped out or completed a course relates to the course’s design; the other being the learner’s motivation. Very often, poorly designed courses make e-learning boring and demotivate learners from completing them. In an article in Learning Solution’s magazine, Gus Prestera shares statistics from a study by Masie Center -  the dropout rates for e-learning were 26.3% compared to just 2.8% for classroom instruction

However, can we blame the medium if we don’t use it correctly? Typically, employees find courses boring when:

  • The duration of the course is too long to hold their attention
  • It addresses multiple learners at the same time - learners are not able to relate to the content, as it is not relevant to their jobs
  • The course has to be completed at one stretch and employees with work pressures and deadlines can’t cope with it
  • Each screen has too much textual content and results in cognitive overload
  • The content is didactic and does not allow employee participation or interaction

Here are some ideas on how we can make sure employees don’t abandon e-learning courses mid-way but complete them with interest and enthusiasm.

Break the course into modules:

Break the course into modules:

The course development & training team at Oregon State University follows a modular course design for their online courses. According to them, this practice saves time, allows repurposing the content according to need, and helps improve student learning. So, if you have long, one-hour e-learning courses, it makes sense to break them down into shorter modules; a set of six 10minute modules constituting the complete course. When employees are hard-pressed for time, short modules seem less threatening. They are not perceived to be encroaching into their work time and can be squeezed in during down time or short breaks.

Provide customized learning options:

In an article in the Educausereview, Peter Smith states that“personalized learning paths that are designed to meet the needs and goals of each learner, can lead to a redefinition and a new understanding of lifelong learning…”. If you have a product training course that was originally 60 minutes long, break it down into six 10min modules. The experienced employee may choose to opt out of some basic modules, take only the final quiz in others, or use the course as a refresher. On the other hand, it would be mandatory for the inexperienced novice - who is just starting out - to complete all the modules. So, it is a good idea to keep the target audience in mind while designing courses. Sometimes, you might have a few common modules across all audiences and certain specialized modules that cater to a particular group of employees. Modules can be mixed and matched based on their learning requirements.

Provide adequate time to complete the course:

Provide adequate time to complete the course:

We know that if we have to devote an hour for a task that is not urgent, it will never happen. On the other hand, it may not be difficult to devote just 10mins a day, may be after lunch when you are not yet absorbed in your work. According to Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning principles, adults prefer to be self-directed and take control of their learning. Therefore, instead of forcing employees to complete a course in a limited time, it is best to give them the freedom to complete it over a longer period. Deadlines are good but reasonable time frames are better. After all, we all know that employees can have emergencies and unexpected work during the course of their jobs.

Another consideration is making the course compatible with multiple devices, which means employees can access the course from any device of their choice.

Be minimalistic with text and creative with graphics:

We love to share everything we know with our learners, but we need to remember to use discretion. When designing online courses, content chunking is very important. Jakob Nielsen, a well-known web usability consultant, writes that people find it hard to read from computer screens. He recommends that we use only 50% of the text that we would normally use in a hard copy publication. Ensure that ‘need to know’ content gets its due in the main flow of the course and ‘nice to know’ content is accessible when needed. Try to transform large volumes of text into animations with voice-over, slide shows, or flow-diagrams that are easy on the eye as well as the brain.

Use a participatory and engaging tone:

Use a participatory and engaging tone

Gone are the days when the trainer was considered a ‘sage on the stage’. This is true even with an e-learning course with a voice over. While discussing the principles of effective e-learning, Ruth Clark writes about the personalization principle and recommends that we use a conversational tone and avatars to increase learning. The text and audio in e-learning should be as though a peer or friend is talking to the learner. A didactic tone, which one usually gets to see in the case of health, safety, or compliance courses, should be avoided. Instead have case studies, scenarios, or animations that employees can easily relate to. Evoke their curiosity with some interactive elements (most of the latest authoring tools have readymade templates with these features).

In short, e-learning is not a bad medium, it is those who don’t use it correctly that make it look bad. Very often, a change in the course design is all it takes to ensure positive reception by employees towards e-learning and their wholehearted participation in the training.


Clark, R. (2002, Sep 10). Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why. Retrieved from Learning Solutions Magazine:

Nielsen, J. (1997, Mar 15). Be Succinct! (Writing for the Web). Retrieved from Nielsen Norman Group:

Prestera, G. (2006, Mar 27). Put the Learning Back in e-Learning - Making it Meaningful, Relevant, and Engaging. Retrieved from Learning Solutions Magazine:

Reddy, S. (2014, Apr 24). Adult Learning Principles! - An Infographic. Retrieved from CommLab India:

Shitia. (2015, Aug 7). Why Modular Course Design. Retrieved from Oregon State University:

Smith, P. (2010, Nov 10). The Coming Era of Personalized Learning Paths. Retrieved from Educausereview:

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