Pitfalls of e-Learning
The Pitfalls of e-Learning - how to write effective and motivating         e-learning concepts
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Is this now the second big chance for e-learning? After the initial hype in the late 1990s, virtual learning formats are once again moving into the deserved focus of attention in times of curfew and home office - even if it is inevitable. To the sorrow of our educational institutions, training providers & employees, who now have to try to digitalize the existing training offer under time pressure. So it is now up to us to seize this opportunity! Let's not make the same mistake twice and produce digital learning products thoughtlessly, just so that we are supposed to have jumped on the digitalisation bandwagon. 

First of all: e-learning can be fun, motivating and at the same time have a lasting learning effect. If you have had other experiences so far, you are like many others. In most cases, it is the same motivation and effectiveness killers that run through the virtual learning scene. At this point it should be said: Designing effective e-learning is not magic, as long as you ask yourself the right questions. 


In this article, I will address these questions and go into explored problem areas of virtual, cooperative learning. Of course we use this knowledge and formulate simple tricks how you can avoid these problem areas. We also talk about the success concept of e-tutors and translate findings from cognitive psychology into concrete design criteria. The findings are especially valuable for the conception of e-learning formats that are intended to be designed over a longer period of time and include group activities. 

The biggest misconceptions and prejudices about e-learning

The effects of e-learning are well known. Probably everyone has had a taste of a digital learning product. Be it a webinar, a virtual classroom, an online course lasting several weeks, or one of the many other subforms I won't go into here. According to this, everyone seems to have an opinion on the topic. Besides the numerous known advantages, the list of disadvantages of e-learning is quite long. If you turn on your search engine, browse through scientific papers or question your environment, you will find that there is a great deal of similarity between these negative aspects. There is talk of impersonal, boring & socially isolated learning. There is a lack of group dynamics, exchange of experiences and feedback. In addition, there are technical problems and motivation holes that make the whole learning experience tedious. These voices are certainly not without any negative previous experience and therefore at least partly justified. Nevertheless, some serious errors of thought and prejudices have crept in, which are simply wrong in this form and above all in their absoluteness. These are: 



   x  E-learning is 100% scalable - once money invested, it is a self-runner

   x  What works face to face, always works online as well

   x  E-Learning requires high technical knowledge of trainer & participant

   x  E-Learning is impersonal

   x  With e-learning the learner is completely on his own

   x  Either E-Learning or face-to-face learning


Prejudices are at least in their origin based on personal experience. It can therefore be assumed that the majority of us have already had experiences with boredom, lack of motivation, sluggish knowledge & isolation within an e-learning format. And I can definitely count myself among this group. Fortunately, I have also been able to complete many very good e-learnings and know a lot about online didactics. So I was at least able to experience for myself that there are other ways to do it. With regard to this, one question seems to me to be much more interesting than the question about the negative effects: What are the causes?

Explored problem areas of virtual, cooperative learning

Researchers have long since addressed the problem area of computer-aided communication. In the 1990s, when the topic became highly topical, extensive laboratory experiments, observations and field research were carried out to identify psychologically relevant influences on computer-supported group learning situations. Their relevance and validity can still be confirmed today. Hesse, Garsoffky & Hron (1997) have summarized these findings. The following six problem areas could be identified:

(1) Lack of social presence

Computer-supported communication can rely on far fewer communication channels than face-to-face communication. Non-verbal and paraverbal cues and social contextual cues are not used. This can lead to communication partners not feeling sufficiently integrated into the conversation situation. The limited communication modalities often lead to apersonal relationship structures and dysfunctional social behaviour. This usually manifests itself in a high degree of task involvement, which has a positive effect on efficient task completion, but often neglects the social needs of the participants. Anyone who is currently stuck in the home office may be able to empathize. You feel super productive, but a little chat with your colleagues would make the whole thing much more bearable? The isolation from your fellow human beings puts you in a good mood and your motivation to get up in the morning has become much less? If you can answer one of these two questions with yes, you know what a lack of social presence feels like. So the crucial question we have to ask ourselves when designing e-learning formats is


Question: How can I make the format as personal as possible? 


(2) Missing group coordination

Under group coordination, the integration and harmonization of individual member contributions is to be summed up. Coordination difficulties arise here mainly due to the asynchronous communication structure (asynchronous communication takes place with a time delay, for example in the form of e-mail or in message forums - synchronous communication, on the other hand, happens simultaneously, for example in a chat or live session). Imagine the following case only once: A group of people tries to make an appointment together. Face-to-face, this would certainly happen much faster than time-shifted via digital media such as Whatsapp or Mail. Have you experienced it yourself? With computer-supported, cooperative work, these coordination processes should be explicitly defined. The question that we have to ask ourselves in this respect is 

Question: How do I make sure that group work does not become chaotic and that everyone makes their individual contribution? 

