The Problems with eLearning (and how to fix them)

Don’t get me wrong – online courses are nothing short of miraculous. Now is the best time in human history to learn. The barriers for entry have crumbled down – cost, geography and schedule conflicts have all been banished to the Realm of Solved Problems. Anyone with an internet connection can learn at a university-level at their own pace. Ten years ago, this was a dream, a promise. Today, it is mere reality.

We have solved the impossible problems of delivering education to everyone. Yet, most educators are still stuck on the easy ones.

Let’s take a look at Coursera. On their About page, they say:

“That’s why we designed our platform based on proven teaching methods verified by top researchers.”

Sure enough, the principles they follow are effective. Peer assessment is an especially effective technique when it’s done right. When learners grade each other, it exposes them to different perspectives, new approaches and common mistakes. The course forums are excellent for this reason as well.

So it’s not all bad. But Coursera falls well short of even basic learning principles. I’m going to pick on the Data Science Specialisation from John Hopkins University. Before I do, let me say that the content of this program is excellent. The fact that it is free (or cheap, if you want the certification) is a sign of how incredible technology can be. I worked through most of the specialisation and got a lot out of it, so I say this out of love.

The courses are terrible. They are awful. As good as the content is, I’m amazed anyone learns any of it.

Most of the courses are structured the same. Each week has hours and hours of videos. These videos are a talking head bombarding you with huge volumes of content. There’s the occasional demonstration. In other words, it’s just like those face-to-face lectures you used to dread, now available in your own home.

Sure, it’s a recording, so you can pause, rewind or skip at any time (another miracle of technology). But reviewing the same confusing spray of contextless theory only helps so much.

Adults learn best when we can see the relevance of material, relate it to our experiences, engage with the concepts and share our thoughts with others. This is why you don’t remember anything from those traditional lecturers from university. Lecturers that talked at you until the clock ran out taught you nothing. So why on earth did Coursera import that model to the internet? It’s 19th century teaching over 21st century platforms.

Each week of the Data Science Specialisation ends with a quiz, which is a nice chance to review the content. There’s also a (peer-reviewed) assessment per course. This is great, except half the time you realise you learned nothing from a topic. One that you watched 40 minutes of videos on.

What a waste of time.

It’s true that some concepts are hard to understand. It’s also true that the content has to engage the learner. If the learner has to force their brain to pay attention, the content won’t make any impression. Think about it this way: the learner needs all their mental energy to process and understand new ideas. The more effort it takes to stay focused, the less is left over for learning it.

At least Coursera makes an effort to follow adult learning principles. PluralSight, which needs a paid account to access, is even worse. Most of the courses I’ve looked at are pure theory. A disembodied voice sprays words at you while a PowerPoint presentation plays. Although PluralSight courses have the option to include quizzes and activities, most don’t.

Again, the content is excellent. But who cares when the delivery is neurologically optimised to be ignored and forgotten?

A Better Class of eLearning

On these platforms, some courses rise above the others. Learning How to Learn is an example of a course that teaches. The delivery is well thought out. It’s designed to make the material as memorable and engaging as possible. It’s easy to stay focused during the videos. It’s easy to understand, recall and apply the concepts.

What can we learn from the best of these courses? We learn that eLearning works when:

The material engages your emotions. Maybe you can’t stimulate love for the concepts. Maybe using fear and anger aren’t great ideas. But it can be as simple as a touch of surprise and humour. Representing the formula for acceleration with a skydiving donkey works because your brain isn’t expecting it. Your brain is constantly predicting the future – when something violates that prediction, it pays extra attention.

The material is relevant to your life. We’ve all struggled to learn something. When someone explains why you struggled and what to do about it, it’s hard to ignore.

The material is time-effective. If your course includes five hours of video per week, maybe the learners will watch an hour a day. More likely, they will have to cram during their free time. The only thing this will achieve is stressing people.

We learn by relating new concepts to familiar ones. If a single concept is too strange to us, it can take a long time and a lot of effort to bridge the gap in understanding. Meanwhile, these videos could be barrelling through ten new concepts an hour. Learning becomes futile.

Slow down. Give learners time to process the concept before moving on. If the five hours of video are racing through the concepts, there’s too much content. Slow. Down.

Learning How to Learn is wonderfully paced. It covers a lot of material, yet the videos are short and never rushed. There’s time to assimilate the new ideas before moving on. This is because they focus on the key points and convey them well.

The material engages your senses. With the internet, adding images, audio and video is easy.


Nothing I have said is controversial. These ideas are well understood in the context of educational theory. Yet how many online courses follow these? Which is why I launched Mindwalker Training. I saw a gap in the training market, both in content and delivery. Mindwalker Training is my mission: to teach the skills that people need in a way that engages the mind.

