We Know Training - Insights: How to design engaging eLearning courses

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How to design engaging eLearning courses

Online learning, also known as eLearning, is causing a fundamental shift in the way companies manage their employee training. Engaging eLearning courses are replacing classroom-based courses at a rapid pace. Obviously, there are a lot of potential benefits to eLearning – reduced long term management cost, improved trackability and compliance management, and the ability to train large groups of employees en masse in a way that was never possible before.

But what happens when your employees are just “going through the motions” with eLearning course material? How can we design engaging eLearning courses that draws in and engages employees, so they truly embrace and understand the concepts being taught?

Elearning courses need to be designed from the ground up with engagement in mind, with a specific focus on motivation, course content, and instructional design. We Know Training’s in- house instructional designers and eLearning experts understand this need, and we bake it into every course we author as a basic requisite of comprehensive online training.

Motivational factors

If a student doesn’t have motivation, it doesn’t matter if they’re doing an eLearning course or a classroom-based one—the chances of them being successful in the course are pretty low. Since motivation is a key factor for student success, we spend a lot of time determining how to keep people motivated as they are navigating through one of our eLearning courses.

Self-determination theory is a core principle that we use for our eLearning courses. Self-determination theory places motivation on sort of a scale: on the left side, you have amotivation, which translates to a complete lack of interest and caring in the material. On the right side, you have intrinsic motivation, which is a complete interest and willingness to learn. In the middle of the scale is extrinsic motivation, which is divided into four categories that explain different types of motivation. Learners move around on the scale based on their level and type of motivation, but obviously the goal is to keep them as close to the intrinsic side as possible. In some cases, this can be easy, but most cases it’s a delicate balancing act.

The best way to keep learners motivated is to ensure that the course content is relevant to their day-to-day needs. If learners feel that the course is only a routine exercise in checking a regulatory box, they will disengage in the first few seconds. A lot of compliance training makes the assumption that what is important to the organization (for example, limiting legal liability) is automatically important to the learner. But to engage and keep learners’ motivation, training must clearly demonstrate its importance to the learner in the first minute of the course.

In short, keeping learners motivated requires training to be learner-centric, rather than course-centric. Online training providers should have a clear idea of learners’ needs, what is influencing their behavior, what is in their immediate environment, what they need to do, and what prevents them from doing it.

Course content

The content of your eLearning course, and how that content is presented to the learner, also affects how engaging the course is. But we’re not talking about whether the actual subject of the course is interesting to the learner, rather it’s about how the content is delivered and received. This means that you may have to consider things like multiple audiences for the course content.

For instance, in North America, if someone is going to be working around electricity, their employer must provide adequate electrical safety training that follows specific regulations. Therefore, it’s possible that an eLearning course on electrical safety might have to cater to both people who are experienced in the electrical industry, and those who are new, meaning that both audiences would need to be considered when the content in the course is developed.

You’ll also need to consider whether the eLearning course will be a one-time learning experience, or if the information could be used as a reference later on. If it would be beneficial to have the course be used as a reference in the future, this will have to be factored into the design of the course by including an information summary sheet or easy way to navigate to different sections, like a table of contents or index.

One of the ways to make a one-time learning experience more effective is to check in with learners a few months after they’ve taken the course. A simple way of doing this is sending them an email or instant message with a knowledge check based on the initial learning experience, along with the correct answer and feedback. This also provides a measure for how effectively they retained the knowledge in the one-time learning course.

Instructional Design

The design of an eLearning course is the starting point for how engaging it is to learners. By understanding things like the goals of a course, the learning audience, and the motivation factors of that audience, we can build an engaging eLearning course.

One of the ways that we make our courses engaging is by making them interactive. A recent client from B.C. Ministry of Health praised “the way voice overs and other tools [in the course] melded together in a smooth story line that engages the learner.” They also noted that “The characters were all very human and relatable, the voice actors amazing.” Even though the course was about complex legislation, our Instructional Designers utilized the engagement techniques in their arsenal to give learners a great experience.

While our Instructional designers use a variety of techniques to make eLearning courses engaging, some of the main ones are described below.


Gamification combines learning with entertainment by taking elements that you would find in a video game and applying those elements to non-game situations. We use game elements in eLearning course design because it helps learners invest themselves in the course material, since they are having fun.

For example, gamification elements were incorporated into a recent Mental Health Awareness Training Program run by Dr. Yasmeen Krameddine. Dr Krameddine noted that our Instructional Designer assigned to the project “had great ideas for the layout of the course (choose your own adventure) and did an excellent job when presenting this information to different advisory boards and at the many police meetings we had.” The final product was well received by the client and highlights that including gamification elements doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the course, rather it adds to the learning experience.

One of the areas that gamification really shines is with making learners feel like they are in control over their educational journey; gamification can help learners see the consequences of failing and help them figure out how to recover on their own, rather than getting them to redo a question or action until they get it correct. When you figure something out on your own, it enhances your understanding of it in a way that simply memorizing the right answer could never give you.


Assessments do more than measure learner knowledge. Like gamification, assessments help the learner develop their understanding of the course material. The assessments in our eLearning courses are designed to follow the Kirkpatrick model, which helps to measure the effectiveness of a course:

  • Reaction: how engaging and relevant the course content is to the learners
  • Learning: the level at which the learners acquire the knowledge, skills, attitude, and confidence from the course
  • Behavior: how the learners apply the knowledge gained from the course to their jobs
  • Results: the overall effectiveness of the course

Live Instruction

Live instruction is a great way to teach course material, and it’s used in certain situations in eLearning courses. For instance, sometimes eLearning courses are paired with live instruction to create a more blended experience between self-directed learning and instructor-led learning. Live instruction usually happens when some course content needs to be clarified or updated relatively often, and standard eLearning content is paired with a solution like a live or recorded webinar that includes updated information.

Engaging eLearning courses

In order to make your eLearning course engaging, you have to consider how all the different aspects of developing the course work together to achieve maximum engagement for your learners. Engaging eLearning provides a learning experience beyond a boring PowerPoint presentation or a simple online form—understanding how motivation, course content, and instructional design create the foundation for a great eLearning course is the best way to achieve an engaging learning experience that “sticks” in learners minds.

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