The 6 Dos and Don'ts of Designing Distance Learning Content

For many organizations, moving toward digital training is a necessity in these post-COVID times. Gathering learners in the same physical location is—for obvious reasons—a greater challenge now than ever before. But we propose you think about this as an opportunity to try something new. It could be a chance to engage your learners in ways you’ve never tried before. So whether you’re a digital learning newbie or an experienced hand, we hope these six tips will help you produce amazing training.

1) Do: Think About the Head, Heart & Hand

When we design digital training, our aim is to change behavior. To put it simply, organizational change arises when people do things differently. That means not just imparting information, but also the desire and skills to use it. Make use of the “Head, Heart, Hand” approach, which pays homage to the work of BJ Fogg’s Three Pillar model and serves as a great reminder that learning has to be understood, felt, and acted upon. Where distance digital learning can fail is if it neglects any of these areas. Think of it like the sides of a triangle—if any of them are removed then things fall down.

Trigger + Motivation = “I want to do something, but I don’t know how!”

Trigger + Ability = “Yeah I can do this, but I don’t want to.”

Motivation + Ability = “I want to and am able to, if only I knew when and how I need to apply the knowledge I have.”

Trigger + Motivation + Ability = “I know what to do, I want to do it, and I know how to do it.”

Distance learning is good at engaging the head when it delivers information in logical “chunks” that help learners understand what they should be doing. More on that later.

To engage the heart, there are lots of options available and the key is knowing what really matters to your learners and then showing it, instead of just telling it. For example, an opening message from the CEO communicates the importance of what they’re learning to the business and speaks to the learner’s sense of group identity. Or an emotive story from a customer’s perspective can be enough to motivate change through a desire to make life better for others.

Engaging the hand is all about practice, practice, practice. Does your distance learning provide the opportunity for learners to try new things and test out their new skills? Does it show them the consequences and outcomes of their actions in a safe space? Realistic scenario-based questioning is a powerful way to achieve this in eLearning. Other techniques include group and 1:1 roleplay, or offline workbooks that learners can go through in their own time.

KEEP READING | ‘The Student-Centric Approach: Applying Adult Learning Theory to Your Content Design

2) Don’t: Be Afraid to Experiment With Different Formats and Approaches

One of the great advantages of distance digital learning is the sheer number of different formats to play with so you can choose the best way to teach depending on your content. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are a few examples:


Great for...

eLearning Courses

The flexibility to tackle almost any kind of content in manageable chunks, using interactive elements to promote engagement and active thinking.

Video & Animation

Communicating stories and characters to build empathy—demonstrating why a concept is important through human narratives.


Giving learners the opportunity to practice a skill or behavior with rewards and penalties based on their performance. They can also be a lot of fun!

Live Webinars

Teaching an overview of a concept in an interactive setting, allowing learners to ask questions directly to the instructor, respond to polls, and provide input.

Recorded Lessons

Teaching concepts to a much deeper level but with the opportunity for learners to follow along at their own pace, take breaks, and complete offline activities alongside the digital components.

Virtual Reality

Experiential learning. When something can only truly be understood by being “present” in a particular environment, or seen through someone else’s eyes.

Each of these modes has its own sub-categories to explore. Let’s take video, for example. Could you make a short teaser that gets people excited to learn about your content? What about a documentary-style video that dives deep into a topic and explores real stories to both entertain and get people thinking (consider Netflix’s Tiger King)? Or could it be interactive storytelling where the learner is participating in making decisions (looking again to Netflix and its film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch).

So there’s no need to feel like you’re limited to just one mode of delivery. Use different forms that resonate with your audience and do justice to your content.

3) Do: Be Goal-Focused and Consider the Whole Journey

People tend to roll their eyes when you talk about learning as a journey—but it really is! Learning something new is rarely a singular event. It’s a process that involves synthesizing information from multiple sources, then forming and reforming that into knowledge as it’s applied in relevant contexts.

When it comes to content for distance learning it’s important to set meaningful goals for this learning intervention. What I’m learning has to be leading me somewhere—towards a new ability, a skill, an achievement that’s relevant to my occupation or interests. Without the focus of the classroom, we need our content to be driving forward toward these goals, now more than ever.