Support this mission because we can’t leave education in the hands of the clumsy few. When teaching fails, the consequences are worse than most people realise. Time and mental energy – our most precious resources – are squandered. Egos are depleted. Some people give up on subjects, thinking the problem lies with them rather than the educator.

This is what I pledge to solve. If all educators followed basic principles, the impact would be greater than any revolution in the past. It’s time to demand more from those that offer training. It’s time to expect engaging material. If your source of knowledge doesn’t, give Mindwalker Training a visit. You’ll be amazed at the difference.


You should see my Study Skills course because it helps you learn things – even from badly delivered courses.

From tomorrow, your courses will be better than ever

I’m on the verge of releasing my free Training Program Evaluation Tools. I can tell you – it’s pretty exciting. Developing these was like living in a whirlwind; I saw a great need in the training community and strove to fulfill it. As always, thank you for following me this far.

What I am about to share are a full set of tools for analysing training courses. No matter what you teach or how you teach it, these tools will give you the insights you need. Training program evaluations can be tricky, complex, time-consuming… and often miss the marks. These tools simplify the process and ensure you get the answers you need.

The TPE Tools will be available for download tomorrow. They are fully customisable, allowing you to adapt them to your programs. You can take them, use them and be confident that the evaluation is proceeding well. Each tool guides you through how to use it each step of the way.

The result of all this? Your courses will be more relevant, more data-driven and more justifiable than ever before.

Once these tools launch, they will be freely available to download any time in the future. However, for the first five days only, I will also be including Making Content Memorable – a short guide to creating content that sticks with people. Making Content Memorable will only be available from the TPE Tools page. This exclusive guide will show you how to trigger the brain’s natural learning and retention mechanisms, regardless of your content. Be sure that you don’t miss out by signing up to the Mindwalker Training newsletter.

UPDATE: The TPE Tools are now live. Download them here.

How to use data to drive your courses

Training program evaluations are an important part of the teaching process. It can be a difficult one, though is doesn’t have to be. My last post described my TPE Tools and why you want to get evaluating right. With my free templates and guides to support you, program evaluation is simple and valuable.

Thank you to everyone that reached out to me about this. I find that program evaluation is one of those topics that attract a lot of interest. People are familiar of the idea of using data and evidence to assess the value of courses, and many organisations have their own processes for it. Then again, many don’t, which is why it’s great that so many people have spoken to me about it. Thank you to all of you – and for those of you that are just reading for now.

How do you know whether your training is relevant or not? How do you know what needs improving and what can be cut away? If you make these decisions based on instinct or just learner reactions, you’re living in the last century. Training program evaluations demand evidence. In return, they will reward you with clarity. You will know everything you need about your course – including how to secure more resources for it.

I designed an evaluation process for an organisation that never had one. Like so many L&D teams, they were too busy reacting to act. Courses were changed, then changed back, on the shifting tides of learner sentiment. They knew they had to be smarter about the process. So I helped them. Now, they have an evaluation process that takes almost the same time as their old approach but provides much more evidence. A vital course of theirs had been neglected because the organisation couldn’t see its value. A strong evaluation provided all the evidence they needed to sell it to their colleagues.

The truth is, program evaluations work. The communities of the 21st century are hungry for data. Decisions based solely on someone’s gut don’t cut it any more. Intuition has its place but there’s an expectation for data, for evidence. The value of training can be a difficult thing to quantify. With the right tools, you can.

By now, you appreciate the need to do evaluations not just well, but quickly and simply. My free TPE Tools, combined with your courses, will give you this power. In no time at all you will understand your courses deeper than ever. I will answer all of your questions, including how to access these tools, in the next post. You should subscribe to my email list so that you don’t miss it.

UPDATE: The TPE Tools are now live. Download them here.

Discover your course’s value

How do you know whether your training hits the mark? How can you prove that your courses need more funding when the purse strings tighten? How do you measure something as abstract as a training program’s value?

It’s possible. In fact, it’s simple. All you need are my free Training Program Evaluation (TPE) Tools. I have introduced frameworks for program evaluations to organisations that had none, and I like to think I have it down to a fine art. I have refined program evaluation to its essence and captured this in tools that anyone can use. They are simple enough to work anywhere, no matter your course or community.

