Finding the right eLearning content: which formats and sources work best?



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11 mins

Engaging, impactful eLearning content is essential to successfully supporting your career and skills development. But how do you curate the right eLearning library for your people?

Most aspects of HR software have undergone an evolution in the past decade, but perhaps none so dramatic as learning and development. While learning teams used to focus on designing and administering offsite training sessions with expensive instructors and a small proportion of eLearning courses for compliance purposes, they now face a dizzying array of formats and tools. From tiny ‘micro learning’ nuggets to sophisticated virtual reality games, it can be difficult to know where to direct your budget.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of being able to access learning virtually, with the UK government offering free skills courses so those on furlough could build their skills while at home. Many businesses rushed to boost their eLearning content catalogues and convert in-person training into Zoom webinars or video content. Nigel Paine, a learning consultant and former head of L&D at the BBC, explains: “There was a dramatic acceleration of accessing content ‘anytime, anywhere’ and a shift in how organisations manage learning, with a big movement to the cloud.”

According to the CIPD’s 2021 Learning and Skills at Work Survey, organisations’ use of digital learning solutions increased during the pandemic, with 36% reporting an increase in investment in learning technologies. Just over a quarter (28%) used a learning management system (LMS) to support their content delivery, it found. These systems typically provide a mix of eLearning content and data on how employees use it, but are becoming increasingly sophisticated with features such as:

  • Learner profiles that can be linked to talent management tools and performance reviews
  • Reminders and nudges for essential training (eg compliance)
  • Learning progress dashboards
  • Recommended learning based on role, previous courses, and aspirations
  • Gamified learning or ‘scoreboards’ for completing courses
  • Microlearning’ such as short quizzes
  • Social media integration so employees can share their achievements

LMS platforms are also becoming ever more open and interoperable. There is a move towards more versatile programming standards that can support content on multiple devices and can track learner activity. This makes integration with other employee-focused systems easier and better for talent planning, and employees can access learning whenever or wherever is convenient.

At the same time, organisations recognise that learners increasingly want to drive their own learning. “Businesses are saying ‘We would like you to do this, but also experiment, explore, build your own skills, and decide your own needs’,” Paine adds. “The responsibility shifts from someone telling you what course you need to do to it becoming self-generated.” Ciphr LMS, for example, helps employees drive their own learning through a tool called skills advisor. Andrea Matkin, LMS sales manager at Ciphr,  says: “You can rate yourself against competencies such as teamwork, complete a questionnaire and benchmark yourself against others. Once you’ve done it, you’re offered courses on things where you rated beneath that benchmark – or you can use a report for performance conversations with your manager.” This sort of capability will become increasingly important as the labour market shifts and employees need to keep adapting their skills to keep up, says Paine. “Circumstances are changing and people may need to pivot quickly, meaning you can’t have endless intermediaries signing things off.”

eLearning content formats

Remember VHS or Betamax? Content in learning management systems works in a similar way, and can be based on a number of technical standards. These determine how different devices will ‘read’ the content and deliver it to its desired audience, and are an important consideration when buying or developing learning content. Here are the key formats:


SCORM stands for Shareable Content Object Reference Model and is the de facto standard for eLearning interoperability. SCORM tells programmers how to write their code so that it can interact with other eLearning software. It also governs how an LMS can communicate with online learning content. So if an LMS is SCORM-compliant, it can ‘play’ any SCORM-compliant content. It tracks courses, keeps a record of employees’ progress, assessment scores, and other metrics such as time spent on screen.

AICC compliance

AICC stands for Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee and is another technical standard that defines how courses interact with LMS. It is similar to SCORM with minor technical differences, such as allowing courses to communicate information in the HTTP format. Because it is an older format, some LMS platforms no longer support it.


Tin Can and xAPI

SCORM is built around the concept of standardising communications between a course and an LMS. Emerging standards known as Tin Can and xAPI cast the net further, allowing developers to send a wide range of data from other platforms, such as mobile phone apps, and share with other software such as HR systems.

Learning experience platforms

How employees learn in the workplace cannot escape the influence of how they consume media and content at home – particularly as work and home lives have become more blurred during the pandemic. Reflecting this, learning platforms increasingly offer a more ‘Netflix’-style experience where they offer recommendations based on employees’ previous consumption, or enable learners to consume content in bitesize chunks as they might do with social media.

This is encapsulated in the growth of so-called ‘learning experience’ platforms, most recently LinkedIn Learning. While most would think of LinkedIn as a job search and networking tool, in early 2021 it launched its own learning experience platform, where companies can integrate and curate their own learning content, access LinkedIn Learning’s catalogue of courses, and see analytics on skills development. HR technology analyst Josh Bersin has called this a ‘bold and aggressive’ move because it ties together recruitment and attraction with real- time skills data that can help organisations manage people better. Learning is also one of the core elements of Microsoft’s new employee experience platform, Viva, reflecting the trend towards integrating learning content with other aspects of the employee lifecycle such as talent management and engagement.

