What Lies Ahead For eLearning: What Can You Do Now To Prepare?

What Lies Ahead For eLearning_What Can You Do Now To Prepare
Summary: What future skills do you need if you're in Learning and Development today designing and creating eLearning courses? What can you do now to prepare for the future?

Are You Prepared For What The Future Holds For You?

How many of these words ring a bell: DOS, CBT, WBT, Floppy, Joystick, Flash, Flash Script, Macromedia, Authorware, Multimedia, Breeze, Serious eLearning Manifesto, Dialup, LMS, LCMS. If you scored above five, you’ve been around in the eLearning business for a while. While history is important, you may agree with my daughter’s take on it: "I appreciate it. But it’s gone." The questions I had in mind for this article is about the future. The future of work and the future of eLearning. The word "eLearning" itself can conjure different meanings for different people: courses in the LMS, microlearning outside the LMS, MOOCs, webinars, videos, etc. The tips at the end of the article are about courses, but the rest of the article is for all learning professionals who are interested in what lies ahead for eLearning.

What Are Future Skills?

Are the skills needed for the traditional roles of Instructional Design, learning experience design, and eLearning development changing? If so, how do we prepare to reskill or upskill? What is one or two things we should be doing today? These were the questions I set out to seek some answers to. To find these answers, I invite you to join me for a journey in the not-so-distant future.

Different Futures

For my birthday—because what else you would do on your birthday other than learning—my wife took me to the Art Museum of Philadelphia (yes, those Rocky steps). Specifically, to a provocative exhibition about the future, called Designs for Different Futures.

Here’s how the Art Museum describes the experience: "A journey through an electrifying landscape of designs that respond to the future in surprising, ingenious, and occasionally unsettling ways. From daring flights of imagination to products already on the market, the works on view explore what lies ahead for the earth and its inhabitants—through the interplay of design, art, science, and technology."

Some of the most memorable experiences involved 3D printed organs, synthetic food, AI-driven automation, and artistic short films on data. Specifically, storytelling with data. Storytelling with data is a powerful combination of art and science. We’ll get back to this skill later. One of my favorite projects was "Stranger Visions," the work of the artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg who collected chewing gums in New York City and then using DNA analysis, recreated the 3D faces of people who once "owned" them. There is some magic in combining creative art, science, and technology.

Interplay Οf Design, Art, Science, And Technology

It’s been fascinating to see how the interplay of design, art, science, and technology has been evolving in the last two decades. More than ever before in history, these "distinct" elements are merging. Remember the time we used to have a TV, internet, and a phone? Now it’s all in one. Merged into one stream of data. With digital transformation, our lives, how we work, play, and get things done have been changed drastically. It is not only the technology itself driving this change. It is the interplay of design, art, science, and technology. Now, whenever we go through an experience—like this exhibition—we expect that all these elements are working together to create the desired impact.

How Does This Interplay Affect What We, Learning Professionals, Are Doing?

Learning is no longer restricted to a place and time as an event. Learning takes place every day, everywhere within working hours and outside. In fact, as more and more work is done remotely, even the term "workplace learning" is shifting from its original meaning of a confined space. And that brings us back to the question: how does eLearning evolve in this digital world?

Alignment With Learning Strategies

eLearning has always been part of something bigger: the overarching strategy set by the organization’s business needs. You may have noticed the recent shift in language around strategic planning as we’re moving from competencies to capabilities [1].

What’s The Difference?

The biggest difference between the two concepts—although, they’re often used interchangeably—is that competencies are about fulfilling the current needs, while capabilities are about future needs. This is an absolute simplification of the two terms but shows exactly the focus of L&D. Competencies can describe the skills needed to do your job well today. The capabilities approach is to address the unknown and the agility to adapt to change. You can test where you stand today here.

Whether you’re an Instructional Designer, learning experience designer or eLearning developer, make sure you’re aligned with the organization’s strategic plans. Be in charge of your own learning, not only the development of others! Strategic planning has always been reacting to major forces outside the industry. Where the business is going, that’s where L&D should be going.

What Are The Major Forces Impacting The Future That Business Leaders Are Focusing On Today?

