How To Avoid E-Learning Hell

Avoid E-Learning Hell Training

How many of you have had horrible encounters with company online learning programs? Sometimes I’m not really sure if the purpose of some e-learning is to train or just torture employees. It can really get that bad. So, how do we avoid this E-Learning hell?

That is a good question.

My first encounter with a major companies e-learning system was a series of online PowerPoint slides that I had to page through. At the very least I didn’t have to hear the voice of a bored HR person droning on about the importance of information security. If the purpose was to make sure employees don’t click suspicious links I don’t think that training would have won first prize.

My second encounter with e-learning was an online course that I bought because the sales page was convincing. Not many info product sellers publish their completion rates, but MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) tend to have very bad completion rates (i.e. about 15%). Considering that most info product sellers are not experts in online instruction, it can be easy to assume that they did not do much better.

However, if you already spent the time and effort, you probably want people to complete it and reap the benefits. So, what can be done?

When I was working at an IT company many years ago, I had the same problem. I still face the same problem as an entrepreneur trying to get more people to acquire skills, not just knowledge. There are a couple of things that I learned that you can use in your training too.

Here is the checklist:

  • Is there “skin in the game?”
  • Do you have small wins?
  • Do you have deadlines?
  • Do you have a place where students can get together?
  • Do you have commitment groups?

Skin In The Game

If you want people to finish, the first thing is to make not finishing more painful than finishing. One way of doing that is simple to charge money. The thinking is that if you were to charge $1,000 or more for your snazzy info product. More people would go through the whole thing towards the end.

After all, they would be out of the $1,000. But how many people actually finish those? How many did you finish?

I think I spent more than $3,500 on one online course and did not even finish it. That is still a lot of money. I could have finished it. I could have even gotten all my money back on it. But, I didn’t. That is bad on me.

But, let’s suppose that you charge $1,500 and then say, you will give $500 dollars back to each person who finishes the product. All you have to do is complete the video and show your work. I have yet to see anyone try this, but it might be worthwhile. I have been toying with the idea myself, if it works I will let you know later.

Skin in the game is more than money

However, the thing is that money doesn’t work on everyone. Sure, there is a strong incentive for quite a few people to get their money back, but for others, you need to try something different.

That is where the whole concept of Skin in the Game, comes in. Skin in the Game while being an interesting book, is a concept that beyond money. It is where you push risk and commitment.

Sometimes you can’t even use money as an incentive. For example, if you are doing a corporate training session then using money as an incentive or as a penalty is hard to do.

If you listen to the more forward-thinking speakers you might think that as long as you are clear on why the training is important then people will proactively learn your material. That will only get so far. Not everyone will buy into your why. They may have other priorities.

Also, different personalities will value different things differently. So, in addition to money you need to think about what motivates people. It could be:

  • Money
  • Reputation
  • Achievement
  • Connection


Skin in the game and perception

For example, there are groups that are concerned about how others perceive them. You want these people to make videos introducing themselves and committing on tape that they will finish. Some of these will hate not finishing because it will make them look bad in front of the community. This is what we call using social pressure. It can be a powerful force.

There are also people who are going to be more growth or achievement-oriented. In this case, you want to make a bigger deal of winning and achievement. If students don’t move forward at a reasonable pace they will not get rewarded or recognized.

Skin in the game and the growth mindset

But, for some growth is its own reward. These are the people you don’t need to worry about so much. They will learn the material if you are clear to them about how they will grow.

Now, you could have a leader board, but those who worry about their reputation tend to be more focused on that. Either that or competition-oriented people. Growth-oriented people are more focused on how they are now compared to how they were a few months ago. You could use charts, or periodic video evaluation to remind them of that growth.

For the more connection-oriented people. Having small study groups is helpful. Studying by yourself can be isolating and demotivating. Including some social interaction can also help this group learn as well. Plus, if everyone is working at the same pace, they will not want to fall behind. Falling out of the new group will be the incentive to keep moving forward.

To keep people learning, people need to have “skin in the game.” Skin in the game can be more than losing money for not completing the training. Think of other ways be people are motivated and use that to give different personalities skin in the game.

Build small wins

small wins

B.J. Fogg had it right. But it is more than just about tiny steps. It is the small wins that come afterward. Running a marathon is hard. But, putting your running shoes on for the first time in your life is a small win.

Doing a full day training or a training with 30 videos can feel like a marathon. There are going to be people who feel that learning the material is hard and then give up. What do you do about them?

My old physics professor took the approach that if you learned it or not was the student’s fault not his. In some schools, it may not matter if you are good teacher or not. But as someone who makes a living training people, getting results matters more than your own personal feelings.

