eLearning 101

By Alix Tumback, B.Comm, CTDP

What is eLearning and Why Do We Need it?

In the last few years, you likely have not worked at an organization and discussed training without someone bringing up eLearning. Frequently citing some of the incredible benefits, you will hear people say:
“It’s so cheap!”
“We can get our entire team trained up online!”
“We can get our employees to train when our systems are down! We don’t need to coordinate a classroom session!”

They would be right! eLearning provides some incredible benefits when it is added to a training curriculum. In this article we will be discussing what eLearning is, the benefits of eLearning and how it can enhance a training curriculum. Lastly, we will discuss how eLearning can act as a tool when experiential, leader-led learning has exceptional benefits that we do not want to miss out on.

Let us Talk the Basics

Traditional instructors may define eLearning as training made available in an online format, this could include desktops, laptops, tablets, or phones. Some instructors that are loosely familiar with eLearning may assume it is just webinars and PowerPoint storage, but eLearning is so much more than that.

eLearning begins by shifting the focus from the instructor and the stories they need to tell to ensure their points are understood by typical learners, to the actual learner. When building an online module, the design is structured with a thorough assessment on what would be the most effective method of delivering information. The end result is successful transference of knowledge and learning outcomes are achieved. Let us begin by defining four factors that will help decide what types of tools to incorporate into an online module. An Instructional Designer must reflect on:

  • What is the nature of the content? What are we trying to teach?
  • Who are we teaching? Who is the target audience? What are they like? How tech savvy are they? What are they used to for training?
  • What is our budget?
  • What technical infrastructure do we have available to us?

Once these questions are answered we can determine what Levels of Interactivity would be best used in an online learning module.

Levels of Interactivity

Depending on each organization, Levels of Interactivity may be defined differently. C4i Training & Technology follows a model that contains four levels.

Level 1: Passive Interaction

Passive interaction is where there is little to no interaction from the learner. Level 1 has a time and place and can be very useful as a training tool. It is why we show documentaries and videos in classrooms. Often Level 1 can be used in an eLearning environment to position step by step instructions or basic concepts that do not require a learner to do much more than recall the information.

Level 2: Limited Interaction

Limited interaction is where the majority of eLearning began. This level of interactivity is what many in the industry would call “PowerPoints on steroids”. Interactions on the module may include simple drag and drop, quiz questions, click and reveal and other simple gamification elements. The learner must engage on a limited scope with the material to complete the module. There are benefits to using Level 2 interaction in a module, recognition and recall are more adequately transferred when a learner begins to actively learn. Active learning is when a learner must be directly involved and interact with the material, while in comparison, passive learning is when a learner will only receive information and has no ability to interact with it. Examples of passive learning most would be familiar with include reading lines of text or listen to a lecture. Level 2 is effectively used in modules that operate as enhanced user manuals or identification exercises like identifying parts in a picture.

Level 3: Moderate Immersion

This level begins to move a learner from active learning into applied learning. Not only does a learner need to engage with the material, they need to critically think to be able to continue in the learning module. Complex drag and drop interactions, stories and branching scenarios are commonly used to integrate moderate immersion interactivity. Frequently learning paths are developed in a “choose your own adventure” format where the learner decides their learning path based on their choices. This type of level of interactivity works exceptionally well when we require a learner to show they understand concepts by making the learner apply the theory in a controlled synthetic environment. Often there is a predetermined set of options the learner can choose from to explore the content. Remember the Matrix? Will you be taking the red pill or blue pill today?

Level 4: Full Immersion

The final level of interactivity focuses on fully immersing the learner in their learning environment. This can be completed using avatars, complex stories, augmented reality, mixed virtual reality and of course, virtual reality. Although level 4 learning is optimal when the learner is virtually immersed in the synthetic training environment, many of the benefits of level 4 learning can occur with a 2D open concept design in a module. Little to no guidance is provided to the learner and for the learner to advance, they must apply the learning they have received. Unlike level 3 where there are set choices and set paths, level 4 can have different outcomes every time based on every decision the learner makes. As you can imagine, this is where that budget factor becomes very important to determining what is realistic for your company.

In summary, each level of interactivity is just as important as the other, each fulfilling a purpose dependent on your four factors. It is not essential for the success of a learning program to incorporate the highest level of interactivity if the nature of the content does not deem it necessary.