The Future Positive study by BCG and the Harvard Business School has discovered some patterns about major forces through interviewing business leaders [2].

The 3 forces that business leaders most often expected to have a significant impact on their organizations in the next 5 years were:

  • employee expectations to find a balance between personal and work life through flexible work mechanisms (46%)
  • the need to improve the level of skills in the workforce (44%)
  • and the difficulty in finding workers for the newly evolving jobs (44%)

The last element underlines the importance of keeping talent within the organization. Keeping talent has been on top of business leaders’ minds and a major headache for HR for the last couple of years. The "talent war" contributed to endless wellness programs, table tennis activities, free drinks, casual Fridays, etc., to boost morale and raise employee engagement.

The same study found that retaining talents actually has more to do with growing than entertaining. Ironically, most business leaders do not recognize that their failure to support workers by providing financial support, on-the-job training, and guidance needed constitutes a major threat to their enterprises’ intermediate and long-term competitiveness. Companies will need to build the workforce they need in the future through various means. While in-house training is a time-honored concept, it needs to expand beyond formal classroom training to on-the-job learning, project-based.

Who’s Responsible For Learning And Development?

One of the interesting concepts explored in the study is owning and shaping our own future by creating a "social compact or a learning contract" between employees and employers. It is no longer L&D who’s solely responsible for employee Learning and Development. This learning contract may lead to a new appreciation of learning. It is a shared responsibility. At the same time, it’s not the same as offering a course library or promoting "Netflix of learning."

Employer and employee will need to enter into the equivalent of a social compact—a learning contract—that allows both to thrive despite the pressures of non-stop, non-linear change. Such a contract will reflect a shared commitment to continuous learning and reskilling. Only such a reciprocal arrangement can serve both sides well. It will encourage employers to make the investment in training or tuition support to help workers cultivate the skills companies need. It will help employees acquire the emerging skills and competencies they want to cultivate.

As a senior executive at a leading retail company in Europe said bluntly, "Companies have to become campuses where people learn something every day, on the job, from their colleagues, their managers, even their customers."

What Are The Future Skills That We Should Be Growing Now?

In "The Future of Work: Technology, Predictions, and Preparing the Workforce," ATD examined how talent development leaders are preparing their workforce for the changes
expected to come in the next 5 years. In the study, Dana Alan Koch, Global Lead of Learning Research and Innovation at Accenture, explains their findings of future skills:

"Teach people uniquely human skills, like complex problem solving and habit formation," Koch says. "Give them opportunities to teach each other, teach them how to learn, and set the precedent about how we can continue to be relevant as we grow skills." Other future skills Koch’s research identified include curiosity, storytelling, creativity, and emotional intelligence [3].

Future skills put forward by the World Economic Forum include:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning and learning strategies
  • Creativity, originality, and initiative
  • Technology design and programming
  • Critical thinking and analysis
  • Complex problem-solving
  • Leadership and social influence
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
  • Systems analysis and evaluation

Lifelong learning is a theme that strongly emerges from the reports. That’s good news for L&D! But not in the traditional sense of Learning and Development.

Learning In An Ecosystem

Companies and their ecosystems need to build a culture of lifelong learning which allows employees to improve continuously. An online platform where employees can exchange ideas and teach one another different skills can also spark a mentality shift toward a culture of lifelong learning. This sentiment is also echoed in The Art and Science of Designing a Learning Technology Ecosystem publication done by RedThread Research about learning ecosystems.

Having seen all the myths out there about learning ecosystems, I completely agree with those leaders whose philosophy around creating the ecosystem were summed up in 3 areas:

  1. They focus on enabling instead of providing
  2. Also, they prefer designing instead of assembling
  3. Finally, they strive to incorporate all tech, not just learning tech

The research clearly shows L&D leaders realize the role of learning is not to provide all the information but rather to enable workers to grow their knowledge and skills, collaborate, and share.


The report identified the following actions where learning enablement is critical:

  • Plan: enable employees to understand their career options and identify what it’ll take from a development standpoint in order to get there.
  • Discover: enable employees to find the types of opportunities and content that will take them in the direction they’d like their career to go.
  • Consume: enable employees to access and consume content.
  • Experiment: enable employees to practice new knowledge and skills.
  • Connect: enable employees to connect, share with each other, and learn from each other.
  • Perform: enable employees to perform better on the job and learn while doing it.

