Training Industry

Learning Technologies

  • Developing Multimodal e-Learning Experiences

With billions being spent on e-learning, the stakes are high for student success.  The worldwide market for self-paced e-learning was valued at $21.9 billion in 2011, according to a report released by Ambient Insight. The United States was the biggest spender, but how effective is the typical e-learning course? 

Consider the typical e-learning experience. Most e-learning courses include a series of video tutorials. Students sit at their computer and watch a video of a trainer demonstrating various concepts and processes. Is this better than a traditional classroom?

While video tutorial courses offer a cost-effective and convenient solution, it’s an extremely passive way to learn. There are practically no opportunities to get involved.

Instructional designers are discovering that students learn better from a multimodal approach to instruction. Despite this, unimodal design remains prevalent in the corporate training industry. The immergence of virtualization, gamification, Web conferencing, and other technologies challenge us to take a new approach to e-learning design, in which students are fully engaged through multiple modalities.

Some e-learning video services offer access to the exercise files that the trainer is using in the videos. Students download the exercise files and mimic the trainer’s processes. This does little to enhance learning, since students are simply mirroring the trainer’s process exactly and are not pushed to think critically and experiment with the concepts.

Cisco released a white paper, Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says, with the goal of debunking the popular hierarchy of modalities. The white paper asserts that we should not value one modality over another, but rather determine design based on the content to be learned, the context, and the student. Lessons can and should vary in modality and interactivity.

If we accept the theory that students learn best when multiple modalities are employed, then it follows that e-learning courses should include much more than videos and mimicry. Through a multimodal design, e-learning courses should also challenge students to test concepts on their own, collaborate and discuss with others, and apply their own relevant experiences. Modern technologies make this interactive and multimodal experience achievable.

Multimodal design employs a variety of techniques to engage students in the learning. Determining which modalities is best suited to the given lesson and learner is complex.

"As it turns out, doing is not always more efficient than seeing," the report from Cisco explains. "The reality is that for the novice student engaged in basic skill building, such as learning chemical symbols, individual learning through reading or simple drill and practice might be the optimal learning design. Yet, for a different learning objective -- for instance, understanding the cause and effect of a specific chemical reaction -- involving that same student in collaborative problem solving might be the most effective learning approach."

With e-learning, we should be questioning if videos are sufficient for truly learning the content of a given course, or if additional resources are needed.

With the constant release of new technologies, and improvements on existing technologies, instructional designers have a range of options for enhancing the learning experience.


Virtualization allows us to create learning environments that can be accessed by students anywhere. Virtualization can be defined as “the creation of a virtual (rather than actual) version of something, such as a hardware platform, operating system (OS), storage device, or network resources,” according to Wikipedia.

In technical classes, virtualization allows us to create “sandboxes” where students can complete labs, test out concepts, and gain practical experience.

Consider the high-tech classes that your IT team needs, such as a Microsoft Certification class. Historically, students must travel to a training center to take their class using the computers at the training center. The computer at the training center is set up to allow students to complete their lab exercises and get practice with the technology.

Virtualization makes it possible for students to take those same classes from home or from work. Students can now access the lab environment from anywhere with only a few basic technical requirements.

Virtualization allows more technical courses to be available online, and since the students can dig into the lab environment, the courses are extremely interactive, and sometime even a little fun.


Also making e-learning more fun, the gamification trend is changing online learning for many students. Worldwide, we spend 3 billion hours a week playing online games. This statistic was shared by Jane McGonigal, at the 2011 Gamification Summit in San Francisco. McGonigal says this is because “we are not challenged enough in our real lives. We are not positively stressed enough in our real lives.”

Gamification has become a major buzzword in the training industry. Gamification is the incorporation of components of gaming into a course. By adding these components into our courses, we strive to restructure learning to be more challenging, engaging and rewarding for learners.

Some companies are fully gamifying their courses. Consider a sales course that Avaya gamified for their sales teams. Rather than offering a traditional course, they provide a mission-impossible style game. Students discover clues that help them better understand the client. They make decisions regarding the best people to schedule appointments with. They build a strategy and gain achievements as they progress towards their goal.

Consider a few of the gaming components, or “game mechanics,” that can be added to a course:

  • Exploration/Discovery: aspects of design that lead a student to be surprised and discover something new.
  • Achievements: A representation of an accomplishment. For example, earning badges or rewards.
  • Status: The player’s place within the hierarchy of the game. A player’s status may range from novice to expert. Some games assign more creative titles to indicate status.

For more game mechanics, visit

Even if an online course isn’t a full game experience like the Avaya sales course, we should challenge ourselves to consider incorporating more components that encourage student motivation, exploration and enjoyment.

Web Conferencing

A final technology that has transformed online learning is Web conferencing, which provide students with the benefit of live collaboration, even though they are taking a course online.

Discussion as an aspect of online learning is not a new concept. Discussion boards have been around since the 1990s and were quickly utilized for instructional purposes. Many of us have experienced the online course in which we complete an assignment at home and then contribute feedback to a discussion board. This format allows students to consider the concepts independently, and then further extend their learning by reading the insights of their classmates. The format transformed online learning by taking the collaborative benefit of a traditional classroom and duplicating it for the Web.

The challenge of discussion boards is sparking authentic and engaging discussions. With students contributing at different times, the boards feel slow and students still feel detached from one another.  Plus, due to the difficulty of keeping up with what has already been said, the posts often get repetitive and the conversation gets stale.

Now, with technologies like WebEx, GoTo Meeting, Adobe Connect, and other Web conferencing software, we have better tools for collaboration in online learning.

Web conferencing allows us to meet with others in a virtual space. Using a headset with microphone, or a telephone, we can hear and talk with others.

A student can meet with the instructor and with other students in a “virtual classroom.” The trainer can give a presentation, share their computer desktop, show videos, and more, all in real-time. Students also have the capability to present and share.

Students can take entire courses online in a virtual classroom. This is being approached by companies through a variety of methods. One way is to have all students and the trainer communicating only through the Web conference.  There is no brick-and-mortar classroom, only the virtual classroom. A second method is to set up a video camera in a physical classroom, where students are taking a class, and remote students can watch and ask questions through the Web conference.

The benefits of either method can be argued. The benefit of the purely virtual classroom is that all students are taking the class in the same way, which ensures that no one feels disconnected or forgotten. The key to this is small class sizes and designing the class to include many exercises and discussion to keep students engaged.

Many people are still unfamiliar with this approach to online learning, but it’s catching on. More and more training companies are developing instructor-led online solutions, and more and more students are taking classes this way.

Next Steps

From Web conferencing to virtualization to gamification, companies are developing more engaging and multimodal learning experiences. With so many interactive options, students are starting to expect more than just videos in an online course, and with new tools for constantly flooding the landscape, it’s inevitable that our online courses will change. The approach that works for some may not for others, but what’s exciting and challenging are the number of new technologies now available.

In 2011, the market for self-paced e-learning was $21.9 billion. The market is projected to reach $51.5 billion by 2016. What will online learning look like in 2016? Interactive virtual environments? Gaming simulations? Or maybe something completely different.


Allison Kenien is the business development manager at Webucator, an innovative provider of business and technical training.

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