The way that I look at it, you need to consider that there will people people who will feel intimated by the new material. Learning to deliver a 15 minute sales pitch can feel very scary. Especially if it is online. So, what can you do?

First, you need to give people some easy wins so they can build their confidence. May you ask them to give a short 1 to 2 minute self-introduction. Maybe you give a three page template just to fill in. In any case, in the beginning, it is a good idea to give the new learners a few simple tasks.

Once the students have a some success, then you can slowly start making the work tougher and tougher.

Do not organize the material in the matter that makes the most sense to you. Organize it to give easy wins to the learner. That should reduce your drop out rate significantly.

Do you have deadlines?

There is a CCR song called “Someday.” Just so you know it never comes. That can be a problem with our own on-demand courses. The student feels that they will finish it “Someday.” But that someday doesn’t come. We have to build deadlines just to nudge people to finish.

You see, people do need deadlines. In the wonderful TED talk “Inside the mind of a master procrastinator,” Tim Urban points out that without deadlines some people procrastinate forever. So, for a certain segment of the population, you need to give deadlines. They will thank you for it.

If they can’t pick a deadline, why not make one?

However, if you are doing an on-demand course, you may think the benefit is that people can do it in their spare time. That is true, but that should not mean that they have an infinite amount of time to finish it.

If it were me, I would consider what would a “reasonable” student would do. “Reasonable” is of course subjective and your mileage will vary. In the beginning, you may have to estimate how long it would take a “reasonably” busy person with normal motivation. Then you just build those deadlines into the system. You can always adjust when you have more data.

For example, if you think that it should take about 6-weeks to finish a 6 module course, then be upfront and say so. You could post estimated dates for when each module should be completed. If you are using a more sophisticated e-learning system, you could even set up reminders to go off automatically at a predetermined time.

If a student has stopped midway and there has been a long period of absence you might even want to take a more active role and find out if there is some way you could help.

In many cases, gentle reminders should work. However, if you are in a situation where many stop at a particular place, then maybe you just need to rework that section. You may need to contact several students to find out where you went wrong.

Without deadlines, lots of people procrastinate. So, create “reasonable” deadlines. Then nudge people with reminders to get them to complete the training.

A Place where everyone knows you’re name

As I mentioned earlier, it is hard to learn things by yourself. People are social animals. So, it helps if you can build places around your training where people can get together ask questions and encourage each other. There are a couple of ways you can do this.

First, it is important that people have a chance to give self-introductions. You can have a special place in your training or on your training site just for that. That way people can get to know each other and build connections.

Second, you need a regular and safe place to gather and ask questions. Without going into a long article on psychological safety, suffice to say that you need clear rules and encourage a positive attitude among the group. Mistakes are just learning opportunities.

Questions are also learning opportunities. Who knows there may be others with the same questions but not the same amount of courage. Questions should be applauded.

With that kind of environment established, people should feel more comfortable learning together. However, comfort is not enough. To get people coming back, you will also need to give the learning community some sort of identity.

This could be facilitated with the help of a logo, a group name, etc. How far you go depends on how necessary it is to maintain group cohesion for extended learning. But, for more information on this, I suggest looking into Primal Marketing.

To keep people learning on a continual basis, have specific gatherings to facilitate learning and community. People will need to feel safe to communicate more freely, so make sure you have clear boundaries and rules.

Having commitment groups

In addition to just having a community. it can also be useful to have smaller groups whose specific mission is to actually learn the material and get results. This can be particularly useful when the group grows to a size where you can not follow up on everyone.

The main point of any online learning should be the transfer of skill, not the transfer of information. It is my feeling that you should have periodic checks and projects so that people can implement the knowledge. You may need commitment groups to fulfill that task.

So, what is a commitment group? It is simple a small group (ideally 4 – 6 people) that help each other out in learning and implementing the material. There will be one person who is the leader. The leader will be the person whose main responsibility is to ensure that everyone achieves their learning goals.

I have seen some info products offer personal training to help implement the material. However, I have found that small groups tend to be better than one-one sessions. Other people get to learn from other members, and by offer guidance themselves. You can get sometimes get better solutions than from one experienced coach.

When a learning community or training group is of a sufficient size, having commitment groups increase the likelihood that people will complete the training and use it.


While just having a series of PowerPoint slides is the easy way to conduct training is not the most effective. You will need interactive sessions and also a variety of tricks and techniques to make sure that people complete the online training to the very end.

Not all the suggestions here will be appropriate to your training needs, but they should point you in the right direction. If you still have questions and concerns about how to do on-line training right, please drop me a comment or question. I will be glad to hear from you.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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