Take a moment and think through these areas. Where would eLearning make the biggest impact? How would the role of eLearning change if you applied to each of these areas? What if you moved from the concept of creating a comprehensive eLearning course on a topic to small interactions supporting some of these areas? How would your role change? What skills do you have today to support that? What skills you don’t have?

No Matter What Lies Ahead For eLearning, Change Is Inevitable

Two decades ago, an Instructional Designer was in charge of effective learning theory and application design. A Flash developer worked from a design spec to create cool interactions. A multimedia designer added visuals. An animator created specific animations. A voice-over artist used their voice to narrate the content. All these roles today blend. We’re in the experience design. Experience design is just another signpost to show us how the interplay of art, design, and technology is merging.

And then there’s the technology trend of how we deliver experiences. It’s getting more and more personal (adaptive learning, LXP), customized (in time, space, device), tracked (data, triggers, nudges), closer to the need (AR, triggers), more lifelike (VR), more automated (AI).

Where Are We On This Road To The Future With eLearning?

When I visited the Design for Different Futures exhibit, I felt I’m way behind this change that has been happening around us. And if some of the predictions are true, this pace will pick up exponentially. Are we all prepared? One of the elements of these predictions of the future is the unequal distribution of wealth and power.

"Left unchecked, they could trigger a ‘new great divergence’ in a society of the kind not seen since the Industrial Revolution." According to the 2019 Human Development Report by the UN, this unequal distribution of wealth and power might be one of the major forces that impact on how humanity will experience or shape that exponential change curve.

"Inequality is not just about how much someone earns compared to their neighbor. It is about the unequal distribution of wealth and power: the entrenched social and political norms that are bringing people onto the streets today, and the triggers that will do so in the future unless something changes." With the future so disruptive and unpredictable, what can we do now to prepare when it comes to eLearning?

Enter Capabilities

Josh Bersin’s evolving view of corporate learning has come to an interesting stage: it’s an old concept in a new form. Capabilities are not new. What has changed is that L&D is no longer controlling "all the learning" within the organization. The business is. The business is deciding on what skills are needed and how to cultivate those. All these concepts emerged earlier, but today we face reality. You can’t keep up with the pace of change by creating content for everything. There is no rapid authoring for the pace of change. At least, not for everything! Pick your battles! By giving up all the ineffective "content dumping" projects, you’ll have the resources to focus on where eLearning does make an impact.

How to decide what works and what doesn’t? Today, it’s often opinions against opinions. The science of learning combined with practical data analysis can not only preach about best practices but show actual results. The truth is when it comes to learning, anyone can have an opinion—and they do. Imagine putting these opinions to the test. If the data also proves a best practice, opinions are no longer equal. And if researchers have already done the homework for you, make sure you don’t waste resources on ineffective methods such as learning styles.

"The personalized recommender system helps the learners overcome the information overload problem as learners are recommended eLearning resources according to their habits, likes and dislikes, learning styles, interest areas, and their level of knowledge." [4]

3 Types Of Learners

Another example of future eLearning trends explaining how video learning is great because now we can save visual learners from the horror of the lecture/note-taking classroom format:

"Although it’s a bit of a generalization, they say that there are 3 types of learners, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, that excel best in education when faced with videos, vocals, and practical demonstrations, respectively. For many years, despite this dichotomy, auditory learners were the only group properly served by the standard lecture/note-taking classroom format." [5]

Instead of wasting your resources—and honestly, your reputation—focus on evidence-informed best practices. Mirjam Neelen and Paul A. Kirschner’s upcoming book (released in February), Evidence-Informed Learning Design: Creating Training to Improve Performance, is a good start.

Googling The "Future Of eLearning"

Most of our research starts with googling. When doing some Google search on the "future of eLearning," most articles seem to focus on technologies such as AR, VR, mobile learning, adaptive learning, etc. You may or may not have the expensive technology or programming expertise today to experiment with all these, so my 2 suggestions below have nothing to do with expensive platforms, technologies, or even licenses.