The Benefits

When it comes to the benefits of eLearning, the list is long. We will focus on 6 core benefits of eLearning that can be found with well developed, thought-out modules.

  1. Speeding up employee training:
    In a study conducted by Tom Werner in 2001, eLearning typically requires 40-60% less employee time than the traditional classroom setting[1]. The cause of this is learners are now the focus, where previously it was the facilitator or instructor. Learners are provided the opportunity to set their own learning pace, revisit topics that are unfamiliar or skip topics they feel they understand. In addition, learning is available anytime, anywhere – whether the learner is at home or at the office.
  2. Cost Savings:
    Companies no longer need to fly instructors out to groups, or groups to an instructor. Training overhead costs are reduced such as hotel rooms, flights, travel time, food, beverages, and materials for printing. When employees can direct themselves in their training, they often become more confident and therefore, companies can even see a lower employee turnover.
  3. Higher Knowledge Retention:
    Let us take an example of a typical university class. Lectures done by professors are delivered mostly as Passive Interaction or Limited Interaction, this is done based on sheer volume of students and the need to deliver specific information to masses in a specific way. Some instructors can be really engaging by using experiments and props; where the professor starts to engage learners with moderate immersion; however, for the most part lectures are passive in nature. We supplement lectures with case studies and text readings. Theory based text reading is considered passive learning, while case studies are an attempt to immerse the learner into a storyline and depending how they are written can be beneficial – but not for all learning styles (preferences). Most instructors hope and plan for about 30% retention of material, and research has shown about 8-10% material actually gets retained by learners in a traditional classroom setting2. So why does eLearning have a higher level of retention? Some research indicates that due to learner’s control on their learning materials retention can increase from 25-60%[2] overall, simply because they are more engaged. In eLearning, Instructional Designers can target various learning preferences while traditional classroom sessions usually include two (visual and verbal). There are seven learning preferences:
  1. Visual: Visual or spatial learners prefer images and pictures.
  2. Aural: Auditory or musical learners prefer using music or sound.
  3. Verbal: Verbal or linguistic learners prefer speech, writing and words.
  4. Physical: Physical, or kinesthetic learners prefer to use their hands and sense of touch.
  5. Logical: Logical or mathematical learners prefer to use theory and reasoning to develop frameworks to apply to their learning.
  6. Social: Social or interpersonal learners prefer learning in groups where discussion with people is prominent.
  7. Solitary: Solitary or intrapersonal learners prefer working alone.

When eLearning is properly designed and executed, it can target more learning preferences than a classroom setting; therefore, increasing engagement resulting in higher retention.

  1. Increase in Productivity:
    Self-paced learning allows for learners to take breaks when needed, train at home, and learn in their free time. According to IBM Statistics, productivity can increase by up to 50%, their specific findings indicated that for every $1 a company spends in eLearning tools and strategies, $30 worth of productivity is received.[3]
  2. Standardized Information
    The struggle with various facilitators is that there is no guarantee the information is being transmitted the same way every time. Stories are used in facilitation to try and explain concepts, unfortunately, this leads to the focus being on the facilitator and what story works best for them to deliver the message, this does not mean the learner has received or understood the story correctly. Think back to primary school or University, you and your friend both take the same class/course, but from two different instructors, you both start chatting about a particular topic and it turns into an argument because you believe the other person has misunderstood what their instructor has said. It is pretty common! Learners are at the mercy of instructors and the message they choose to deliver, we supplement our knowledge by reading textbooks, case studies and research to get different perspectives on a topic. Finally, we draft our own opinions and ideas by meshing numerous sources and ultimately are tested with a *hopefully* standardized test to ensure we have properly understood the content. As you can imagine, there are lots of ways this can go wrong as we are beginners with information and the internet is full of unchallenged, incorrect information. If developed properly, eLearning allows for standardized delivery of content to ensure the correct message is being heard. The content is reviewed by all necessary stakeholders and confirmed before a learner even looks at it, leaving little wiggle room for misinterpretation. This does not mean eLearning is perfect, but it does reduce the amount of opportunity for error.
  3. Analytics
    If an organization chooses to implement a Learning Management System (LMS), it will have a very powerful tool that can help evaluate progress and performance better than ever possible in a classroom. Data can be provided on how much time a learner spends on each course, even down to how a learner navigates a question or specific content. This helps Instructional Designers gauge the effectiveness of their training and make necessary updates to ensure the intended message is being properly received – the focus is on the learner. All eLearning content can be stored in one easy to access location and training updates can be distributed, managed, and tracked all in one location.LMSs are not just a tool for eLearning, an LMS Administrator can enter data collected from traditional classroom training like test results and attendance. Training reports can be produced in a matter of seconds, showing exactly who has been trained and when.

