With Online Training, it’s Function Over Form

Designing Digitally


As more companies are discovering the benefits of incorporating online training into their employee learning and development programs, one thing is becoming increasingly clear – not all online training is created equally. The primary purpose and goal of any educational instruction is learning. Therefore, the effectiveness of the instruction must be the first measure by which online training is judged. It’s not enough for the training to look good; it must meet its primary objective of effectively delivering the intended material.

Online Learning: Form follows Function

Comparison studies have shown online learning to be at least as effective as face-to-face instruction when measured by test results, long-term retention and task performance1. But when looking at the effectiveness of online training, is it enough to claim “no significant difference” between this and classroom instruction? If this is the measure of success for online or distance learning, then the possibility exists for some really poor training.

In the vast majority of studies on the subject, the biggest determining factor when comparing online vs. face-to-face instruction was the quality of the lesson material being delivered, regardless of the format. Just as with face-to-face instruction, online training must be designed and delivered to meet the highest standards of learning, using best practices and clearly proven methodologies.

What Determines Effective Online Training?

Online training can be an efficient and cost-effective way to advance the productivity and job skills of a company’s workforce. However, some online training gives the clear sense the designer was more interested in how the lesson looks than in how well it teaches. It isn’t enough for online training to be slick and well-produced; it should follow some basic principles and elements that contribute to effective online training.

Online training principles:

  • It should have clearly defined goals and objectives
  • It should be relevant to the learner
  • It should be engaging and interactive
  • It should challenge the learner and reward accomplishment
  • It should be concise
  • It should provide appropriate feedback
  • It should focus on learning first, aesthetics second

By adhering to these basic principles, an online training developer can then look toward incorporating the design elements that will make the course visually appealing. That’s not to say an aesthetically pleasing course isn’t important, just that it should never take precedence over the learning objective.

Online training elements:

  • Consistent (and high-quality) look and feel
  • Easy to navigate
  • Aesthetically appealing and well-designed
  • Include visible signs of progress through the lesson
  • May incorporate a blend of media such as graphics, audio and video
  • Include assessments and knowledge checks
  • Make it fun!

The Real Goal of Online Training

In case the message to this point isn’t clear, the real goal of online training is not to create the best looking course out there, but to ensure the successful transfer of knowledge. It just so happens that this knowledge transfer can be made more effective using a well-designed, creatively developed and visually appealing training course. It is the elements that are possible within digital courseware design that makes this media such a potentially powerful tool for learning.

Studies show that people who are taught using a combination of text, audio and graphic images score up to 40% higher on tests of the material, compared with those who were taught using text alone2. This makes online training a particularly enticing method for delivering training. By incorporating the best learning principles alongside the best design techniques, online training can not only reach a broad audience, but can do it more effectively.

Here at Designing Digitally, Inc., we specialize in creating custom online training programs focused on today’s learners. Our distance learning experts are skilled at developing training courses that educate, engage and entertain – while always incorporating the best learning principles. We understand the power of well-designed online training in building the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed. Let us know how we can help your organization to deliver cost-effective online training to your workforce.



[1] Learning Style and Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction, C. Neuhauser, The American Journal of Distance Education, 2002.  Learning Effectiveness Online:  What the Research Tells Us, K. Swan, Elements of Quality Online Education, 2013. 

[2] University of Wisconsin, Madison – Content Delivery in the Online Environment, 2013