2 Things You Can Do Now To Prepare

To answer the original question, here are 2 things you could be doing now to prepare for the future described above. Neither of them has to do with AI and technology. It all starts with a different way of thinking.

Tip 1: Drop The Container Concept

Stop thinking of an eLearning course as a container that needs to be filled with content. The more content you fit, the more value is packed. Work with your stakeholders to understand what they’re after: behavioral change, demonstrated skills, even awareness. Focus on what people need to do differently to grow rather than duplicate content in possibly the worst format for learning. Measure what counts!

Will Thalheimer’s Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM) is a pragmatic way of measuring learning. Learning is a complex problem in itself. There’s not one type of learning, even if we have one profession, "owning" learning. We should be well-versed in creating the best conditions for the workplace to learn within the constraints of our context. That means you will need to apply solid principles of why you choose a certain design. That’s a given. But most likely, none of the models, technologies, or any shiny off-the-shelves product will provide the desired impact as is. You will need to experiment, measure, and tailor the solution, based on empirical data specific to your context. This approach requires a mind shift and new skills to deal with complex problems.

A New Lense: Design, Art, Science, And Technology

Developing the skills to solve complex problems start with a mind shift: reframing the problem from one single eLearning course point of view by looking at the problem through the lens of design, art, science, and technology. And for that, you’ll need to be able to collaborate with other humans while supported by AI.

Tip 2: Be Curious! Look For The Interplay Of Design, Art, Science, And Technology

  • What if this problem was not a training problem? How would you address it? Who would you address it with? Build out your network to include design, art, science, and technology experts.
  • Engaging and motivation is the combination of art with science. Explore the self-determination theory [6], Daniel Pink’s book, Drive [7], the nudge theory [8], and game thinking [9].
  • Avoid all the learning myths out there and follow those who interpret the science of learning research such as Will Thalheimer, Patti Shank, Clark Quinn, Julie Dirksen. Read research coming out of the eLearning Guild or ATD.
  • Approach technology through user stories, not through a bunch of features. Experiment with Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping to move from content to actions.
  • Ask for permission to challenge. Involve those who are disruptors early on in the design process. Have them find holes, have them break things, encourage them to game the system.
  • Don’t waste too much time on opinions. Today, it’s easier to do A/B testing on two different approaches. Use the data to support one vs. the other. It saves time and it validates the approach.
  • Learn basic data literacy, including statistics. You should be able to ask the right questions, even if you’re not a data analyst or data scientist. Literacy is a scale. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
  • Storytelling with data might be a buzzword today, but it does sound like you’ll need to learn the language of information (vocabulary) to harness the power of storytelling (art and science) along with data visualization (design, art, science, technology) to be on top of future demands.

What Lies Ahead For eLearning Is Fun

The future is exciting! We, learning professionals have the talent and the skills to shape the playground of the future where we can not only observe the interplay of design, art, science, and technology but actively immerse in it. Maybe we don’t even care where one discipline starts and where another ends.

How do you know these predictions are true? You don’t. Many of these elements described in this article are assumptions, best guesses by looking at trends. However, there are no incorrect or correct answers here—only evolving views based on our best knowledge.

Final Thoughts

One thing I can guarantee. Not evolving your views is the biggest mistake you can make right now to prepare for the future.



[1] Competence And Capability - A New Look <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=>

[2] Future Positive: How Companies Can Tap Into Employee Optimism to Navigate Tomorrow’s Workplace <https://www.hbs.edu/managing-the-future-of-work/research/Documents/Future%20Positive%20Report.pdf>

[3] Research reports published by ATD can be purchased by visiting ATD’s website <www.td.org/research or by calling 800.628.2783 or 703.683.8100. ATD Product Code: 791903-WP>

[4] An Improved Recommender System for E-Learning Environments to Enhance Learning Capabilities of Learners

[5] The Future of eLearning – 10 Trends To Be Aware Of

[6] Theory

[7] Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

[8] Nudge theory can help change your employees' behavior (without them even realizing)

[9] Game Thinking: From Content to Actions