Can e-learning emulate an engaging classroom experience?

Often when talking to people new to e-learning it becomes clear that they’re sceptical about just how engaging e-learning can be.

And it’s true: if your idea of e-learning is little more than a glorified PowerPoint presentation in which clicking the ‘next’ button counts as user interaction, ‘engaging’ is hardly the word that springs to mind.

(Although, incidentally, ‘interactive’ does not automatically mean ‘engaging’. I have seen far too many examples of e-learning that demands user interaction but doesn’t succeed in pulling them in and teaching them anything. Likewise, novels wouldn’t be as enduringly popular if engagement depended on interaction. But how to create effective interactions is a separate topic entirely…)

The point is that e-learning can be engaging! It just takes a little thought. Often, the doubters are comparing e-learning to the classroom: how can sitting alone in front of a computer compete with a group learning experience? Well, perhaps this is where e-learning needs to start. We’ve all, I’m sure, experienced some really shocking classroom training or learning as well as some really great examples – so what is it that differentiates the engaging from the excruciating?

I’ve had a mini-brainstorm myself but many heads are better than one, so what do you think? What is it that makes the difference between a dull classroom experience and an engaging one? And can any of those features or characteristics be transferred into e-learning?


13 thoughts on “Can e-learning emulate an engaging classroom experience?

  1. Danielle

    I think the main thing that makes either a classroom or computer screen filled with information interesting, is the teacher. Clicking next on a powerpoint is like doing worksheets and never engaging in a real conversation. But being hands on in any setting changes the dynamic of the lesson. E-Learning has to be filled with visuals, sites with an interactive edge to them and multiple ways of conveying the information to ensure that teachers are reaching people in ways that are relevant to their learning styles (kinesthetic, auditory…). As a person who is currently an e-Learner, I prefer when there is a video presentation and a site to reenforce what I learn in the text and articles assigned. Making the class more engaging also makes it easier to retain the information.

  2. Audrea L Tarver

    Good Evening Stephanie,
    Great Post! I really enjoy reading your posts
    What makes the difference between a dull classroom experience and an engaging one? In a traditional class setting typically it’s the instructor or teacher that brings the class alive! Of course an interesting topic/subject helps, but if the teacher is interesting, generally passionate about the material, and is able to relate to the students, any class can become engaging.

    Here of course lies the problem in an eLearning environment. It is difficult enough to find educators, teachers, or instructors that still have the zeal for teaching in a traditional classroom-yet alone creating that atmosphere in an eLearning program. How does one create a program that engages, yet educates the students?

    As primarily an auditorial learner, I enjoy when the lessons are narrated by the instructor. In addition it is also helpful if there are visuals that are also associated with the particular lesson as well. Visual imagery is a highly effective way to remember information as we often remember things that we have “seen”. This ensures that students are able to “see” as well as “hear” the information which helps to reconfirm the material. The way that this is completed depends on the audience. An adult learner has a longer attention span then a child-so information should be conveyed differently for both. An eLearning program for a child should involve strong usage of audio and visual imagery as well as a way for the child to interact with the material to assist in their assessment of the information (I.e. a game of some sort). An eLearning program for an adult doesn’t require the same audio/visual stimulation per se, but it should incorporate a way for the student to employ and engage self regulation strategies (I.e. role playing scenarios or assessments/quizzes) allowing the student to verify their comprehension on an ongoing basis with in the program.

    I’m a student at Walden U and am currently pursuing a MS in Instructional Design and Technology so hopefully we can become better acquainted in assisting each other in this area. I’m extremely excited to learn more about eLearning and designing programs and applications to assist learners


    1. stephaniededhar Post author

      Hi Audrea, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog so far. Please do keep coming back and sharing your thoughts – especially if your course covers learning for both adults and children. My experience is primarily in workplace learning so I’d be really interested in anything you can add.

  3. dbgregory

    The difference between a dull classroom and an engaging classroom is materials, instructor support, and environment of the classroom.

    The materials in the classroom should be engaging whether they are manipulatives , text, articles, videos or experiments. The materials become engaging when they can relate the new concepts to experiences of the learner or elaborate on knowledge that already exists. As an instructional design student in an online program, the first course used a textbook that was written in a less structured format than a traditional textbook. The text was information driven, but intriguing and entertaining. Also, the course used articles and examples that brought the concepts to life with real world examples. The materials encouraged elaboration, understanding, and retention of the new concepts in the curriculum.

    The knowledge and encouragement of the instructor plays an important role in creating an engaging classroom for the learner. An instructor that gives encouragement, feedback, structure, and expectations provides a positive, open, and inviting environment. E-learning instructors can create a positive environment through interactions such as introductions at the beginning of the course that express an interest in the learner and attempt to find a commonality between members. An instructor can also use open-ended questions to invite the learners into a discussion. Instructor feedback that includes some positive reinforcement and student encouragement will contribute to the learner becoming a willing and active participant in the classroom.

    A classroom environment that is more welcoming and creates relationships between its members will be more engaging for the learner. A classroom that allows for cognitive thinking and expansion through discussion, real world application, and experiment seems to promote acceptance of ideas from all the participants. E-learning classrooms can create engagement through titles of facilitator rather than instructor to promote equality and a shared learning experience between all members.
    The environment allowed for a more cognitive approach to learning than I had ever experienced in a traditional classroom.

    1. dbgregory

      I apologize for not including the reference for my post.

      Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

      I have enjoyed reading the responses and the ideas about how to make e-learning more engaging.

