Four Tenets for Successful E-Learning Design

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The information age has reached beyond the bounds of Benjamin Franklin’s innovative lending library. Sharing knowledge has expanded. Technology opens the door to electronic learning that is becoming more accessible and far reaching.
E-learning is electronic learning, using computers, laptops, mobile devices such as tablets and ipads, as well as smart phones to access the Internet, run software and interface with educational institutions or other learning platforms -- “E-learning is the use of electronic technologies to create learning experiences.” (Horton, 2011, p. 1).  The learning field is expansive when you identify e-learning to include any learning experience with electronics (Horton, 2011). 
People access the Internet for answers, from everything on how to repair a dishwasher to current research in genetic mutation. Higher educational institutions, primary and secondary schools, as well as businesses provide e-learning experiences. 
Yet, effective e-learning is the key to success for the provider as well as the receiver. For this method to become successful, designers must focus on four pillars: instructional design, media design, software engineering, and economics, all of which interact to provide effective learning via electronics. Within each of those pillars, the needs of the learners must be addressed (Ehlers, 2004). However, not everyone will benefit, just as not every student benefits from the traditional classroom. E-learning design requires a succession of steps that Horton identifies as a critical path. (Horton, 2011).

Instructional Design

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Instructional design is one of the tenets of successful e-learning and takes into account learning objectives and theory (Horton, 2011).  Within that context, designers must tackle the obstacles that make learners bored, frustrated and unable to learn in the designated method (Horton, 2011).  Instructional design draws upon various learning strategies that include simulations, discussion boards, peer editing, video conferencing, and online video lectures (Nash, 2006). 
At the foundation of design is an understanding of how students learn, which varies by many factors. This can make instructional design just as varied, as designers try to cover as many learning theories as possible and remain a coherent program. The principles of pedagogy and andragogoy lend perspectives when outlining instruction for youth and adults. But even within those age groups and theories, individuals differ in learning styles (Willems, J., 2011). Graduate students differ in e-learning styles from undergraduates (Willems, J., 2011).  In fact, one theory does not address the needs of all, and rather a combination of theories must be utilized (Liu, et al., 2009). An educational institution’s objectives should be addressed in the instructional design of e-learning. 
The path forward often needs re-defining in the process of achieving the best outcome. If you cannot answer the question of how this design of e-learning “changes the learner,” defining the end result, then the process must be re-thought and mapped out (Horton, 2011, p. 9). Constructivist theory influences the design of addressing the pattern of teaching to students who have previous knowledge – which is often prescribed by pre-requisites (Horton, 2011). Learning objectives are formulated and then a path to reach those goals, taking into account different learning styles and previous learned material. 
Learner’s familiarity and confidence with computers and technology will have an impact on the success of e-learning (Sun, et al., 2008). Horton describes learning activities that fit into three categories where the learner (1) absorbs information, (2) practices or discovers, and (3) completes activities to show an understanding and usefulness of the material (Horton, 2011).

Media Design

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Media design is the second step in e-learning design, once the preliminary objectives are addressed in the instructional design. This encompasses a large pallet of  choices that include multi-media delivered through computers such as audio, video,  graphics, text, and anything delivered through that format (Horton, 2011). 
As the ability to provide a rich media format continues to accelerate, the focus on successful e-learning must be the over-riding objective. According to Liu, et al., e-learners were found to continue the use of e-learning materials based on the richness of the media (2009).  Information presented in text – audio – video format resulted in a higher perceived usefulness and concentration. They concluded that high-quality video is not a distraction but enhances learners completing the tasks (Liu, et al., 2009).

Software Engineering

Software engineering is core to a successful e-learning platform. Instructors cannot take their traditional classroom materials and scan them into a digital format to be presented as an e-learning course with the same success as a quality engineered software program. This is where curriculum for e-learning must involve technology and skilled designers and programmers (Ehlers, 2004). One cannot function without the other for a success. Teachers and educators, trained in the past to develop their own lesson plans from standard textbook curriculum, must now reach out to technologists. 
Educational software was first introduced as a stand-alone learning platform. But with the advancement of the Internet and mobile devices, software becomes more accessible through cloud technology (Sun, P., et al., 2008). Students’ “perceived satisfaction” of e-learning technology influences the success of the online educational future. Course quality and the ease of use affect student satisfaction (Sun, P., et al., 2008). Learners and educators will compete with products that enable learning with greater success (Sun, P., et al., 2008).


Economics is not the last pillar of importance in a successful e-learning design. The cost of delivering electronic learning covers designers and providers. Education is business and e-learning courses must endure long enough to reap the financial rewards. The field is growing and new technologies quickly replace older ones (Ehlers, 2004). Quality is multi-dimensional, embracing different perspectives, meanings, and levels of quality (Ehlers, 2004).


Ehlers, Ulf-D. (2004). Quality in e-Learning from a Learner's Perspective. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning. Retrieved from http://www.eurodl.org/index.php?tag=120&article=230&article=101

Horton, W. (2011). e-learning by Design. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Pfeiffer.

Pei-Chen Sun, Tsai, R. J., Finger, G., Yueh-Yang Chen, & Yeh, D. (2008). What drives a successful e-learning? an empirical investigation of the critical factors influencing learner satisfaction. Computers & Education, 50, 1183-1202. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2006.11.007

Su-Houn Liu, Hsiu-Li Liao, & Pratt, J. (2009). A.Impact of media richness and flow on e-learning technology acceptance. Computers & Education, 52, 599-607. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2008.11.002

Willems, J. (2011). Using learning styles data to inform e-learning design: A study comparing undergraduates, postgraduates and e-educators. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 27(6), 863-880. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=77923944&site=eds-live


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