Last reviewed 10 October 2019

Online learning is cost-effective, flexible and a crucial part of the arsenal for training staff. But does anyone actually learn anything? Laura King looks at what is needed to get the best out of e-learning options.

We’ve probably all been there at least once. You’ve started at a new company and you have to go through the e-learning modules that tell you about company policies such as IT policy, office protocol, data protection, and health and safety. You dutifully do the modules, but you’ve not really engaged. Not really. For both you and the organisation it’s been a tick-box exercise.

Traditionally, corporate training was done in the classroom. Success was judged by bums on seats; rarely was there any sort of feedback; there might have been a quiz at the end, and progressive trainers may have included a feedback form, but that was about it.

Thankfully, training has come on a long way, not least due to the boom in e-learning platforms. This solution to training has many benefits: it is cost effective, you can train as many people as needed in a timely fashion, it is relatively simple to implement and it is easy to track who has done what.

All these reasons mean that e-learning is almost an inevitable part of any corporate induction or ongoing learning. However, does e-learning actually mean anyone has learnt anything?

Downsides of online training

By its very nature, e-learning is less personal. Unlike sitting in a room with a trainer, the computer cannot “see” the response it is getting from its audience, and cannot adapt or change explanations for things the audience don’t get. Although many advances in e-learning, such as intelligent design, webinars or interactive tools, may make e-learning more engaging, they do not replicate the full interaction you will get from active learning in a room full of people.

Moreover, the lack of a trainer means that the training module might not include the most up-to-date information, and it cannot answer tricky questions individuals might need answering. The e-learning module can only reflect a broad spectrum of best practice at any given point in time: as best policy changes and adapts, or personnel have to deal with new situations, e-learning will always be one step behind — something that should not be the case with training delivered by an experienced practitioner.

Perhaps, though, the biggest problem of e-learning is that it is self-paced. Although this is undoubtedly also one of the major benefits, it is very much a double-edged sword. Many of us will want to learn and develop within our jobs and, theoretically, having a training platform available whenever we want is a huge asset.

However, if your manager is asking for something urgently, or a client’s request is taking longer than expected, learning will slowly (or rapidly) sink down the to-do list. Training is often a “nice to have”, and although important, it is often not a high enough priority when competing with all the other things that need to be done. If it does become a priority — for example, you’ll be shut out of a system if you’ve not done it — it often becomes a rushed exercise and certainly not something that you’re actively engaged in.

How to improve online training

So how do you make e-learning a positive tool for change?

The very first step is to make sure that staff have time allocated, and that there is an emphasis on developing staff and giving them the space to learn and grow. Without this, many e-learning exercises are likely to be futile. However, even in the busiest of environments, there are still many things that can be done to make sure that the e-learning module is truly engaging — and with this, comes interest and learning.

Align with the digital experience

Consider for a start how easy smartphones make our daily life. In many cases, technology has worked hard to reduce friction and give us instant reward. For example, one of the reasons people like digital assistants, such as Alexa, is that it makes it incredibly easy to immediately achieve something such as playing music. A couple of years ago having a catalogue of music on our smartphones was already much easier than having to find a CD and go to a CD player; now devices like Alexa make it easier still. Our age of technology means that people are used to getting the information or response they want quickly, without glitches, and without having to spend a long time “getting to the point”.

Take a look at your current e-learning. How does it stack up to the modern digital experience? Are there bugs, is it slow to load, does it contain content that is not necessary? If the answer is yes, then it is likely that it many members of staff will not be engaged.

As part of this, it also needs to be aesthetically pleasing. It is common knowledge that we unconsciously make snap judgments within four seconds of seeing someone new — and, in the same way, any e-learning module will be compared with user experience elsewhere and judged within seconds of being opened. If it looks uninteresting, chances are staff will have already disengaged by the first page. Make it visually appealing, and people will want to know more.

Know the purpose

Have a clear reason and understanding of why the e-learning exists, understand the audience, and then consider the best ways to deliver the e-learning modules. They should never be a tick-box exercise.

There are many examples of good e-learning that can make all the difference.

  • If people are in a rush and need timely training that can be squeezed into a coffee break, look into delivering bite-sized micro modules for on-the-go learning.

  • If staff are likely to groan at repeat training, make the content adaptive and respect what they already know by starting with a test at the beginning (rather than the end) to see what training needs to be prioritised and covered in more depth.

  • Where mistakes could be costly, use scenario-based learning to give people the opportunity to safely make mistakes, and to learn through doing, rather than just being told the “correct” answer.

Make it inclusive

Make sure it’s inclusive. E-learning can be on a multitude of platforms, from phones to tablets to laptops. As such, it’s already a tool that is capable of being incredibly intuitive, inclusive and suitable for a diverse range of people. For e-learning to be effective, access should not be a barrier, and this means that everyone needs to be able to interact with it in a way that suits their needs, eg by making it available via screen readers.

Assess how good it is

Do not use the old-fashioned method of assessing learning based on “bums on seats” or time spent. Repetition can be a good learning tool, but it’s not necessarily a good measurement of learning. Instead focus on whether behaviours have changed, or whether overarching goals are met.


Many managers will rely on e-learning modules to communicate company policy and train staff. In today’s digital world standards are high, and many old-fashioned training modules will fall victim to the same problems as classroom learning: staff will disengage, and although they might have technically completed the training, they’ve not actually learnt anything.

To overcome this, online training needs to meet the expectations of today’s employees. It needs to be:

  • relevant

  • engaging

  • designed with the workforce in mind

  • accessible.