Many organisations conduct program evaluations; few do it right. Evaluating is a scientific, data-drive process. It’s tempting to leap in and start gathering evidence right away, but it’s important to take your time. My TPE Tools contain guides and templates for developing your evaluation strategy. Part of the strategy document is a logic map; a means of capturing the key information about the course. Everything from why you run the course to how, all in one easy table. Below is what my logic maps often look like:


A common objection to evaluations – perhaps the main one – is that they are a complicated waste of time. Assessing a course, sifting through volumes of testimonials and anecdotes, just to write a report that leaders ignore? That does sound like a waste of time. But this objection is wrong on two parts. First, an evaluation doesn’t have to be complicated or a time-drain. With the right tools, you can go from start to finish in days (if not hours). Secondly, a well-run evaluation gathers more than just anecdotes. It provides raw data that is impossible to ignore, with stories to soften the message.

Actually, it’s wrong on three counts because the report is valuable to you, too. The process unearths the details of your training program, revealing all its strengths and weaknesses. It reveals what people like and dislike, and what needs to change. Also, as I’ve already mentioned, it supplies proof of the value of the course – or proof that the training needs to change.

Evaluations are fantastic. If a course you value hasn’t had a program evaluation in a while, then it’s stumbling blindly through the community. You owe it to yourself and your learners to make your courses the best they can be – and to have the evidence to back up that claim.

The next post will go over the flow of training program evaluations. You’ll be impressed by how simple and effective they are. Subscribe to my email list to be sure you don’t miss it.

UPDATE: The TPE Tools are now live. Download them here.

Every new skill you learn…

… doubles your chance of success. That’s advice from Scott Adams’ book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s beautiful and simple advice – and one of the best endorsements for learning I’ve ever heard. What is ‘success’? It doesn’t matter; new skills will get you there. What kind of ‘skills’? Who knows… though I wouldn’t pick them randomly.

It’s all part of what Scott Adams calls a Talent Stack. Continue reading Every new skill you learn…

Learn to learn or…

I talk a lot about the benefits of focusing on training. Many people agree, which is heartening, but many are sceptical. At first, I was surprised. For me, the benefits of making training Priority Number One are intuitively obvious.

But that’s the danger with intuition – when it’s wrong, you are blind to it.

So I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Gathering the evidence, teasing apart the logic, following the mental path that invisibly leads me to that conclusion. This article is one small part of that process.

How would you convince someone that training should be your organisation’s focus? I started with three questions:

  • What are learning organisations?
  • Are learning organisations successful?
  • Are successful organisations also learning organisations?

Point (1) is important – there’s no point discussing it if we have clashes in terminology. (2) and (3) together get around the correlation is not causation argument. If a focus on learning has no benefit or success leads organisations to focus on learning, both won’t hold.

Ready? Let’s go.

What are learning organisations?

I found a great definition of what a focus on training looks like courtesy of the Association of Talent Development. They define that learning organisations have the following qualities:

  • Learning has an enterprise-wide role—involved in the executive team, creating solutions to business issues, and setting organizational strategy.
  • Learning has value in the organization’s culture—learning opportunities for employees, C-level involvement, learning for growth of the organization, and innovation.
  • Learning links to individual and organizational performance—alignment with the business, efficiency, measurement of the effectiveness of learning, and success with nontraining solutions for business needs.
  • Investment is made in learning and performance initiatives.

Well, that seems to capture the gist. From this, I see four key strategies:

  • Everyone is involved in learning opportunities,
  • Learning opportunities are valued,
  • Performance is measured in relation to learning opportunities,
  • The organisation invests in learning opportunities.

I’ve made recommendations along these lines before. The wording is different but the principles align.

How well do most organisations do against these strategies? I don’t have the perspective to answer for entire industries. I do know how many businesses function:

  • Is everyone involved? Many organisations have a training strategy. For many of these, the strategy is no more than a vague declaration: “we prioritise investment in our employee’s skills.” This declaration does not translate into action – at least not well.
  • Is learning valued? Learning is seen as important but not as much as “real work”. That seems to be the common attitude. If you’re lucky, you’re given money for training… but not the time.
  • Is learning performance measured? How many skilled employees are told ‘great work, but you need to teach more’? Some organisations have precise requirements (for example, training that’s mandated by law). They do well at measuring these. Outside of these requirements, though, training is seen as a burden and distraction.
  • Is there investment? Maybe there’s a training budget. But no training strategy, no coordination, no investment in time. Training is a box that gets ticked so leaders can pat themselves on the back.

As the ancient internet expression goes, your mileage may vary. But the above model of training and development is painfully common. Training deserves to be a core strategy; it’s usually an afterthought.

But, okay, so what? It’s not like most organisations don’t learn at all. Do they all need to be awesome at training? Can’t we live with ‘good enough’?

No. Not if you want to be successful. Or even survive.

Are learning organisations successful?

