eLearning Trends for 2021

Shauna Carson

We're a few months into 2021, and it's a good time to ask what's been happening so far this year and what's ahead for us in eLearning. This year is particularly interesting as we continue to react to the disruptions of 2020. How have events affected us, and what's coming up next? Read on for my predictions for 2021.

eLearning Trends for 2021

Last year didn't go quite as expected. Its momentous events are still with us and are likely to contribute to the shape of the eLearning industry, among others, for years to come. That's why I was a bit surprised to find that this year's eLearning trends have a decidedly familiar cast. Is it a case of returning to established patterns in a time of uncertainty? I don't think so.

I see two reasons for the ongoing popularity of this year's trends:

  • Many of the trends that have been reaching top ten lists for years are continuing to develop. While mobile learning and video-based learning are worlds ahead of where they were when they first appeared on such lists, our understanding of their potential for further development has progressed even more.
  • The general audience for eLearning is expanding. While those of us in the industry may have known its features and advantages for many years, recent events have stimulated interest in eLearning, and new companies and even whole industries are discovering what it can offer for the first time.

It's not more of the same, it's the same, but more!

Top ten eLearning trends

1. eLearning

My top eLearning trend for 2021 is eLearning itself. The pandemic has boosted online learning in several ways:

  • Increasingly, workplace learning must be conducted remotely as employees work from home or at least avoid gatherings
  • With social event cancellations, many people are using their spare time to learn something new for both work-related and personal reasons
  • Disruptions in the education system are training future workers to learn online

Traditional instructor-led training involves bringing people together. With this option off the table in today's climate, many organizations are transitioning to eLearning or increasing their online offerings. This isn't expected to be only a short-term change. While most people will eventually return to the office at least part of the time, many companies are welcoming the financial and environmental benefits of using less office space, advantages they'll be reluctant to relinquish. Increased demand for eLearning will remain long after the pandemic has passed.

2. Mobile learning (mLearning)

Mobile learning is the delivery of training or education materials or learning support on any mobile device (smartphone or tablet). While it's a form of eLearning, it has its own characteristics. The smaller screen, increased prevalence of distractions, and portable, on-the-go nature of mobile devices mean that mLearning works best when the content is be short and to-the-point.

Mobile learning has been around for a while, but what it means is changing. The emphasis used to be on responsive design, or web pages, generally designed for viewing on computer, that could smoothly adapt themselves for display on a smaller phone or tablet screen. The opposite is now true. With so many mobile users,it's become common for learning experiences to be designed for mobile devices with desktop use as the afterthought.

3. Microlearning

Microlearning is learning content that is delivered in short, focused nuggets or bites of about three to five minutes. It works well as a form of mobile learning, although it doesn't have to be. Microlearning is quick and inexpensive to develop and easy to access as needed on the job.

4. Video-based learning

Did you know that "every month there is more video content uploaded to the internet than the three main US TV networks have developed in the past 30 years." Video is a popular online medium, and its use in online learning is no exception. The use of video in eLearning has been trending for some time, and it's a trend that will only expand as interactive video becomes easier and more common to develop. Interactive video allows developers to add things like:

  • Questions or quizzes
  • Popup text
  • Embedded links and other items
  • Branching

5. Social learning

Social learning is learning that occurs when "people acquire and change social behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions from observing and imitating the actions demonstrated" by others. We have an innate propensity for social learning that makes it particularly powerful.

While remote working has reduced opportunities for direct observation, group discussions as well as content creation and curation by employees can enable social learning even in the current environment. Interest in this type of learning is increasing both because of its effectiveness and as a way to combat the isolation of working alone.

6. User generated content

User-generated content is not only a part of social learning, it's a trend in itself. Empowering employees to share their knowledge provides quick, inexpensive learning material that tends to be targeted to what coworkers need to know. The technology supporting user-generated content is already widespread and continuing to develop. Companies are taking advantage of social media, Learning Management System (LMS) features and other forms of online communication to help employees connect and share what they know.

7. Content curation

As the trends discussed so far advance, so does the need for content curation. Masses of user generated content, bites of microlearning, mLearning segments, videos and opportunities for social connections along with formal eLearning elements can become overwhelming. What's the best way to find what you're looking for, and which offering has the quality you need? Thoughtful curation is needed to direct employees to what they need when they need it. It also plays a role in ensuring the quality and accuracy of the available material.

8. Data analytics

Data analytics presents one of the more substantial trends in eLearning. Vast amounts of data can be collected and analyzed by your LMS, web tracking, collaboration tools and performance systems. Fast-developing artificial intelligence (AI) systems can provide higher-level analysis. By tracking and assessing learner performance, progress and preferred pathways, "data and AI will better enable employees to learn what is most relevant to them at the time that they need it and in the format that they prefer. It will also allow learners to track progress and develop a constantly evolving and personalised learning pathway."

At the organizational level, data analysis will help maximize training return on investment (ROI) by answering questions like:

  • Which training interventions have the greatest impact on employee performance?
  • What is the cost/benefit ratio of various elements of eLearning?

9. Adaptive learning

As mentioned previously, one of the advantages of modern data analytics is its facilitation of adaptive learning. Adaptive learning involves personalizing learning material and pathways for each learner's existing knowledge, pace and preferred learning styles and formats. Analytics "keeps track of learner activities during training, such as the mistakes they make, the difficulties they face, and more," and uses that data to customize a learning plan. The focus on individual needs and abilities results in more efficient and effective learning.

10. Immersive learning

Many commentators expect to see a rise in immersive learning, meaning technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), this year as technological advanceslower cost and development times.

I'm not so sure about this trend. I'm more inclined to agree with Mark Zides at eLearning Industry, who says that given the social disruption and economic downturn of the pandemic, "newer and more expensive technologies like VR and AR will go out the window in favor of less expensive, tried-and-true, easily scalable eLearning styles." Immersive learning is a longer-term trend, but I think we'll have to wait for costs to come down, the economy to improve and more social stability before we see widespread adoption of these strategies.


2021 will be a year shaped by the pandemic. In eLearning, we'll see the effects of remote working, remote training and tighter budgets. My predictions for the year include more eLearning, more learning that is mobile, micro, video-based, and social, increased emphasis on user-generated content, content curation, data analytics and adaptive learning, and a short-term reduction in immersive forms of learning. But that's just me. What do you expect to see in 2021?

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.