Imagine this situation for a moment – you have just finished reading an amazing novel. This novel is probably the best book you have read in your entire life and you are excited to learn that the film adaptation of the novel opens at your local movie theatre that same evening. You purchase your popcorn and arrive early to get a good seat. When the film begins you see an actor take a seat in front of a fireplace, open an exact copy the book you just completed, and begin reading the novel to the movie theatre audience. After about 10 minutes, the audience catches on that the entire film will only include the actor in front of the fireplace reading the book and begin to angrily walk out of the theatre.

How would you feel in this situation? Would you be upset or feel ripped off? In this example it is easy to understand how the media used to deliver a story, whether in a paperback or on film, impacts how the story should be told. The media impacts the message.


However, if we apply this analogy to e-learning, it is rare to see courses that have been designed with careful consideration given to how to tell a ‘story’ online compared to in a classroom. Most e-learning courses are simply repurposed classroom training sessions. Courses like these have caused e-learning to develop a reputation as boring and repetitive.

As an aviation trainer, you should never underestimate the effort learners will put into avoiding poor e-learning courses. Have you heard about the ‘clicker app’? This free, easily downloaded program allows you to position the mouse on a certain part of the screen and it will simulate a mouse click every few seconds. Learners use the clicker in e-learning courses by positioning the app over the ‘next’ button. The app then studiously clicks the next button so the learner can walk away from the computer and go about their daily activities.

As training professionals we may be inclined to defend e-learning or assume that learners are being lazy or over-critical. As an industry, it is time that we accepted the truth ­- e-learning’s reputation for being boring and ineffective is probably justified! Our industry embraced e-learning and deployed it before anyone really knew how to use it. In many situations learners were simply given a repurposed electronic version of a classroom course without the most powerful component of a classroom - the human instructor who engages learners, provides examples, elaborates on material in interesting ways, and answers questions.


The purpose of this article is not to imply that e-learning is a lesser form of instruction. In fact, quite the opposite is true, as advanced e-learning allows us to entirely rethink how we teach learners, guarantee comprehension, provide immediate feedback, and continually check and refresh knowledge to limit forgetting. However, to accomplish this we cannot simply repurpose classroom training. We need to identify the parts of training which require human interaction and move to a blended learning model where technology supports (rather than entirely replaces) classroom training. Good e-learning requires innovation - we must think beyond traditional hour-long classroom training methods and consider how technology can enhance skills in new ways.

Thankfully, more than 30 years of research have been conducted exploring characteristics of e-learning that improve learning and retention. On average, this research has found no differences between the effectiveness of classroom and online courses. However, it is clear that a large number of e-learning courses underperform and another group outperforms their classroom equivalent. This polarization of e-learning effectiveness is associated with the impact of learners interacting with an online course. The material may be the same online as in a classroom, but when learners are able to interact with training in new and innovative ways the effectiveness of e-learning skyrockets.


Based on research-identified principles, four ‘Generations’ of e-learning can be defined. This framework can help you recognize the good and bad e-learning courses on the market.

As you will see, with each subsequent Generation of e-learning, the effectiveness increases dramatically as do the development costs. This is important to understand, because e-learning courses are often priced the same regardless of the Generation. For example, two companies may be offering ‘Cold Weather Operations’ courses priced at $500; one course is a Generation 1 course while the other is a Generation 3 course. Understanding the difference between the Generations will allow your organization to choose courses which are more likely to be effective and embraced by learners (hint: the higher the Generation the better).

Generations of e-Learning

Generation of e-Learning How is it made? Consideration given to how people learn online? Learner Experience Average Development Hours (for 1 hr of completed training content) What does it look like? Learner Performance Increase Speed at Which Learners Achieve Mastery
1st Generation

Instructional content is repurposed from classroom-based training



None Passive – learner watches a screen and occasionally clicking the ‘next’ button 80 hours

· Watching - Typically PowerPoint slides or a videotaped classroom session

· Training followed by an assessment

Typically None Unlikely for Learners to Achieve Mastery
2nd Generation

Instructional content is repurposed from classroom-based training with added interactivity

Minor Limited Interactivity – learner watches a screen, occasionally interacts with an exercise, and clicks the ‘next’ button 200 hours

·   Watching & Clicking - Resembles a PowerPoint presentation, but includes:

·   media (videos, graphics, animations)

·   interactive exercises (drag and drop, quizzes)

·  Training followed by an assessment

Low Slow
3rd Generation Instructional content is custom designed for a digital environment Large Fully Interactive – may take the form of game-based simulations or content presented by avatars (cartoon characters) in a conversational tone. Interactive exercises are custom designed to support instructional objectives 500 hours

·   Immersive & Interactive - User experience in each course varies (may include advanced learning simulations and games)

·   Interactions are customized and require more complex thought from learners

·   Training is delivered in short chunks (no more than 15 minutes at a time)

·    Training followed by an assessment

Moderate Slow-Moderate
4th Generation Custom instructional content is embedded within an intelligent computer-based platform that tracks learner strengths and weaknesses and pieces together a unique learning path Very Large Fully Interactive, Adaptive, and Dynamic – fully interactive courses are made learner-centric by tracking progress and adapting training content based on individual performance levels and knowledge gaps 600-1800 hours

·   Immersive, Interactive, and Individual - User experience in each course is customized

·   Courses are not completed linearly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc). Each learner’s training path is customized based on their demonstrated strengths and weaknesses:

o  Expert learners progress quickly, average performers progress towards mastery, and novices receive additional support as required

·  Assessments are integrated within training and completed continuously to inform the adaptive computer platform

High - Very High Fast




Today, there are very few 4th Generation e-learning courses available in the marketplace. However, interactive, adaptive, and dynamic courseware is expected to be the future of e-learning. This technology will allow e-learning to customize training content for each individual. When training is dynamic, each learner’s curriculum is unique to their strengths and weaknesses. This non-linear training encourages deeper processing, cognitive flexibility, better integration of new material into existing knowledge, and a feeling of personal ownership of training.

Overall, e-learning has come a long way since its beginnings in aviation and there are exciting advancements that technology will bring in the future. As an aviation training professional it is important to understand the Generations of e-learning and to carefully consider how to integrate technology into your training program.