Related: curious to find out the latest acronym, buzzword, or terminology in the eLearning industry? Explore our A– Z of eLearning terminology

Choosing eLearning content

But faced with such a proliferation of learning formats and sources, where should organisations begin? The most important thing for teams to consider is what they are trying to achieve, according to learning consultant Sarah Ratcliff. “What is it you want people to do as a result of the learning? How much time do they have to learn? What is the context and how will they use that learning in their role?” she asks. “The answer to these questions will guide you as to whether you need a video, an ‘experience’ such as a webinar or face-to-face meeting, or some pre-reading followed by a discussion.” An example of making the learning fit the challenge is when Ratcliff worked with retailer Ann Summers during the pandemic. She helped the company to transform its online learning so face-to-face party reps could host Facebook Live parties. Pivoting the learning content and format resulted in party planning sales going up 300%.

“It’s not always about the tool but how you use it, and having the time and resources to get the most out of it. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel,” she adds. Curation is the key to success here: many companies produce learning content templates, for example, and off-the-shelf eLearning courses – such as those available from Marshall E-Learning Consultancy (part of the Ciphr Group) – can be invaluable if you need to get people up to speed on a particular skill in a short time. Low-cost and free courses can be accessed through Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms such as Coursera and FutureLearn and become part of what you offer, and informal input from subject matter experts in the business is another low-cost way to share knowledge.

“Before remote working, if you didn’t know how to do something you would ask a colleague – now we go to Google,” Ratcliff says. “Think about what people need and how to get it to them. It’s not all about eLearning courses and videos – simple processes can be written down and stored somewhere.” Paine agrees there is a shift towards ‘more informal, less structured expertise’ in how organisations deliver and manage learning. He adds: “Point people towards a TED talk or article, [and] let them grab what they need in an unstructured way. There’s greater acceptance of multiple modes and informal conversations, as well as ready-made solutions that you can just plug in.” Ultimately, however, it comes down to how the learning will be applied: an in-depth leadership course might require a combination of face-to-face coaching, micromodules on specific skills and 360-degree reviews from colleagues. In contrast, introducing a new holiday booking system to employees might only require a short video and accompanying infographic. But the real learning comes through doing, adds Ratcliff. “If I need to learn something technical, I can watch a video but I need to practise doing it – I need to know which button to press,” she says. “Give people theory and examples but remember the value of social learning, too – the conversations they have that help to embed that knowledge.”

Looking to the future of eLearning content

Isheet Bansal, head of marketing at eLearning content company Tesseract, says the most important thing is that content “remains flexible and always ready to evolve”. He adds: “We map the content to the learning outcomes and then divide the content into ‘must-know’ versus ‘nice-to-know’ content. The must-know content is essential to the learning and remains on the screen. The nice-to-know content is provided in resources or other links. Impactful content enables learners to tackle new problems and seamlessly adopt new contexts.” Bansal advocates that the culture, values and ethos of the organisation are also reflected in the content, and that they prioritise innovation “over and above factual content around processes, procedures and regulations.”

Flexibility will become even more important as teams navigate hybrid working arrangements, argues Matthew Pierce, learning and video ambassador at learning content company TechSmith. “Organisations want to empower learners to take control, and using formats such as video means you can create a level playing field – so if someone can’t attend a session in person, they’re not missing out. Or they can return to a video to get essential information if need be.” Investing in formats that can be integrated across multiple platforms and share data with central HRIS systems enables organisations to get a ‘helicopter view’ of how learning is consumed and distributed, even while working remotely.

In the future, AI and automation will play a more important role in how companies curate and deliver learning, but it will still be down to the best blend that works for your organisation. Bansal sees organisations finding a sweet spot where there is a mix of in-person, virtual and eLearning delivery. Gamified learning, as well as virtual and augmented reality training, will create deeper engagement, but in addition to other formats that already add value. User ratings can be gathered and fed into algorithms so content can be targeted even more effectively. Delivery may get quicker, personalisation better and the content more interactive, but only human teams can ensure it is curated in the most impactful way.

Five key takeaways

  1. Investing in an LMS not only gives you a central hub through which learners can access an array of content, but also helps you monitor metrics such as completion rates – so you can demonstrate return on investment
  2. Keep refreshing and assessing your catalogue of content and activities; learners’ needs can change rapidly
  3. How can you establish a learning culture and bring learning into the flow of work? People will only learn and upskill themselves if they have the time and space to do so
  4. eLearning isn’t everything: in the hybrid world of work, organisations will need to figure out which skills and subjects are best learned through different methods such as face-to-face training, hands-on learning, and digital courses
  5. Make sure your learning offering is inclusive and accessible to all


This is an extract from Good Work, Great Technology: Enabling strategic success through digital tools, published by leading UK HR software provider Ciphr. For more insight into how technology can change work for the better, download the complete book for free, now.