Designing for Learning

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Max Wilson


E-Learning is already a large and booming industry. With a wealth of options for software and providers in the individual, academic institution, and corporate training spaces, what are the core elements behind e-learning technology writ-large? This paper approaches this question through an overview of learning norms and case studies of a basic language learning program, an academic oriented course delivery company, and a corporate skills training platform. Analysis reveals that these are each different iterations of Learning Management Systems. Differentiated primarily by content, the unifying elements and of content delivery and management through SCORM offer companies and users with a plethora of options for combinatorial design of applications and platforms tailored directly to customer needs.


“The Return on Investment promise of higher education is gone.”  Melissa Bradley, Adjunct Professor, McDonough School of Business, speaking at the McGowan Symposium on Business and Ethics at Duke University, November 9, 2018.

Traditional 4-year higher education programs are being scrutinized for their applicability in a world where workers need to continually learn and adapt to new challenges alongside the technological tools that are changing how we live, work, and play. The high sticker prices are being met with skepticism when the compensation of the jobs they earn pale in comparison to the jobs of self-taught “basement” programmers. As concerns about affordable access to relevant education has grown, so has the availability of computers, the level of internet access, and the power and affordability of content hosting and delivery services. In 2012, two Stanford professors performed an experiment with recording their classes and releasing the video online. Shortly afterwards they left their teaching roles to start Coursera, an online platform with the explicit purpose of sharing the best university courses with the world at large.[1]

Coursera was revolutionary when it went live for the high profile institutions and professors behind the courses being taught, however, the fundamentals of the service were nothing groundbreaking. Distance learning is not a new concept, dating back to the early mail based correspondence programs of the 1950s.[2] Computer based learning was also not a new concept, with Rosetta Stone providing customers with boxed sets of CD-ROMs in 1992 that promised immersive language learning through your newest home appliance, the personal computer.

Over the past decade those seeking to learn new skills for work or life have been faced with an ever growing number of options, formats, and providers to choose from. Furthermore, these e-learning solutions for individuals represent just a sliver of a marketplace dominated by corporate buyers seeking to onboard new-hires efficiently, offer employees cost-effective and convenient professional development, and upskill workers as new technologies continue to challenge the existing skillset of employees.

From a business or social standpoint, these e-learning solutions simply repackage age old content and teaching styles into a new medium for consumption. Since the final product is minimally differentiated from the service it replaces, are the multitude of platforms and systems in the marketplace truly different from one another? Below, I have gone through three examples of e-learning systems that from a user perspective constitute very different use cases. By deblackboxing these different software platforms I expect I will find a very consistent set of modular technical building blocks, that are fundamentally simple to develop, select from, and recombine in a combinatorial manner. I believe a thorough understanding of the core elements of these Learning Management Systems will empower me in my future work to help clients select their ideal providers and design for success in their workforce development programs.

Professional Relevance and Market Insight

Through gathering sources and researching the technical elements of these platforms I found no true market leader in the Learning Management System space. Instead, I found a lot of extremely similar platforms, making even more similar claims of valuable user outcomes filled with the most buzz-worthy of terms including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and innovative. The preponderance of relatively equal market options, for particularly business oriented products, tells me two things about the nature of LMS software:

  1. The fundamental technical modules that comprise an LMS are relatively simple, easy to build, and do not represent a significant hurdle to the development of a market ready LMS.
  2. LMS platforms meet basic customer needs adequately, but are largely not differentiated in the user experience they provide, otherwise one would be likely to rise to the top of the market.
  3. Companies using LMS desire enough specific tailored features that designing a universally applicable, Off The Shelf (OTS), LMS very difficult.

In my post graduate career as an Digital Strategy Change Management Consultant I will be involved in the creation of content for client LMS, the selection and implementation of externally produced LMS, and the design of internally created LMS. A thorough understanding of the modular elements of LMS software will help me improve upon the existing approaches to LMS software currently on the market and those being developed for proprietary use by e-learning companies or internal training departments.

Comparative Case Studies

Digital Artifacts, Learning Interfaces, and Cognition

The three e-learning software platforms I will be addressing are simply the most recent iteration of educational methods and environments. Early human life was full of experiential lessons. Over time we developed language ability to communicate immediate threats and advance the collective security through the sharing of lessons experienced by others in the community. At the same time as we were using language to communicate, we were also depicting our experiences in the form of cave paintings and other visual symbolic representations of the world around us. There is much debate around the purpose of these symbols, but a common theory says that some were likely used to help communicate important information about the world, what animals were of value or posed a threat, the timing of seasons, family lineages, etc. This early development of visual learning is a crucial precursor to modern e-learning.[3]