This can be achieved in a number of ways:

  • Be clear about the purpose and outcomes of the training at the start, and reinforce that message regularly throughout.
  • Ask the learner to consider their level of competence before the training, then replay that to them at the end so they can see how far they’ve come.
  • Break the training down into small chunks each with smaller objectives that contribute to the overall learning goal.
  • Give the learner regular opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge through quick quizzes and performance feedback.
  • Ensure that every bit of content you cover has a clear link to the overall goals. Learners should never be asking “Why is this important?”
  • Conclude the training by restating the purpose, and a summary of the new skills and knowledge the learners should have.

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4) Don’t: Let Learners Be Passive

For any given moment in your distance learning, think about the activity you’re asking learners to actually do. Is it passive or active? Let me explain.

A passive task is “watch this,” “read that,” or “answer these questions.” It’s an activity without a definitive purpose that begs the question, “Why?”

An active task is more like “research this, and then…” or “review the video, so you can…”. These types of activities make it clear to me why I’m doing it and the purpose it has in the context of my learning journey.

To be clear, it’s not just a matter of re-wording a task description and saying that it’s active; the learner has to be able to see this as part of a chain of activities that leads them toward their ultimate learning goal.

5) Do: Think About Pacing, and Design for Disruption

We normally talk about pacing in the context of films, books, or video games. It’s the feeling the audience gets from the cadence or intensity of what's unfolding in front of them. An action-packed video game can’t be action-laden all the time, otherwise the player gets burnt out too quickly and has to quit. But perhaps even more important is that varying the pace of an experience allows the audience to appreciate moments of intensity even more when they’re interspersed with some cognitive “downtime.” The same is true for learning.

In the home environment, it’s so easy for another task to catch your eye or demand your attention. Even a moment of hesitation in a distance learning program can allow the learner’s attention to be drawn elsewhere. Authoring any form of distance learning intervention requires designing for maximum attention retention. Having a good mix of media, activity types, and other interactive elements helps to modulate the level of intensity so that your learners experience a pleasant flow that keeps them engaged for longer.

6) Don’t: Be Tempted to “Just Include Everything”

This is the most straightforward tip for distance learning, but it might just be the most important. It’s totally tempting to think of a digital course—especially eLearning—as free real estate when it comes to content. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

For a classroom lesson, you probably wouldn't give each learner the entire 87-page Policy and Procedures guide to read. Just imagine those printing costs! However, in a digital course, technically speaking, you can. It’s just bits and bytes after all. But I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t. More information often leads to less retention and lower engagement because distance learners value training when it’s just enough.

For every ounce of content you include—be that text, video, audio, or anything else—ask whether learners really, really, really need it. If the answer is no, you should either remove or reduce it.

DISCOVER MORE FROM THE BLOG | ‘10 Pro Tips for High-Impact Distance Learning

A Final Word on Designing Distance Learning Content

Digital distance learning doesn’t have to be difficult to make, but getting your own special formula right can take time. The trick is to be patient and try lots of different things. These unprecedented times can be the perfect ‘sandbox’ to test and refine your digital learning design ideas. Whether you’re starting small or overhauling an existing eLearning course, these tips can help you digitize your training content and embrace a fully virtual world of learning.

Ready to ramp up your distance learning initiatives? Open LMS offers award-winning eLearning content creation to help you achieve your corporate learning goals. Contact us today to learn more.

Richard Calcutt is the Senior Learning Consultant and Game Specialist at LEO Learning (part of GP Strategies), where a version of this blog post originally appeared.

Richard Calcutt
About the author

Richard Calcutt

Learning Consultant and Game Specialist at LEO Learning

As LEO’s Learning Consultant and Game Specialist, Rich brings together the science of learning design with the art of play. He helps global brands create immersive gaming experiences for a wide range of audiences that inform, delight, and change behaviours. Rich is a total believer in the power of games to educate individuals, engage communities, and transform organisations. He has led the design of educational games for Shell International, Visa International, World Health Organization and Kraft Heinz, as well as the multi-award winning 'How Not to Suck at Money' for Invesco. Rich creates engaging and memorable experiences that hit your business and learning objectives. It’s his role to find the sweet spot between deadlines, budgets, and head-turning digital learning. Qualifications: MA in Human Resource and Knowledge Management; BBA in Management

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