Monday, 20 April 2009

Ten Commandments of eLearning

Frequently when I talk to colleagues about eLearning they say something like 'I set up a bulletin board/blog/wiki etc but the students didn't use it'. My response to them is always the same: that the problem is more likely to be with their design rather than with their students. Over the years I've learned a lot of things about what good design really means and I've grouped them all together into a Ten Commandents of eLearning. This is not intended to be blasphemous or disrespectful but rather is inspired by the Christian commandments in that all they're doing is presenting a set of basic principles to work to. Like the original ten commandments, with these the first is the most important. I hope you find them useful.

1 Put the pedagogy (not the technology) first
Think about what students need to learn then think about how it is best for them to learn it. Only then think about which technology is best used to accomplish this.
Don’t be too ambitious. Start out small (eg. just a discussion board or a group blog) and build on this in subsequent years.

2 Be aware of workloads and work patterns (yours and theirs)
Replace (don’t augment) other teaching and learning activities with eLearning
Consider how much reading and writing they are required to do each week. Use groups to limit/manage this.
Consider how much reading and writing you’ll be required to do each week to moderate their activity. Design and structure the activities to manage this. Develop/harness peer learning opportunities - these should strengthen over the duration of the module and your workload should decrease accordingly as students take on more of the load.
Avoid activities where students rely on colleagues to complete work before they can complete theirs so that students who meet deadlines or want to work ahead aren’t penalised or held back by those who don’t.
Limit the number of synchronous activities or make them voluntary. Record them so that those unable to attend can access them at a later date.
Remember: lurking (reading without contributing) can be a valuable learning activity.

3 Balance risks with safety
We want students to take intellectual risks but they need to feel safe in order to do so. The eLearning environment needs to be a safe place to be. Going online can feel very ‘risky’ in itself to many people – so make the first few activities ‘familiar’ and ‘safe’ such as introductions, reflection etc. In other words, bear in mind ‘social’ risks as well as intellectual ‘risks’. Make sure there is a welcome for students ready for them when they first log on and that the first thing they need to do or place they need to go to is clearly marked at the outset.

4 Balance obligations with rewards
By all means use compulsory elements to oblige students to participate (assessed elements, attendance requirements, deadlines etc).
But make sure these are balanced with elements that make participation worthwhile and beneficial for them in terms of their learning needs. Carrots are much more effective in eLearning than sticks.

5 Make ethics a priority
Don’t give anyone access to the site who doesn’t have to be there. Inform students about who has access, why they are there and what they have access to. Let them know if/how they are being surveilled. Never display or reuse student contributions or work without their consent and release.

6 Model good practice
Write your contributions in a way that you would like your students to write them (i.e. concise, well paragraphed, proof read, formal/informal etc)
Be online when you say you’ll be and do what you’ll say you’ll do (no more no less)
Keep and use your sense of humour. Always observe appropriate netiquette and make sure that students do also.

7 Make expectations clear
Establish clearly what are the minimum expectations you have of them.
Establish clearly what are the maximum expectations they can have of you.
Ensure the module works in the space between these two.

8 Establish patterns and stick to them
Build spaces and use them consistently (always put the same sorts of things in the same places so they are easy to find, use colour coding to differentiate different types of documents etc). Don’t move things around unless you have to. If you form students into groups don’t alter them for the duration of the module unless you have to.
Establish learning patterns or cycles (eg Explore, Describe, Apply) that students work through routinely (eg weekly or fortnightly).

9 Keep spaces available for students to use and shape to their own needs
Allowing students to control and customise the learning environment is a useful and important way of empowering them and allowing them to take ownership of it the space. This can be something as simple as a ‘notes’ or ‘general discussion’ forum on the discussion board or as complicated as a wiki space where students can collaborate on writing documents or set up URLs to share.

10 Use/develop protocols
Protocols are helpful for all students, not just those with low experience or confidence using online spaces. Use protocols for such things as for saving and uploading documents, assessment etc., for using a chat space, for formatting reader-friendly posts, for using blogs. Don’t reinvent the wheel – someone else may have already created and tested one.

