Features You Need for Effective Online Learning

Shauna Carson

Online learning is versatile and cost-effective, but versatility can be a double-edged sword. Which of the many available features should you choose? This article will discuss eight features you need to reach your audience and make the most of the online learning format.

Eight Features for Effective Online Learning

1. Accessibility

If you want your online learning to be effective, then you have to reach your whole audience. There's simply no excuse these days for designing inaccessible eLearning.

Avoidable accessibility problems are often experienced by people with:

  • Vision Loss, who may use:
    • A screen reader, which requires proper heading setup and meaningful link text
    • Keyboard navigation, rather than a mouse, requiring all onscreen elements to be accessible by tabbing
    • Zoom features
  • Hearing loss, who need captions or downloadable transcripts for audio
  • Mobility issues, who may also use keyboard navigation
  • Cognitive or learning impairments, who may benefit from straightforward content without time restrictions.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) creates standards and support materials for accessible development, including:

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
  • Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)
  • Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA)

To learn more, check out W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative and read Tips for Designing Accessible eLearning.

2. Microlearning

Microlearning always seems to pop up in this blog, but it's for good reason. Microlearning is an effective way to reach modern learners. It meets many needs in the current environment, working well in an atmosphere of:

  • Limited time for learning
  • Ever-present distractions and interruptions
  • Mobile learners
  • Numerous new demands

Microlearning has its limits. As effective as it is for straightforward concepts and simple tasks, it becomes disjointed when used for in-depth exploration of more complicated issues. Consider other learning strategies for such topics.

3. Mobile Learning (mLearning)

Mobile learning is basically a form of microlearning designed to be completed on a phone or tablet. App-based learning formats in particular are rising in popularity.

To get the most out of mobile learning, keep the format in mind at all stages. It takes more than responsive design; also consider how the screen will look on a smaller device and whether the learning item lends itself to completion while on the train or in a waiting room.

4. Searchability

Modern learners often want simple, direct answers to their questions. And they want them now. Searchable learning content can help convince them to turn to you when they have a question.

5. Instant Feedback

The potential for instant feedback is one of the most effective features of online learning. Reading text on screen is little different than reading a textbook. Instead, learners should be given the opportunity to act in a way that verifies or enhances their comprehension of the material.

One of the most common ways to provide feedback is to include mini-quizzes or exercise questions at frequent intervals. Questions are best placed immediately after the material they refer to, where they can prompt learners to think about what they just read and reinforce their memory, improving overall retention. Similarly, when learners misunderstand a concept, it's better to correct them sooner rather than later.

Much of the value of these questions lies in the feedback given. All too often, learners get a green check or a red 'X' and then move on without further engaging with the material. An excellent opportunity to provide more detailed reinforcement of the concept is missed.

In The Power of Feedback, Helen Timperley and John Hattie reviewed numerous studies to conclude that to be effective, feedback must be immediate, specific and encouraging; Addressing the learner's progress towards a goal with constructive advice that prompts internal feedback and self-adjustment.

A red 'X' is neither specific nor encouraging. Good feedback explains how or why an answer is wrong, or at least why the right answer is right. It should clearly explain not just what the correct answer is, but how to get there next time; Thereby advancing the learner toward their goal of understanding the material.

For example, if a learner makes a mistake in a question about step in a procedure, be sure to reiterate the purpose of the step, why it must be done correctly and the consequences of getting it wrong. This fosters a deeper engagement with the material, reinforcing the knowledge of those who got the question right and providing clarification for those who got it wrong.

6. Video

Videos are becoming ever more popular as learning tools, as a quick perusal of YouTube will confirm. If people like getting information from videos, why not enable their preferences? Videos can also be the ideal way to demonstrate processes or show how to operate equipment. Technological developments now allow the creation of interactive videos, enabling the merger of video with feedback opportunities.

Learning videos generally take one of the following forms:

  • Tutorial: A step-by-step instructional video
  • Talking Head: Often an interview
  • Lecture: A traditional-style lecture, but now with the chance to rewind, fast-forward and pause the experience
  • Screencast: Also called a screen-cap or screen-capture, showing what's happening on a computer screen
  • Animation: Especially for those times your budget won't cover the real thing

7. Gamification

Gamification is defined as applying game mechanics, such as points, levels, badges and leaderboards, to non-game material. It is distinct from game-based learning, which is learning that occurs through game play.

In theory, gamification serves to engage and motivate learners by:

  • Making learning fun
  • Creating competition
  • Encouraging cooperation
  • Granting bragging rights

If you're one of the many wondering how the theory is working out, there's good news. A recent meta-analysis of the effectiveness of gamifying learning concluded that gamification has statistically significant effects on cognitive, motivational and behavioral outcomes.

8. Scenario-based learning

Scenario-based learning is essentially storytelling, one of the oldest and most traditional means of instruction. In the case of storytelling, old means tried and true, not outdated. Learners presented with stories, rather than a descriptive explanation, show increased recall, better comprehension, and faster reading time.

If telling a story seems too passive for your learners, make learners participants in the story by building a branching scenario. A basic branching scenario works like a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book. Whenever the protagonist reaches a significant choice in the narrative, readers are given several options and the story continues along the path chosen by the reader. In training environments, learners are given the opportunity to experiment with different options and learn from their mistakes.

Branching scenarios can be costly and time-consuming to build, but they have incomparable value in teaching skills with.

  • Shades of Gray: The skill isn't just black and white; there are nuances and shades of gray.
  • Strategic: The skill is strategic rather than procedural; it requires more than a checklist.
  • Multiple Decisions: The skill requires multiple coordinated decisions.
  • Risky Situations: The skill is too risky to practice on the job.

Christy Tucker

Do you want to step it up another notch? Don't just tell the story, but have the learners act it out. Scenario games are one of the most effective forms of game-based learning.

However you choose to tell your story, it's essential to remember your objectives. If a learner deviates from a procedure or makes a poor choice, always show the consequences. You never want the retention-enhancing effects of storytelling to help your learners remember the wrong things!


This article has reviewed eight features your eLearning can use to reach your learners: accessibility, microlearning, mLearning, searchability, instant feedback, video, gamification and scenario-based learning. The best features for a given project are determined by context and content, although we all know that budgets and timelines also play a role. Which features will you use to enhance your latest project?

📘 Ready to Elevate Your Learning Strategy?

Explore our comprehensive library of eBooks and tools on learning resource development, competency-based learning, and LMS implementation. Transform your training programs with insights from industry experts and practical templates.

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.