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Completing online training in a park

An eLearning primer - part I

Mark Murrell

The summer issue of Inc. magazine had an article focused on employee training, and different ways to make it more interesting. (I couldn't find the article on their website so I couldn't link to it directly here, but it's in the print edition of the magazine.) The article is fairly short but it talks about different approaches to employee training, across different industries, and does a solid job of introducing different ideas. Plus, with a subheading like "Ditch those cheesy videos and embrace a new crop of high-tech training tools" I pretty much had to read it!

The article covers some basic things that are currently in fashion in the eLearning world - microlearning, gamification, self-directed learning paths, and social collaboration - but it's really more of a teaser than anything else.

However, it got me thinking about all the different tools and solutions that collectively make up the "eLearning" category, and I realized that I've spent almost no time here talking about them. I've been doing these periodic columns for a few years now, and have something like 30 of them published, but it turns out that I barely ever talk about eLearning directly.

Of course, now that I've realized that, I have to do something about it!

As a first step, I'll start by reviewing the major types of eLearning, then dig into the approach we use and why we chose it.

In the past few columns I've referenced a variety of different types of learning interventions - everything from individual job aids to focused, formalized coaching programs that all serve to help improve performance when training isn't the right answer. For the purposes of this column, I'll skip all the different online tools that are available to help with those other interventions, and focus specifically on situations where training is the right answer. Even at that level, there are still lots of different options to choose from.

eLearning approaches can be categorized along two main vectors - synchronous vs. asynchronous, and instructor-led vs. self-paced. The first vector indicates whether everyone learns at the same time (synchronous) or at different times (asynchronous). The second vector indicates whether that learning is directed by an instructor or by the individual learner. Put them together and you have four main approaches:

Synchronous Instructor-led

This is classroom training delivered over the Internet. Today it's most commonly associated with WebEx or GoToMeeting, but the original tools were more focused on reproducing the classroom experience by including things like breakout groups, whiteboarding, polling, and even virtual flip charts. Fun fact - my partner, Jane Jazrawy, was a pioneer in this area, spearheading the launch of the first synchronous eLearning product line in Canada, at PriceWaterhouseCoopers back in 1999.

Asynchronous Instructor-led

This is the model most commonly used in the post-secondary world. The instructor creates a curriculum that runs the length of a term or semester, then students login and complete weekly assignments. The content is primarily text, possibly with some images or video here and there, and usually group projects throughout the term as well. Participants go through the content on their own (but within the established schedule), submit assignments and group projects, then the instructor marks them manually, just like a regular class.

Synchronous Self-paced

In this model, everyone goes through the content at the same time, but the content is designed such that people work independently and control their own pace, without an instructor overseeing it. This used to be more common than it is currently, but vocational schools still use this model pretty commonly.

Asynchronous Self-paced

This model has each student participate whenever they like, and proceed through the content independently. This is the most common model in corporate eLearning now.

CarriersEdge eLearning uses the asynchronous, self-paced model, but even that only scratches the surface. Within that model there are a range of different approaches, from the very basic to the highly complex. The most common ones are:

Basic Slides

One step above PowerPoint, courses in this style are just text and images. Content is broken up into different pages or slides, and may be in lesson blocks as well, but there's generally very little interaction. These courses are often built in PowerPoint (then converted to web format) or directly in a visual web editor like Adobe Dreamweaver.


Before the Internet, Computer-Based Training was the big thing, with courses run from CD-ROM or corporate file servers. These courses were more interactive than their slide-based predecessors, adding audio, movies, and interactions (e.g. click activities, quizzes) to create a more engaging learning experience. Typically built using tools like Asymetrix ToolBook or Macromedia Director, these were self-contained entities that could do a lot from an educational standpoint. However, having to distribute content by CD-ROM meant a ton of ongoing maintenance headaches. (The first paying job our company did, in December 2000 just after incorporation, was burning CBT CDs for a large bank. It was boring, unglamorous work, and I don't miss it at all!)

CBT-Style courses today are delivered over the Internet, but still have the same approach - slides with text, images, animation, movies, audio narration, interactive quizzes, etc. It's a better experience for the end-user, since they get the benefit of the instructional approach, and no one has to deal with CDs!

Flash-based / American-style

A very different educational approach, emerging in the early 2000s, coincided with the maturing of Macromedia Flash as an authoring tool and the prevalence of the Flash player for running content in browsers. These courses get away from the text-on-the-page model and focus more heavily on the audio narration. Instead of presenting content in pages (or slides) they have a scene containing a block of audio narration and some supporting images or video b-roll underneath it. Interaction is primarily in the form of exercises or learning reinforcement tools, so it's a little like watching a news report with interaction breaks at different points.

This approach is known informally as American-style because the US eLearning industry embraced this model earlier and more quickly than other parts of the world. By the mid-2000s most US eLearning vendors were producing content this way, and it remains the predominant model for commercial producers and consultants.


Taking the "scene" idea from Flash-based eLearning in a whole new direction, immersive courses create a completely animated environment and have the student progress through different sections that match the parts of the content. This is scenario-based training taken to the extreme - instead of just having content that talks about a subject, the learner gets dropped into a virtual recreation of that world and explores from there. These courses often include animated avatars that act as guides, effectively providing a virtual instructor. Immersive eLearning is commonly used for things like sales training where role playing is useful, but I've seen it used for project management, medical and dental courses, and physical product training as well.


From immersive eLearning, it's only a small step to game-based learning, the current craze in the commercial industry. These courses are essentially quest-style video games with an educational component underlying them. Different actions provide points, lead to badges, and allow you to advance into different areas. Most of the time now they're also collaborative, so performance is tracked and shared, participants can see how their performance compares to others, and like other social video games they can often chat with other students and collaborate on activities as well.

As you can see, there are a lot of different options when it comes to online training, and widely different approaches. In part II we'll look more specifically at the approach we use for CarriersEdge, and why we felt that was the best fit for the transportation industry.