    2. stephaniededhar Post author

      Some great ideas about how to provide instructor support online – thanks. I think I’m right that your comments mostly apply to online classrooms, but your suggestions would also be a great start for thinking about how to provide similar support in individual, self-paced e-learning too.

  4. Kim George

    Hi Stephanie,

    Good question. What makes someone interesting to listen to? Whether it’s a presentation by a teacher at school or someone at work; a speech by a politician or even someone on the television – what brings whatever they’re speaking about to life?

    Something that I think really makes the difference between dull and engaging is tone of voice. If someone varies their tone, and adds a little energy and enthusiasm to their voice, then it can transform whatever they’re talking about, regardless of the topic. It can make people sit up and listen, ultimately helping them to absorb and remember the information.

    But this is tricky to transfer to e-learning. Even if an e-learning course has good quality audio to accompany the text and add interest, the learner may not turn the audio on. So the text itself needs to engage, and therefore the choice of words is really important. This is where I think we need to emulate the best of classroom training in e-learning: by using everyday language to strike a natural, conversational tone and to draw the learner in. Avoiding lengthy, formal words and instead choosing words that explain what we need to explain simply and concisely, whilst slipping in a few familiar turns of phrase. I think this will go a long way in making e-learning engaging!

  5. Becky Dadisman

    I am new to e-learning. Minus a small stint as an online tutor, I am primarily a novice to e-learning. I am a traditional classroom teacher and have taken all of my undergrad and graduate work in a traditional classroom, until now. I am currently in an instructional design class in a virtual classroom and have wondered about engagement in this adventure and for future endeavors. In a traditional classroom, I can easily engage through group activities, hand-ons elements, or fun game like interactions. How does that translate into the virtual world? From the resources I’ve read, the classroom I currently learn from, and the small amount of online tutoring I did, I can say that interaction can come in all forms. The discussion boards for the grad class help me interact with the material and mimic a classroom discussion. In my current class, I have even gotten a little “heated” on some topics. The streaming video resource, on the other hand, does not keep me solely engaged with the information. When I tutored online, the kids were engaged because we had headsets and synced computers. I could tell what they were doing and saying at all times. The downfall is that I am not sure they were enjoying what they were doing since it was most rote learning. I think these are all starts to interactive learning. What I don’t like are the silly multiple choice/name your own adventure type games that are aimed at teaching but only come up being silly. I like the concept, but in application, I haven’t seen many that don’t insult my intelligence as a learner. This topic is new and exciting to me. I am anxious to learn more from the pros and this blog and others.

    1. stephaniededhar Post author

      Hi Becky – great to have your views as someone who has delivered both classroom and online training. I’m really keen to learn more about virtual classrooms, which I see as a bridge between the real classroom and ‘traditional’ e-learning so please do keep coming back and sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  6. stephaniededhar Post author

    Wow – how great to see so many responses to the question! I’m going to try and respond relatively briefly here and will then follow up on this in my next post.

    One thing that’s been mentioned several times in the comments above is the impact a teacher has on how engaging a classroom experience is. I guess in the context of e-learning we’re talking about the learning designer creating an online, individual experience that still engages the learner…for me, your comment about passion and zeal is key here, Audrea: users might not always have chosen e-learning as a preferred format, or indeed the subject matter, so it’s my job, as someone who is passionate about e-learning and/or the subject matter, to get that passion and enthusiasm across in the course.

    Kim, your point about tone of voice is also really important here – in fact, listening to someone on the radio is probably the best comparison with e-learning – you don’t have the body language and the eye contact; it’s all about the voice and the content! Learners want to read or hear something that makes them care about it and for this everyday language can help a lot. When I started out as an instructional designer I was very definitely a (mostly academic) writer. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to develop my presenting and public speaking skills and now try to emulate the tone I use in those situations when I write a training course.

    Dainelle, I like your point about the challenge of reaching people in ways that they respond to. I’m undecided about the issue of learning styles – there’s a lot of debate out there to read about their value) but I always try to design courses to give learners as much choice and control as possible so that they can, to some degree, tailor it to their personal preferences.

    As a final point, a couple of people made reference to the use of visuals and audio to engage learners in e-learning, and of course those things can help, but often there are restrictions that make it difficult (time, cost, technical issues etc.). A well-designed course will engage without all those bells and whistles and part of that, as Audrea says, is taking the time to understand the audience – what makes them tick, what will or won’t they respond to, and ultimately what do they want to get from the training? Keeping these things in mind during the design process will go a long way towards engaging users. As, of course, does relevance – if users can easily see that the material relates to their everyday life and real experiences, they’ll engage with it willingly (rather than us having to work to get them engaged).

    All your thoughts have definitely influenced my thinking on this and refined the results of my own mini-brainstorm, so thanks for your contributions and I’ll add my own shortly in my next post!

  7. Pingback: Lessons from the classroom: tips for engaging e-learning | Good To Great

  8. Craig Taylof

    Hi Steph,

    For me the key factor in transforming a dull classroom experience into an engaging one is ‘being different’, it is when as a learner I have that ‘double take’ moment and think to myself “that’s different”!

    It’s difficult to quantify what “that” is as it will be different for each facilitator, each learner and each subject and it’s almost impossible for “that” to be all things to all people.

    Of course the trick is to be different without being gimmicky, but let us remember that one man’s wine is another man’s poison…

  9. Pingback: Round-up of the year (August to December) | Good To Great

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