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Angus McLeod

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The online learning journey pt 1


In the first of two articles, Angus Mcleod looks at how to structure online learning content to ensure an engaging and successful experience.

E-learning has developed in the last decade to have two distinct forms:

  1. Common "knowledge-only" delivery and snap-shot testing to see if, in that moment, the trainee has gained the required understanding.
  2. More developmental web-based processes taking the learner on a learning-journey and requiring practical-learning exercises and self-reflection. There may still be simple knowledge-only tests, but the assessments are not auto-online, but rather by mentors/markers – by real people. My courses may take a few weeks and some up to ten months or so to complete.

Let’s focus here on this second, less familiar form of training resource and with about 20,000 learners under my belt since 2004, I’ve some insight into what works and what does not.

In this first article I will give you insights into what and why certain structural aspects of the resource are helpful. And in the following article, I shall add the essential aspect of making the resource is attractive to use and experience.

"The limited amount of trainer contact means that all communication needs to be friendly, supportive and attentive."

Whether you are looking for provision, designing it or specifying a web-based learning-journey resource there are some good things to watch out for.

Structure the process of learning at the desired level

The process, language and the interpretive demands on the learner must be appropriate to them. For example, at level two you may ask, "Give one strength and one weakness from your experience of using the model." At level five, you might ask, "What are the comparative strengths and weaknesses of this model compared to another listed model. What one thing would improve the effectiveness of the model in use?" We do not want to turn people off or leave them behind. 

Blended learning

You will want a mix of inputs on the page including text, schematics, podcasts and video. Make sure video and podcasts are speaking to the learner as if only to them and use screen informatics on video to underline learning points (learning outcomes).

Ideally, the system will allow learners to progress from A to B, but also allow them to vary the route so they have control and can choose an activity in that moment. These activities can include listening or viewing material and then responding to questions (or auto-marked tests), working by themselves or with others as a facilitator or Guinea pig followed by questions, and answering and self-scoring/analysing results from profiling tools. Variety and learner-choice will stimulate people who want control of what they are doing. 

Support structures

Some learners may need peripheral resources and information to provide enough context for them to appreciate and comprehend new learning. These resources can include additional podcasts, video, articles, URLs that are additional to those on the page/manual itself.

Remaining committed to web-based learning is more of a challenge to those who like to work near others. If the learning-journey is more than six to eight weeks, consider linking learners together via a supervised and interactive e-group. Learners can find other people to work with and if experts are also available to support learning, then so much the better. We also provide webinars for groups of learners for each module/unit and also offer small mentoring-group webinars where all participants are live at one time. 

Train the mentors/markers

The limited amount of trainer contact means that all communication needs to be friendly, supportive and attentive. Everything else is web-based, so try and offer telephone contact to make the system demonstrably human. 

Multi-test systems

Ask colleagues to go into your system as if they are learners and give them permission to skip-out if bored or frustrated by the system (if you are developing your own system, then direct them to one that is similar to your design-preference). Immediately ask them specific questions about that experience so you can build in solutions.

When it comes to the web, many people are quick to lose patience so the resource must be user-friendly and have sufficient band-width and low-density page-content to allow fast page-loading. Test these aspects using different browsers if your learners will be using the resource outside your own network. 

Understand learner motivation

Some may want CPD certification, others will want a recognizable qualification for their career (internally or externally to your organization). At the lower levels, a course counting towards the Qualification in Progression Framework (QCF) may also be attractive. Make sure there are milestones and to congratulate learners when they move to a new module/unit after successfully completing their previous one – let them re-touch the good feeling of achievement. 


Some learners will want more reminders than others. These will gently inform them that work is due and will encourage them to learn, providing outcomes and benefits. The software configuration can provide an auto-responder system providing emails to provide these emails automatically. Finally, the user-interactivity can be built into learner-resources so that the needs of learners are reflected in their resource-experience. For example, not all systems allow for different levels of contact but technology does allow us to provide systems which react, for example, to those different needs for numbers of emails being received). 

Monitor the system when up and working

Is there learner-sloth between certain pieces of learner activity? If there is, contact learners directly and find out why – what can be changed to enhance the usability of the system? When you have changed the system, thank them for their help and explain what you did – involve your learners.

Professor Angus McLeod is author of four books on coaching and leadership and more than 50 articles and peer-reviewed papers. He can be contacted via AMA Coaching School  or via


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