E-Learning rests on a foundation of teaching techniques that have their roots in the early communication of risks, history, and the lessons of nature. Teaching psychology singles out three distinct types of learning and learners: visual, tactile, and auditory. As research on learning styles becomes more widely known, classroom teachers have worked to adapt their curriculum to find a happy compromise of all three, ensuring every student receives some portion of learning in their best style.[4] Fundamental to learning through a digital interface is participation with the content. The icons and images support visual learning, the need to select answers on the screen or type out responses provides some degree of tactile engagement, and the videos, audio support, and use of “interaction sounds” – clicks, dings, etc. – trigger auditory learners.[5]

In addition, the affordances of the digital medium, as defined by Janet Murray, seem to align well with providing learners on digital platforms elements suitable to each learning style. As we will see, each of the following platforms accesses and delivers (1) encyclopedic knowledge, requires (2) spatial interpretation of the icons, images, and elements used in the lesson, follows (3) procedures in learning familiar to a broad spectrum of users, and engages the user in (4) participatory interaction with the content in order to move through lessons.[6] Given the affordances inherent in the medium of these platforms, let’s see how they differentiate each other from a user perspective, and more importantly, how are they different or not within their separate black boxes.


As a great example of nothing being “new,” Duolingo is the modern, mobile, lightweight, kid cousin to the pioneer of computer based foreign language training, Rosetta Stone. Duolingo offers English speaking users the ability to study any of 32 languages – including two fictional languages: Klingon and High Valyrian – and non-English speaking users to learn English as well as a few select other languages depending on their native tongue. The process of learning is one of context based vocabulary acquisition through repetition and translation. While the effectiveness of the platform for true language learning is highly debated, it is nonetheless a popular piece of mobile software for engaging in a form of language learning. So how does this software deliver lessons to users?

One hint to the inner-workings of the app, is how the structure of lessons are displayed and made available to users. Each lesson “group” is displayed as an element of a tree of groups. The tree hierarchy structure shows the evolution of the lesson from one group to the next, visually hinting at the progressive nature of the education method. Additionally, only the immediate next tier of lessons, and all previously completed lesson groups, are available for users to work through. This provides a clear structure to the training program by preventing users from jumping ahead without first going through the introductory lessons. All told, this progressive style hierarchy of lessons, suggests a similar hierarchy on the backend of the program.




It is useful to think about what this sort of language training would look like in the analog world to understand how it is built and organized behind the scenes.

In a physical environment, the Duolingo lessons are most similar to successive sets of themed flash cards. Each lesson takes the user through a discrete set of new words and phrases, in a predefined order that slowly builds user familiarity with new elements. As the user progresses, these elements are combined to make more complicated elements that introduce new concepts. Even as the content evolves, the method of delivery remains the same. Users are either presented with a phrase and several translation options to choose from, a phrase and a keyboard to fill in the missing elements, or simply an array of icons on which they must tap pairs of words with their English equivalents. All of these elements are simply digital versions of a deck of flashcards supplemented by fill in the blank and translation exercises one would expect from an entry level classroom language course.

Given this modularized lesson format, we can envision a rather simple artifact based hierarchical database working behind the scenes. Each lesson group must have an associated set of digital artifacts, our flash cards, with individual lesson elements encoded into each. These lesson elements are then queued up and presented to the user as they work through a lesson set. If a user makes a mistake and provides an incorrect answer that individual lesson element is “reshuffled” into the remaining “cards” of elements and presented to the user again before they complete the lesson.

This retrieval system is a straightforward preprogrammed arrangement of elements, functioning similar to pages in a book. From a content development standpoint, the biggest hurdle for Duolingo would have been the creation of the first set of language lessons, the ordering and presentation of the vocabulary and lesson elements. Once one language was complete the sequential hierarchy of elements could be repurposed through roughly direct translation into each subsequent language offering. While limited in scope of content, the content retrieval and delivery mechanism, starting with selection of content by the user, then presentation through a mobile or desktop interface, and sequenced completion of a discrete set of procedural elements is a fundamental system of processes behind all e-learning platforms reviewed here.

Where Duolingo also provides a simplified example of a more complex operation performed by our next few cases is in the Learning Management System, or LMS. One of the affordances of providing content through a digital system that is not offered by traditional book based individual learning is the ability to track and certify progress toward an objective in a dynamic manner. Users, as identified by their username and login credentials, become a discrete tracked element in the Duolingo LMS. As users complete lessons, a record of completion is made in their user accounts. These completion “notes” indicate to the system which lesson groups should remain open to the user the next time they log in, and serve as the keys needed by users to access the next set of content in the lessons. Duolingo takes this tracking a step further into the user experience, making it an element of their method of gamification.

