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To E-Learn or Not To E-Learn, That is the Question

Updated on December 14, 2021
Carolyn M Fields profile image

Carolyn is a learner-centric instructional designer who is proficient at generating new content and improving upon existing materials.



Training has come a long way in the space of a few short decades. Computer assisted distance learning has been used in academia since as early as the 1960’s. However, Corporate America didn’t really catch on to using distance or E-learning until the 1980’s. Companies used computer-based training, or CBT, to train employees, but were limited by the available technology. Personally, I tried to introduce E-Learning as a new methodology in the mid-1990’s at a large public utility, and the client asked me (straight-faced) if that was a “legitimate” way to train employees! Of course the answer was then, and continues to be, yes. But with a few stipulations.

The First Question

The first consideration for determining whether E-Learning is appropriate is the same as it is for any type of training development: is this truly a training need? If the potential learners already possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform the task(s) in question, then training (of any kind) is not the answer. For example, suppose you discover that members of your staff are not getting their reimbursable expenses paid in a timely manner. Before you schedule “refresher” training on reimbursable expense reports, or whip up an online job aid, you first need to examine the end-to-end process. You may find out that the reports have been prepared and submitted, but some line supervisors are “holding” them to make their budgets look good. Clearly, you have an entirely different problem than originally suspected.

Legitimate vs. Appropriate

Yes, you can use E-learning for virtually any topic. However, just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should. You also need to consider whether the training topic might be suitable for blended learning (part classroom, part online).

Topics of a technical nature, just as the above referenced reimbursable report preparation, lend themselves naturally to an E-learning approach. There are concrete rules (do’s and don’ts), plus the application is probably computer-based. You can easily construct an online “lab” where learners can practice in a training environment, without actually corrupting your finance programs.

Topics of an interpersonal nature, on the other hand, more easily lend themselves to an interpersonal setting. That is, face-to-face training. You could, of course, set up an online video chat, or some other equivalent. But the nuances of person-to-person communication are best taught in a classroom setting.


Another key consideration is your audience. Are these manufacturing line workers who don’t have computers readily available, or are you writing training for management and leadership personnel? Of course, even if your audience doesn’t normally use computers, you can still deliver training in a computer “lab.” That is, if you have a computer “lab” available.



Another important consideration is the expense of training development. Online training continues to be more “design” intensive than traditional classroom training. It just takes longer to develop. That translates into higher costs. So, even if you could develop an E-Learning course, if your budget can’t handle it, you’re out of luck.


In the world of blogging, there is something called “evergreen content.” Basically, it’s content that is not likely to change over time. In other words, it has enduring value. The same principle applies to E-learning. It’s best to stay with topics that are not likely to change much over time, or you will be constantly changing and updating your E-learning courses. Of course, you need to do the same with classroom training. But it’s far easier to make a few changes to the Leader’s Guide that it is to re-record narration.

Final Thoughts

I have only scratched the surface of what you should consider when deciding whether or not to use E-Learning. My main point is not to jump on the bandwagon, before you have all the facts. E-Learning can be a great tool, but it is not a magic bullet.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Carolyn Fields


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