(3) Diffusion of responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility is a phenomenon that is not only found in virtual group work. Fueled by the lack of social presence described above, however, responsibilities are often shifted even faster here. True to the motto "someone else will take care of it and if not, nobody knows me anyway". This phenomenon is also known by other names, such as "social loafing" or "free-riding" - it occurs above all when group members have no individual interest in successfully handing over tasks or do not attach any importance to the negative consequences. 

Question: How do I ensure that a team spirit blossoms among the participants and that each individual feels motivated to take responsibility?  


(4) Lack of agreement on a common background of knowledge

A shared knowledge background is crucial for successful communication in working groups - otherwise the conversation is perceived as lengthy and unfruitful. What many of us do not know: We all have a certain idea of our conversational partner's knowledge and unconsciously use it to formulate our own message in an understandable way. The primary source for this is direct knowledge about the knowledge, attitudes and behavioral habits of the interlocutor. These sources are only available online to a limited extent. In addition, there is a lack of information regarding social aspects, such as clothing, language or social behaviour, which makes it more difficult for us to assess our dialogue partner. One can speak here of inadequate grounding. 

Question: How do I make sure that the group members get to know each other well enough? 

(5) Information Overload 

A problem that is often discussed in the context of computer-based learning is the oversupply of information with which learners are burdened - the classic information overload. Today, we have almost endless sources of information at our disposal. Furthermore, we can virtually generate messages much faster and share them with our group members. This requires a high degree of processing capacity as well as the ability to filter and prioritize. If this doesn't work, we end up being overwhelmed. 

Question: How can I help my participants to filter and correctly prioritize important information? 


(6) Lack of message connectivity 

The sixth and thus last problem area that could be identified with regard to computer-supported, cooperative learning is the lack of content related to each other in the individual group contributions. This affects asynchronous communication situations in particular. For example, if the sender of the message does not receive an acknowledgement of receipt, this can lead to uncertainty. But synchronous communication situations are also affected. A smooth, interlocking flow of communication is greatly impeded by the time required to generate a message, the receipt of several messages, or other technical circumstances. Everyone of you who has already participated in a virtual discussion forum will know what I am talking about. Discussion forums (unless they are optimally prepared) are usually divided into endless sub-discussions, many of which are repeated, but only a few of which relate to each other. If this problem area is paired with an information overload, you've already lost anyway. Maybe you have already experienced a similar situation: You open a discussion forum on a certain topic, see already 200 word posts on it and are willing to close the forum directly again.  Nevertheless, you read the first 10 posts and realize that they do not refer to each other at all and do not really answer the question. Then you know how missing message connection with Information Overload feels like. 

Question: How do I ensure that the individual communication contributions refer to each other and that a coherent communication is created? 

Tips for the didactic design of e-learning formats  

If we take into account the problem areas of virtual learning explored above and ask ourselves the questions formulated in this regard, a number of tips for didactic design can be derived. The list below is by no means exhaustive and should serve as a suggestion. Feel inspired to expand it yourself according to your technical circumstances. There are no limits to your creativity. 


  • Combine e-learning and face-to-face learning (blended learning) 

  • Combine synchronous & asynchronous communication options (e.g. news forums + occasional live videos)

  • Enable & challenge group activity (in the form of group work, peer learning)

  • Implement regular learning goal checks (e.g. in the form of multiple choice or selection tasks during the learning blocks) 

  • Integrate problem-oriented and authentic tasks (this refers to complex tasks that enable the acquired knowledge to be applied in a problem-oriented context that is accessible to learners) 

  • Sending individual feedback (this does not mean standardized feedback from a chat bot, but actually individual feedback, ideally based on a reference standard)

  • Increase focus on structure & coordination (e.g. changing moderation roles, clear allocation of roles, uniform structure of learning blocks etc.)

  • Use gamification & make learning progress visible (e.g. point systems, avatars etc.)

  • Add further impulses & literature (With this you can satisfy as many target groups as possible at the same time. Reference books for learners with less previous knowledge and further impulses for advanced learners) 

  • Address multiple information processing channels (visual & auditory)  

  • Implement question and discussion forum (ideally cluster thematically)

  • Offer consultation hours & regular support aspects (motivating intermediate messages, reminder e-mails, feedback messages, etc.)