This post is available in a Spanish translation (with thanks to Natalia Martínez Díaz) at:

Este se encuentra disponible en una traducción en español (gracias a Natalia Martínez Díaz)

See other blog posts which have responded to these commandments or developed their own:

Clive Shepherd:

Abjikit Kadle

Robert Kennedy (and his followers)


  1. Great post Cath! I followed this up with my own post at (referencing you of course :-). I think it definitely is important to have some best practices parameters. While some of the 'bugs' were still being worked out re: online learning in the early part of the decade, having some of these thoughts at hand would definitely have been a plus in my own online classroom experience. Again, great thoughts and WELCOME to the world of blogging :-).

  2. This is a great post that I would like to share with my colleagues on the VLE in our eLearning Forum a place to discuss teaching aids and resources. I've added you to my blog list! ****

  3. Kia ora Cath

    Thank you for this list. I wonder about point 2.

    You bring forward the idea that it's not so good to augment. I have a different perspective in working with distance students who often actually prefer other technologies (than elearning). For them the elearning platform is useful, however, and in particular the aspects that the digital media is most useful for can be introduced to the learner.

    I prefer to use the term enhance, rather than augment.

    I'm thinking of vids and complex overlays or animations here - aspects that are perhaps much more difficult to do in print-based technology, say, which for many learners is the preferred option - learner centred being applied here.

    There are some instances where it is often far better to do as you say and replace a perhaps poor and far less effective print-based instruction.

    There are often at least two advantages of using the elearning technology this blended way, but a third is that it can actually introduce the reluctant elearner to the advantages of elearning. I have many personal examples in my own students where this happened, where the learners actually end up being exemplary elearners!

    Also part of my perspective is that I am aware that not all learners are into elearning and some actually prefer not to. Don't take me the wrong way here. I am all for elearning, for it is my preferred method of teaching.

    Catchya later

  4. This is a really useful list Cath!

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    To clarify Ken, my second point about replacing rather than augmenting is specifically related to workload. I've seen a lot of colleagues add an elearning component to their predominantly face-to-face module just to find themselves crumbling under the extra workload. My suggestion is to replace some aspect of face-to-face teaching with an elearning element (a discussion board, blog etc) rather than adding something extra on top.

  6. Great post, Cath! I referenced it on my blog:

  7. This is a brilliant list, thanks! They're all important, but for me, number 1 is central: you can't use technology well unless you know what you're doing with it pedagogically. Modelling good behaviour (6) and establishing expectations (7) are very important too.

  8. Wow, this is REALLY helpful. I work for a company and we create elearning for electrical apprentices. While our system works well, we're always looking to improve and develop our system! These tips are great- even to just put into the words some of our philsophies!

    Thanks again!

  9. These are amazingly helpful! Thanks!
    I'm in the process of working with my school to develop a better framework for eLearning. This is a fabulous discussion starter.

    Thanks again.


  10. Hi Cath, very helpful post. Would you allow me to reproduce this ( with your name ) to help others that create eLearning content? One of my projects is which is being built around my software at .
    You can eMail me at Mark.M @

  11. Hi Cath, Thanks for a really useful post. I am starting to teach an online facilitation course for NCSL this morning so I'm sending them in this direction immediately!

  12. Gosh, this is a great first blog post. I think you set very high standards.
    When you say "use colour coding to differentiate different types of documents", if you are using Blackboard how is this possible? It is a bit pf a problem on our setup at least that things tend to look the same.
    Anne Marie

  13. I saw your post on BJ Schone's blog. Great article! Your readers might also be interested in this article: “10 Instructional Design Tips for e-Learning Development” which provides some additional tips for those who are interested in instructional design and e-Learning design. The article is located at Check it out!

  14. Great stuff! G'day from Australia!

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  16. Thanks for these eLearning principles they are great guidelines for me as a new player in the eLearning space.

  17. Thanks for these exceptional principles. We have integrated them into our business plan for our Learning Design business in Australia.

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