I got the definition of a learning organisation from the Association for Talent Development. The Association runs a yearly contest looking for the best examples of them. What does winning an award mean for an organisation’s future?

There were 28 winners in 2013. The winners throughout the years include charities, companies and government departments from all over the world. These organisations are self-selected, which skews the data. Still, what these tell us is quite illustrative.

I went back to the 2013 winners to see how these companies have fared since winning an award. It was hard to find information on some of these organisations, but highlights include:

  • All 28 organisations seem to still exist. That’s reassuring.
  • The winner, Cognizant Technology Solutions, scored well in earlier and later years too. They have climbed the Fortune 500 ranks from 484 in 2011 to 230 in 2016.
  • #9 on the list, Cerner Corporation, won many awards since then. Among them, #1 World’s Most Admired Company in Health Care: Pharmacy and Other Services (Fortune, 2015).
  • #21, ESL Federal Credit Union, has appeared on the Great Place to Work – Best Small and Medium Workplaces list in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Organisations aren’t good learning organisations only at their peak. As the years since 2013 have shown, most of these winners had a lot of growth and success ahead of them.

Are successful organisations also learning organisations?

Success is harder to track in the public sector than the private. I can offer all sorts of anecdotes about public learning organisations being successful. But for simplicity, let’s look at the world’s top companies.

Fortune’s list of top companies by revenue gives us a decent measure of private sector glory:

  • Walmart
  • State Grid
  • China National Petroleum
  • Sinopec
  • Royal Dutch Shell
  • Exxon Mobil
  • Volkswagen
  • Toyota Motor
  • Apple
  • BP

How many of these companies are learning organisations?

Walmart has a surprisingly detailed training strategy. They conduct training needs analyses, design programs and deliver training through a range of methods. The details around each of these steps are fairly detailed – way more than I’d expected from, you know, Walmart.

It’s hard to assess from the outside whether training is valued in the organisation. On paper, it certainly seems to be. Everyone is involved, there is strong investment and learning links to performance. They sound like a learning organisation to me.

Sinopec has its own training philosophy. I assume it sounds way better in the original Chinese. Their “three training projects” are:

  • Tens of thousands of key talents training project (an effort to improve the skills of managers and subject matter experts),
  • Talents on key positions capability upgrading project (improving the capabilities and innovation from business managers, researchers and other key roles),
  • All staff upgrading project (baseline employee training).

They developed this training with higher education organisations, and deliver it online and in person. Again, how much of this translates into real-world training opportunities, I can’t say. But I can say that their strategy is both detailed and ambitious. If they’re not a learning organisation, then they’re doing a great impersonation of one.

Royal Dutch Shell was the topic of a research paper (‘Learning at Royal Dutch Shell’, Strategic Direction, Vol 18, Issue 7, p10-12). They researched the company, concluding that they are a classic example of a learning organisation. The paper even traces their significant losses in 1998 to a failure in this. They had drifted from a learning organisation to one with dysfunctional strategies and priorities. In other words, they had grown complacent, but their complacency wasn’t fatal and they have recovered.

I couldn’t find any details about Volkswagen’s learning strategy. I did find some Glassdoor reviews talking about how much they value learning. Still, I promised data, not anecdotes.

Next is Toyota. The company that invented 5 Whys thinking. The company where frontline employees, not management, are recognised as the experts. The company where they took one of the most dysfunctional plants in the world and made it one of the best – without replacing employees. There’s a reason why Toyota has a golden reputation among learning organisation enthusiasts.

From the outside, Apple feels like it should be a learning organisation. A paper (‘Organisational learning and lean supply relationships: the case of Apple Ireland’, Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, Vol 3, Issue 2, p96-107) used them as a case study on how learning organisations solve problems where others don’t.

Finally, another paper (‘Organisational Learning’, Management Learning, Vol 32, Issue 2, p181-196) analysing how learning organisations work and why they succeed used British Petroleum (BP) as one of their key examples.

I couldn’t find much relevant information on State Grid, China National Petroleum or Exxon. And the evidence for VW wasn’t great. Even so, six out of ten of the highest earning companies are definitely learning organisations. That’s pretty compelling, isn’t it?

Learn to learn or…

What can I say after all this research?

  • Learning organisations are successful,
  • Successful organisations learn,
  • Your organisation is probably neither.

Do you know why learning creates success? It’s insurance against the changes of the future. Instead you can focus on doing your tasks now, even as the ground moves under your feet. Suddenly you blink and the terrain has shifted. What you were doing is now pointless. You can either learn to shift with the terrain or scream into the wind.