When users sign up for the software, they indicate a desired amount of progress they would like to make in their language learning each day. Upon completion of each sub-lesson, they receive positive feedback in the form of a dial increasing towards their daily goal. Gamification is a fundamental element used by e-learning software to enhance their stickiness with users, ideally increasing user engagement with the software, thereby improving outcomes. Duolingo not only incorporates this gamified element of daily achievement into the user experience while they are engaged in the app but also capitalize on the indicated commitment of the user to remind them, via pop-up notification on their mobile device, to return to the app and complete their lessons for the day.

Next, we will see how the fundamental LMS elements used to make Duolingo successful provide the foundation for more in-depth appearing e-learning solutions.


While Duolingo gamifies language learning for the purpose of keeping users engaged, cutting out traditional classroom elements, such as lectures and assignments, Coursera leans in to the value of the classroom experience. With a stated purpose to bring the best of university classes to students at every stage and place in life, Coursera mimics the in-class learning experience, including videos of lectures, assignments, peer discussion, and exams. With over 150 university partners, Coursera’s content offerings are their source of differentiation amongst e-learning companies. However, while the content is interesting, the content is not inherent to the technology behind Coursera, instead it is a product of successful sales and marketing. At its core Coursera is another example of a software product that is essentially a Learning Management System.

A Learning Management System is the interface between e-learning content developers/admin and users that serves as a repository and distribution hub for the educational content offered. LMS software also tracks information about user progress through courses, completion and performance on assignments and exams, and other details about user engagement including time spent on the platform. While our next case is on a specific corporate oriented LMS software product, Coursera offers an example of a custom LMS product.

To meet the specific needs of Coursera’s stakeholders, the company has developed its own proprietary LMS. Their LMS is comprised of some of the most common technical modules seen in LMS software:

  1. A repository of course content sectioned off according to content developer, learning topic, and a variety of paywalls.
  2. A portal for development of content by university partners with the support of Coursera IT and content teams.
  3. A multimedia hosting and delivery service for efficient storage and consistent streaming of video content.
  4. Learner communication system for learners registered in the same courses to communicate with each other about course content and collaborate on group exercises.
  5. Learner progress tracking system with a consistent testing mechanism.
  6. A gamification engine that introduces game like elements into the learner experience to increase engagement and stickiness of the platform.

The value of using a proprietary LMS to manage the delivery of university content to learners is the creation of a consistent user experience across all courses. Through consistent supporting elements to the content, users develop a relationship and familiarity with the Coursera way of teaching. However, not all academic endeavors lend themselves to logically ordered learning and evaluation, making electronic delivery of diverse subjects challenging.

Coursera’s initial offerings were focused on math and computer sciences, subjects which are well suited for evaluation in an empirical manner. Assignments and exams in these areas can be developed and administered as multiple choice or fill in questions with a limited number of answers (eg. 2 x 4 = 8). However, higher education is not limited to STEM, so universities and students interested in Coursera understandably expected to have access to a more holistic range of courses. This demand posed a new problem to the Coursera model: how to grade the assignments of 30,000+ students per course when “Barack Obama,” “Obama,” and “the President” were all acceptable answers?

Instead of waiting for, or developing in house, the machine based human language analysis required to assess open ended writing prompts, Coursera turned to its vast array of students as a potential solution. Building on the learner communication system of the platform, they introduced a peer-to-peer grading system. Facing a variety of levels of user commitment, challenges in consistent interpretation of rubrics, and often opaque user incentives, this peer grading element is an area where Coursera continues to iterate. More important for this analysis however, is how this need to introduce a system for human grading highlights a clear constraint of e-learning.

Just as language software like Duolingo will likely always fall short in comparison to a real world language immersion program, computer based learning will continue to struggle to provide assessment of more than discrete measurable answers. While this shortfall will certainly hamper the value of such technology to teach complex transferrable skills like advanced creative problem solving and human centered design, the bulk of e-learning applications exemplified by the next case competently meet discrete customer requirements.


When most people hear the phrase “corporate training,” an image comes to mind of a bland hotel conference room, filled with rows and rows of chairs, facing drop down screen featuring a text heavy PowerPoint. Just as employees dread these boring training sessions, so do their employers, who have to shell out money for trainers, space, and supplies, while giving up days of employee productivity. Employee onboarding and training comprise a large part of the e-learning market and Lessonly is just one example of software available to corporate companies.

As an Off-the-Shelf LMS, Lessonly offers similar core capabilities as the Coursera LMS. Easy, non-technical, drag-and-drop content creation, tracking of learner progress and performance, assessment and feedback, and content hosting. Fundamentally, Lessonly stores, organizes, and retrieves content for learners just like Duolingo and Coursera. Where it differs is in the requirement of its customers, the companies in this case, to fit into the network of tools and systems they use to run their business.

