The 10 Biggest Problems With eLearning and How to Solve Them

Blackboard with word Problem crossed out and word Solution above itAuthor: Karen Moloney

We all know that in the world at large, eLearning gets a bad rap.

And that’s not really fair because there are some fantastic online programs out there that not only win awards, but actually get real results for both learners and their organisations.

But let’s keep it real – they are the exception and not the rule.


I often find when I talk to people outside the learning industry about eLearning they will generally do two things:

  1. Roll their eyes, then
  2. Tell you about their most recent crappy experience with eLearning to date.

And it’s not pretty.

But why is that?

What’s going on out there?

I’ll tell you what– and I’ll tell you what to do to fix it.

You’re welcome.

Problem 1: It’s not engaging.

Solution 1: Engage with the people you are educating.

Engagement relies on many factors to work, e.g. content, target audience, motivators, scenarios, delivery mode, design theme, GUI layout – I could go on.

The key to designing great eLearning that gets results, is in asking questions – lots of questions – and then designing a solution based around those answers.

When we delve a little deeper into the profiles of learner groups we generally find a nugget of information; something they all have in common or a need expressed which has flipped our design idea on its head – in a good way.

In the creation of eLearning we are essentially making a new product and taking that product to market – even within an organisation.

No company who produces goods for sale will even start production until they have done appropriate consumer research and deemed that product feasible.

So why do we (as learning & development agents) continually decide what’s best for our learners and then throw products at them without really understanding how best to deliver that information and support them in their development?

Don’t know what questions to ask?

Here’s a template of seed questions to get you started.

Problem 2: It’s too generic.

Solution 2: Make it more specific and relevant.

This comes partly down to Problem 1, i.e. not understanding who needs what, but also thinking that one size fits all is a tragic mistake to make with learning.

I’d take a guess that the majority of the same eLearning programs will be delivered to people in different roles.

While the content to be delivered may be the same, the application of that information and how it is transferred to work scenarios will be different.

Problem 3: It’s too long.

Solution 3: Make it shorter.

We live in (what’s perceived to be by many) a time poor society.

Expecting someone to sit at a desk by themselves and complete 1+ hours of elearning just doesn’t cut the mustard any more.

And we’re all guilty of creating those programs.

But times are changing and we are finding our more about how people learn through cognitive science and digital technology.

It’s time to start thinking about how we can deliver learning to people as and when they need it, in small digestible chunks that solve a specific problem they have.

This type of learning can also occur informally and outside of what we know as traditional eLearning, e.g. QR Codes that can be scanned at the site of a piece of equipment to show a video on how to operate it.

Problem 4: It’s out of date.

Solution 4: Maintain it.

Part of the issue with building big clunky eLearning programs is that the content then needs to be maintained.

There are a few ways around this:

  1. Set a review meeting with the Subject Matter Expert (SME) on a regular basis to discuss changes.
  2. Use external  links to refer outside of the program for content that is volatile and store it somewhere where it can more easily be updated, e.g. a PDF or page on a website or intranet.
  3. Use authoring/content creation tools that can be easily learned in-house so they don’t rely on budget for a specialist vendor to update them.
  4. Consider different media for delivery of volatile content, e.g. a short video delivered via email as part of a newsletter or update on intranet or social learning network.

Problem 5: It delivers content, not a learning experience.

Solution 5: Stop spewing content at people!

This is probably my biggest bug bear about a lot of eLearning – it requires people to read and remember, not apply what they have learned.

So challenge your learners, invite them to try the assessment first, give them scenarios taken from real examples of when things went wrong – LET THEM MAKE MISTAKES! (Yes, I am shouting at you!)

We want them to change their behaviour, not remember information to pass a multiple choice test.


Problem 6: It doesn’t solve a problem.

Solution 6: Ask what problem the eLearning will solve.

When L&D are handed a new project by the business, the one question that rarely gets asked is “How do you know that learning will solve this issue?”

If employees are not demonstrating the desired work behaviours, could it be a management issue?

Could it be an ineffective/out of date process?

Is it a system issue?

I have asked this question on all my projects and in some cases it has resulted in the project being cancelled (not good for me, but good for my clients) or put on hold while the need is being investigated further.

And sometimes they never came back to me because it wasn’t a problem that development of learning solution could solve.

This will always result in a better solution as the outcomes match the real learning need, not the perceived learning need.

This template of seed questions will help identify the problem to be solved on your next project.

Problem 7: You’re using the wrong tools.

Solution 7: Work out what tools you need.

It’s frightening how many organisations I’ve seen that buy the tool and then try and make learning fit into it.

The wrong Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and authoring tools are responsible for a stack of eLearning out there which will never quite hit the mark because the experience that is required for that piece of learning to be most effective cannot be created with the technology at hand.

Ask questions to find out what you really need and then define a clear set of requirements you can use to adequately evaluate and select the right tool – and vendor.

There is an abundance of free and low-cost tools now available that can be used to create learning, online and offline, which will get you better results.

If you haven’t come across Jane Hart’s website C4LPT then I suggest you take a look as this is probably the most comprehensive list you will find anywhere – thanks Jane!

Problem 8: Its been designed by a NID – Non-Instructional Designer.

Solution 8: This should never happen. E-ver.

Just because you know everything about a topic doesn’t make you an instructional designer.

If you are a technical writer, you are not automatically an instructional designer.

If you like using tools to create eLearning, you are not an instructional designer.

Contrary to popular belief, instructional designers actually know a thing or two about how to create a learning solution that will elicit behaviour change.

It is a skill that can be learned and there are plenty of resources available – just Google “Instructional Design” and go from there.

Organisations that do not embrace a culture of learning are most likely to be subject to this issue because they don’t appreciate the value of having a skilled designer on board.

Just because someone is great at creating Lego cities, does that qualify them to build you a house?

Think on that.

Problem 9: It’s technical overkill.

Solution 9: Drop the bells and whistles.

Its true, you can do some pretty cool stuff with the technology we have at our fingertips today.

It has certainly come a long way from where I first started my eLearning (well, CBT at that time!) career of green screen simulations.

But just because we have it doesn’t mean that we have to use all of it all of the time.

With every graphic element or function you include in your design ask yourself – what value is this adding to the learning experience?

If you don’t have an answer straight away then grab some people as they walk past your office, show them and get their feedback.

Or just ditch it.

It’s hard enough getting learner attention and creating an effective learning experience without the added visual and functional distractions we can inflict on them.

Remember – KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Problem 10: It’s too early.

Solution 10: Deliver just in time.

When I started my first real job, way back when, I was sent on a 2 week “Induction” course that went from 9am to 5pm each day.

It consisted of us newbies sitting in a room with a huge folder that our facilitator painstakingly went through to ensure we knew everything about the company and the job we were doing so we could go on the floor “job ready”.

Now, I know things have moved on a bit since then, but in many cases we are still approaching learning with the “feed them up” tactic, particularly in the onboarding phase.

And it just isn’t effective.

What do your learners need, when do they need it and how do they need it?

It can also be far more cost effective to be creating or curating small chunks of knowledge and delivering them at the point of need, which will ultimately give better results.

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