Teaching and learning aren’t burdens. That’s backwards. They are the only things that make the tasks possible. Being ‘good enough’ at learning makes you ‘good enough’ at your job. Then when the tasks change, and change again, you are left behind. It takes a community that excels at learning to keep up.

Learn to learn or die trying.

Why Focus Creates Success

The story of Paul O’Neill is the stuff of legend.

Alcoa was a struggling giant. It was old, large and successful. Like so many organisations, it was on shaky ground. It was vulnerable to agile competitors. Threats to the business model sprouted like weeds.

In 1987, Paul O’Neill took over as the chair and CEO. Other CEOs focused on revenue, profits or sales. He took a different approach. He focused on employee safety. Safety was Priority Number One. Profitability and the rest were a distant second.

Now, Alcoa was already a pretty safe place to work. They had accidents, sure, but keep in mind they dealt with molten metals. Given that, their safety record was impressive. So it’s not like their safety programs were bad. But they weren’t perfect. Paul O’Neill wanted to do better.

Safety became the focus of the organisation. All employees were encouraged to report safety issues to their bosses… or to O’Neill directly. Rewards and accolades were given for improvements to safety over improvements to productivity. O’Neill instituted a policy that required managers to report every incident, no matter how small. These reports included the cause of the incident and proposed solutions. They had to arrive on O’Neill’s desk within a day.

This approach seems bizarre and counterproductive. Yes, safety is important. So is income. These things need to be balanced… right?

O’Neill stood down in 1999. During his time, Alcoa’s net income rose from US$200 million to nearly US$1.5 billion. Focusing on safety, rather than income, caused income to soar.

How did this happen? Managers engaged with front-line employees, looking for innovative safety ideas. In order to submit incidents on time, communications were streamlined. Alcoa embraced the internet early because it was the best way for a global company to submit safety reports. Safety ideas from one area spread across the organisation.

Communication in all directions were streamlined. Employees of all kinds and levels contributed ideas… that were acted on. Is it any mystery as to how this lead to greater profits?


Other organisations also place one value above all others. Netflix’s strategy is to increase the talent density of their organisation. Valve tells its employees that hiring is everything – if you are involved in the hiring process then all other work is a waste of time. Everything they do – literally, everything – is in service of one core value. Their obsessive myopia has paid off for them.


Many organisations are like Alcoa. They are old, large and successful. Their products are excellent but they are trapped by policies, traditions and even their successes. The threats are many. They have power but lack agility.

Paul O’Neill chose safety as Alcoa’s keystone habit – the one habit that enables all others. What should your organisation’s keystone habit be? There are many valid answers. One is the training and development of your staff.

Imagine that your organisation embraced employee skills as Priority Number One. What would the organisation look like?

  • Every team would define the skills they have and the skills that they need. This simple exercise is often neglected. When done en masse, it provides valuable insights into the health of the organisation.
  • Managers would prioritise knowledge sharing. Performance evaluations would focus on this key achievement. Is the employee teaching courses? Mentoring staff? Sharing analytical techniques? If so, how effectively?
  • Training would be the core duty of subject matter experts (SMEs). Currently, SMEs are hired to perform valuable tasks for the organisation. That would continue. But any SME that is not developing other employees is being wasted by the organisation.
  • The organisation would release staff to give and receive training. In too many organisations, staff are expected to do their jobs during course breaks or participants drop out at the last minute. This will always occur; stuff happens. But each time it does, it robs the organisation of a chance for training. In the spirit of Alcoa, a manager that pulls an employee off training would submit a report to the CEO explaining what happened and how to address the situation.
  • Each team or section would have dedicated skills coordinators. Skills coordinators would identify skills gaps, recommend solutions and work with the training team.
  • Speaking of, the organisation would invest in the training team. This team would work closely with the skills coordinators and engage with their customers. Employees would rotate through this team to contribute to courses and learning materials. They would use the best technology and educational theory to achieve outcomes.
  • Hiring and promotions would value training above all else.

This hypothetical organisation doesn’t seem so far-fetched. It does sound incredibly successful. Valuing skills over everything else is a powerful, long-term strategy.

Paul O’Neill faced opposition from his Board of Directors. They wanted to focus on the traditional business. If they had, the traditional business could have fallen away. He strengthened the organisation – every aspect of it – by focusing on safety. Anyone can do the same by focusing on skills, even when there is pressure to focus on tasks.

The link between safety and profits isn’t obvious. The link between skills and success is. If you make training a keystone habit, people will resist. But, in the end, you will succeed. Organisations that don’t focus on a core value are like the hunter that chases two rabbits and loses both.

This article was inspired by Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. It was cross-posted on LinkedIn.