Lessonly and other OTS LMS options on the market achieve the fit desired by companies through the support of third party plugins. Through plugins for common business stack applications like Zenefits, Salesforce, and Slack, companies can integrate training with employees daily activities. Completion of programs can be tied to sales outcomes in Salesforce, managers can assign trainings to Slack teams to keep everyone up to speed with new practices and procedures, and progress along various career development pathways feed into performance metrics in Zenefits, the human capital management platform.

Through integration with existing corporate technology stacks, Lessonly, functions as just one more modular application within a larger bundle of tools used to manage company operations. What is interesting about Lessonly is not how it is unique but rather how it is the same as so many products on the market. While variants may be focused on managing traditional education environments, sales and customer service training, or presented as an alternative to traditional education entirely, they all provide the same content creation, management, and delivery elements described above. So how does such a universal set of features actually work? 

Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM)[7]

Behind all three of these platforms is content built according to SCORM. SCORM is a model that guides developers on the creation of units of learning content that can be easily shared across systems. “Shared content objects” created according to this model can be interpreted by different operating systems and content delivery mechanisms and enables users working through a variety of interfaces to interact with the centralized content stored in an LMS.

At a basic technical level SCORM guides developers on how to package content for delivery and Run-Time communication. The specifications around packaging enables the LMS to know which units of content should be accessed in response to user prompts, what type of content it is, the name needed for retrieval, etc. This is essentially the naming and identification scheme of the flash cards in the Duolingo context and the videos and exercises in the Coursera and Lessonly cases. Run-Time communication feeds into the delivery and tracking features of the LMS. What prompts does the user receive while the content is running? What information is to be recorded as the user works through the system? How is the completion of the content to be handled in the user’s record in the LMS.

As long as content follows the SCORM model, it is able to be used, sold, and repurposed by companies, platforms, and users across any number of compliant platforms.

LMS and the Future of Learning

When set next to each other, the cases of Duolingo, Coursera, and Lessonly, serve to illustrate how the e-learning environment is notable more for its content than its technology. At a basic level, each of these applications take traditional models of education and learning and simply repackage educational units for delivery as digital artifacts. Relying on SCORM, or one of a few other similar models for shareable content, each application is built around a relatively simple LMS responsible for handling the inputs of content developers and interactive consumption of that content by learners.

Because SCORM is a universally available guidance for unit creation, the differentiating elements of these platforms are not the underlying technology but rather the content itself and the interface through which makers and users interact with the content. The Coursera commitment to university partners for creation of the best content is similar to the battle between Netflix and Hulu over content aggregation and creation rather than other less differentiable features. However, due to the complex and dynamic nature of learning, e-learning systems that are able to combine this simple LMS technology with tools for greater tailoring of content to individual user needs and the user environment, potentially stand a chance to break away from the pack of basic offerings.

Already we see discrete software applications taking advantage of GPS and Augmented Reality technology to provide users with a significantly more tangible learning experience in museums and national parks. Similar to the Netflix algorithms that interpret user preferences to suggest content in line with viewer tastes, the data gleaned from the delivery of dynamic rather than static content and associated assessment measures could be used to identify the optimum method of content delivery for each learner. With so many potential applications of the basic LMS skeleton in education and business, the question of creating a unique LMS or adopting an OTS version must be grounded in what is the end goal? Starting from an objective setting analysis of the purpose of the LMS and affordances desired for a particular use case, the basic building blocks of an e-learning platform are readily available to build on. The real challenge remains one of whether companies, institutions, and individuals can pause to think about what they really need from their learning programs or if they will jump at the newest and shiniest set of marketing pitches.

[1] Leber, Jessica. “The Technology of Massive Open Online Courses.” MIT Technology Review. Accessed December 13, 2018.

[2] “Correspondence Education | Britannica.Com.” Accessed December 14, 2018.

[3] Tattersall, Ian. “How We Came to Be Human.” Scientific American, 2006, 66–73.

[4] Dunn, Rita, Jeffrey S. Beaudry, and Angela Klavas. “Survey of Research on Learning Styles.” California Journal of Science Education II, no. 2-Spring, 2002 (n.d.): 75–98.

[5] There is much debate about whether the participatory nature of digital interfaces triggers the learning and memory centers of the brain as well as the tactile use of pencil and paper, unfortunately that is a debate we will need for brevity’s sake to put aside for another time.

[6] Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Selections from the Introduction and chapters 1-2.

[7] “SCORM Explained: In Depth Review of the SCORM ELearning Standard.” Accessed December 15, 2018.

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