Success factor E-Tutor


Probably the most valuable tip for the design of successful e-learning formats is to be dedicated a complete section - e-tutors!  E-Tutors or also called E-Trainers act as learning companions in the entire E-Learning process. They fulfil a number of tasks and thus ensure that both the didactic concept and the concrete implementation and organisation of the course run smoothly and successfully. E-tutors take on a number of important and decisive tasks: 


  • Content expert (content support & feedback provider)

  • Didactic designer (task creation, teaching strategies, conception, preparation & structure)

  • Learning companion & supporter (social interaction, motivator, sorrow box)

  • Technical contact point (expert in the various tools)

  • Communicator (moderation techniques & mediator) 

  • Coordinator (coordination of group processes & time management)

  • Organizer (planning of deadlines, coordination before, during & after the course)


Ideally you will find an e-tutor who is fit in all areas of responsibility. This would be, for example, a trainer (expert in a certain field), who has sound knowledge and experience in online didactics and is technically skilled enough to set up the program. If this is not the case, it can also happen that several e-tutors supervise the same course. At this point, however, clear roles should be defined and care should be taken to ensure that these roles are clearly communicated to the learners. For example, if you have an e-tutor at your side who cannot take care of the technical implementation for reasons of time or competence, it makes sense to get a second person on board. For example, person A can take care of all technical and organisational matters, while person B has the technical & didactic expertise and acts as learning guide and coordinator. You may also have the case that you are an absolute expert in a field but have little knowledge of online didactics and therefore cannot write a supervision concept, let alone implement the course technically. In this case I also recommend cooperation with an e-tutor. You would develop the course together, you would provide your professional input and the e-tutor of your confidence would package this knowledge into a motivating e-learning concept.   

Use insights from cognitive psychology for design

Up to this point, I have primarily given you tips for the didactic design of an e-learning course. In this section I focus on the visual design. I do not draw conclusions from current design trends, nor from research in the field of UX or UI design (even if they are very exciting). In view of the length of the article, I will limit myself, as the title suggests, to findings of cognitive psychology, more precisely to results of the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (short: CTML) according to Mayer (2005).


The CTML deals with the information processing processes in learning with multimedia learning material, more precisely: with the linking of text and image presentations of learning content. It is based on the following three assumptions:

(1) „Dual Channel Assumption“: A person's working memory consists of two independent channels for storing short-term information - a visual/pictorial and an auditory/verbal channel. When information is presented to the eye, such as text or video, it is processed by the visual channel. Information presented to the ear is processed by the auditory channel. 

(2) „Limited Capacity Assumption“: The second assumption is that humans can only process a limited amount of information per channel at the same time. This is consistent with Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory and is also consistent with Miller's theory that only 7+/- 2 chunks per channel can be processed. 

(3) „Active Processing Assumption“: The third and last assumption postulates active human information processing by assuming that learners actively engage with the learning material in order to construct a coherent and coherent mental representation of their existing experiences. Accordingly, learning is meaningful when relevant information is represented and linked in mental models. 

Based on these assumptions, five design principles for effective e-learning can be derived, which mainly concern the design component of a learning environment. Brünken, Koch & Jänen, (2012) summarise them as follows: 

(1)  Multimedia principle: Learners learn better with words and pictures than with words alone

(2)  Principle of contiguity: learners learn better when corresponding words and images are presented directly next to each other or in real time

(3) Principle of coherence: Learners learn better when irrelevant words, images and sounds are excluded

(4) Modality principle: learners learn better with animations and auditory teaching text than with animations and an on-screen text

(5) Redundancy principle: According to this principle, learners learn better with animations and an audibly presented teaching text than with an animation and a visually and audibly presented teaching text


The 5 Key Take Aways


  1. Writing motivating and effective e-learning concepts is not magic 

  2. Good e-learning results from the sum of many small details

  3. For e-learning to be successful, virtual supervision in the form of an e-tutor is required

  4. If you yourself have no knowledge in the field of online didactics and/or already have experience in the supervision of virtual learning formats, you should ideally get an e-tutor on the site or at least let their feedback flow into the design

  5. E-learning can be fun, motivating & at the same time have a lasting learning effect



  • Brünken, R., Koch, B. & Jänen, I. (2012). Pädagogisch-Psychologische Grundlagen. In M. Henninger & H. Mandl (Hrsg.), Handbuch Medien- und Bildungsmanagement (S.91- 106). Weinheim: Beltz Verlag

  • Hesse, F.W.; Garsoffsky, B. & Hron, A. (1997). Interface-Design für computergestützes kooperatives Lernen. In L.J. Issing & P.Klimsa (Hrsg.), Information und Lernen mit Multimedia (2. Überarbeitete Aufl., S.253-267). Weinheim: Beltz-PVU. 

  • Mayer, R.E. (2005). Multimedia Learning. Cambridge: University Press. 

Anja Sinz

Head of Learning & Programs Die CONUFACTUR

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