These are just six of benefits of eLearning. Many more benefits can be identified by organizations depending on their needs.

If you are reading this article and thinking:
“Wait! eLearning isn’t perfect, we do need classroom training, there is just something about being able to learn from an expert – in the flesh. Having the opportunity to debate and bat around different ideas is essential to flexing critical thinking skills. It’s how I learn best!”

You would be right! In most cases, eLearning cannot do everything; organizations cannot transfer all training to eLearning and assume their job is done. There are still excellent benefits to having traditional classroom style training. It just looks a bit different. Let us explore this final topic in detail.

Blended Learning

Blended learning is an approach to training that includes a combination of both eLearning and classroom style training. Let us be clear here, eLearning is a powerful tool, but modules alone cannot replace all types of training. Let us consider the pathway through trade school. Trades require both in classroom time, and hours of experience working in their trade (apprenticeship), the apprentice experiences hands on training under the supervision of a qualified instructor called a Journeyperson. The intent with apprenticeship is to be able to apply theoretical knowledge while having a Journeyperson oversee the work and confirm it is being done correctly. There are weaknesses in the program, should a Journeyperson cut corners or pick up bad habits, and then teach the Apprentice these bad habits, the cycle of bad work can be perpetuated; however, for the purposes of this section, let us assume the Journeyperson is exceptional at their craft. Apprenticeship is a training program that takes full advantage of kinesthetic learning (learners that want to learn by doing with their hands). eLearning does have the ability to incorporate virtual reality, simulators, and other Level 4 training, but it can never fully replace the inherent nature of going on calls with a Journeyperson and completing training through a process of learning called experiential learning. Experiential learning is the process of learning through ‘reflection on doing’. Learners complete a task with the help of someone more knowledgeable and can reflect on what they have done. The simple action of completing the task allows the learner to have a stronger understanding of the material as they have now applied their theoretical learning in a real-world example.

eLearning provides an opportunity to learn the theory and become familiar with the information needed to then move into the apprentice role where they can apply the theory and learn by reflection on their experience.

This combination is not limited to trades, but can be applied to any type of learning from training soldiers in the army to marketing and sales in a SaaS company, we cannot anticipate everything a learner may face in the real world while teaching theory, and it may be necessary that the learner practice the theory with a more knowledgeable instructor.

In addition, the importance of experiential learning is not just isolated to working in the real-world like the apprenticeship program would allow. Classrooms are still incredibly beneficial where safe environments are used to practice skills. Tabletop exercises, role play, and debate are excellent tools to allow for experiential learning in a controlled environment by a facilitator. Facilitators are different from instructors where they are in charge of facilitating a process, providing assistance while learners interact with the material, while instructors are a content resource, sharing the material where learners are intended to simply absorb and not interact (passive learning).

Ultimately, an Instructional Designer must look at the nature of the content, the target audience, the technological infrastructure, and the budget to determine what the best learning path is to have the highest success of transference of knowledge. Blended learning may be the best approach.


Depending on your industry, eLearning may be an exceptional tool or the answer to helping increase engagement, productivity, and overall happiness at your organization. It is not just a fad; it is the future of learning. Giving the control back to the learner is the first step in harnessing the true power of your training dollars and your workforce.

About the Author:

Alix Tumback is a Certified Training and Development Professional (CTDP), working as the Instructional Design and Development Team Lead at C4i Training & Technology.

[1] Werner, T. (2001). Getting up to speed on e-learning. Sunnyvale, CA: Brandon-hall.com

[2] Bowsher, J. E. (1998). Revolutionizing workforce performance a systems approach to mastery. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer

[3] IBM Corporation. (2014). The Value of Training. Retrieved from: https://www.ibm.com/services/learning/pdfs/IBMTraining-TheValueofTraining.pdf

Video Sources

Eckstein, B. (2019, August 09). Navy Reverting DDGs Back to Physical Throttles, After Fleet Rejects Touchscreen Controls. Retrieved May 19, 2020, from https://news.usni.org/2019/08/09/navy-reverting-ddgs-back-to-physical-throttles-after-fleet-rejects-touchscreen-controls