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I just got my copy of Bill Horton’s second edition of E-learning by Design.  Really, there is so much new material in this book that the publisher should have given it a new title.  Disclaimer: Bill and I are friends.   However, as he will attest to, I enjoy being  intellectually critical of his work. A little background. One of the first books I reviewed by Bill was  the e-learning “bible,” Designing Web-Based Training in 2000—a book that had helped many of us learn about and cope with yet another development and delivery technology for workplace education—and he was staying true to his no-nonsense design philosophy (link to Amazon: Designing Web-Based Training: How to Teach Anyone Anything Anywhere Anytime).

During that time, when excess ruled the day, many remained grounded by Horton’s insistence that we apply practical solutions when creating e-learning. He has been spreading his message of simplicity and utilitarianism to the masses at conference sessions, at workshops, and in his books for more than 20 years.

The 2006 sequel to Designing Web-Based Training, E-learning by Design was 100% Horton. He sharpened his focus to cover just those topics that designers could control, but expanded those topics to be even more informative and useful.

OK, on to the new book, the new edition of E-learning by Design.  I’ll highlight the organization of the book, commenting on what has been added—and what has been taken away. I’ll discuss different ways to apply this how-to book.

Book tour
The book begins with an overview chapter on designing e-learning. This is not just some boring rehash of what you think you already know. This chapter provides the blueprint for the rest of the book. In it he stresses that good objectives are the foundation for good learning materials. And, it has been updated and expanded from the previous edition.

Hortonism: Unless you get instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure.

If you understand this chapter and put it into practice, you can be a qualified instructional designer. Horton’s process “requires selecting, organizing, and specifying the learning experiences necessary to teach somebody something.” He advocates identifying goals, explains how to write objectives, and touches on the concept of creating “learning objects.” One of the gems of wisdom in this chapter (for me, anyway) was Horton’s advice to design your tests first. And that leads me to another pithy quote:

Hortonism: There is no clearer and more precise statement of a learning objective than a test question that measures whether that objective has been accomplished.

At the heart of e-learning design is the development of learning activities, which Horton categorizes into three types: Absorb, Do, and Connect.

According to Horton, these types of activities help people learn by getting them to “consider research, analyze, evaluate, organize, synthesize, discuss, test, decide, and apply ideas.” He devotes a chapter to each type, providing numerous examples and links to live demonstrations. He provides examples like: augmented slide presentations, story-sharing, drill and practice, guided analysis, discovery activities, games, virtual machines and simulations, and “ponder” activities.

Bill has reorganized and reclassified these activities based upon what he learned in the years between editions. And new in this edition, he tells designers how to use these various activities for both social and mobile learning applications.

In the Tests chapter, Horton explains the reasoning behind testing, details how to construct question types, and shows how to avoid trick questions. He also suggests that we “test early and often.”  Savvy e-learning designers can even use test questions that engage learners and provide feedback.

Hortonism: “Each topic accomplishes one learning objective and accomplishes it fully. That’s what makes them topics”.

Chapters Six covers how to design topics. Here he discusses how to combine Absorb, Do, and Connect activities with tests to completely meet the needs of a learning objective.

The subject of Chapter 7 has changed in this edition. It is devoted to the design of games and simulations, something I felt was missing from the previous edition. But what happened to the “old” Chapter 7 about designing lessons? It has been moved online in PDF format and is available on the book’s Website:  Amazing HORTON to supplement with online readings:  Old Chapter 7 is now Online Chapter 12.

Back to games and sims. Bill tries to clarify the fuzzy distinction among games, tests, and simulations. He starts out with simple learning games like jigsaw puzzles and quiz-show interactions. Then branches into branching scenarios, task simulations, and immersive role-playing games (I also recommend Clark Aldrich’s Complete Guide to Serious Games and Simulations).

Typical HORTON, Bill has created a matrix to help designers choose the best game or simulation for the type of learning objective they are trying to accomplish. And, he discusses at length the intricacies of learning game design.

Hortonism: If game sounds frivolous, call it a simulation. If simulation sounds too stuffy or expensive, call it a game.

Chapter 8 used to cover strategic decisions, of interest to department managers. That chapter is now Online Chapter 13 (Guess you have to open your browser and go to

The new Chapter 8 discusses social learning. Bill stresses that social learning isn’t new and doesn’t require social media. But new technologies have made it more powerful, convenient, and fun.  I totally agree, all this hype about social learning is helpful but nothing new.  As if we did not know how people really learn and just discovered it is social?  Good, go ahead and tweet!

Hortonism: Social learning is learning from other people—co-workers, fellow students, experts, consultant, customers, and consumers.

Throughout this chapter, Bill teaches us how to integrate the many ways people communicate electronically into meaningful learning experiences. As a measure of how important the social aspect of learning has  hit home for people, this chapter is one of the longest in the book.

Chapter 9 is also totally new and goes into depth about mobile learning “for people on the go out in the world.” In this chapter he touches on the two aspects of mobile learning: enabling mobile individuals to participate in conventional learning and, what he calls,  real mobile learning where individuals learn from “objects, environments, experts, and fellow learners” encountered in the real world. Designers will find numerous tables that tie capabilities, limitations, learner characteristics, and environmental conditions to specific design guidelines.

Since Horton is aware that many e-learning developers are busy supporting the use of live web conferencing sessions or instructor-led sessions organized by a learning management system, there is a chapter on designing materials for synchronous or asynchronous electronic classrooms. This used to be Chapter 9, but is now Chapter 10. It has been streamlined considerably due to the addition of the chapters on social and mobile learning.

For readers of the first edition, you may be asking what happened to the chapters on visual design and navigation. Those too have moved online as Online Chapters 14 and 15.

Hortonism: Teach the class, don’t just let it happen.

The last new addition to the Second Edition is the Appendix on what Bill calls “essentialism.” He defines it as teaching “just what people need to learn” and nothing more. In twelve pages, Bill outlines how to use usability testing techniques coupled with rapid prototyping to discover exactly what learners need to know and what they can figure out on their own—and what they didn’t need to know at all. According to Bill, this approach can reduce the size and scope of a project by up to 90%.

Too many post-secondary courses focus on instructional design theory and on what Horton calls “ponderous instructional systems design methodologies.” Essential building blocks of interactive design are neglected.

Yet, the speed of technological change mandates that instructional designers be taught the skills of pragmatic interactive design that enable them to utilize new technology, yet stay focused on facilitating learning. This book should be required reading for graduates of curriculum and instructional design programs.

Putting the book to work
Let’s examine how you might put this book to work for you.

Does your e-learning development group have published standards for instructional design and course development? This book can help furnish a framework for reaching agreement among staff and clients. Or you can benchmark your current standards and definitions of quality e-learning against examples found in the book.

Time for professional development for you training staff is often hard to come by. You can assign readings from the book and discuss a few important points for five minutes before each staff meeting.

Post the companion website on your department Intranet. It contains wonderful examples that are indexed to each chapter, providing a great resource tool for igniting a brainstorming session.

Horton’s 2000 edition has been cited in academic texts. And if he weren’t so cynical about advanced degrees, we would surely be calling him Dr. Horton. Yet, that is essentially what defines Bill Horton. He is our industry’s Henry David Thoreau.

Hortonism: “Essentialism blatantly shouts that the goal of education is not to teach everything about a subject but to teach just the things learners need in order to apply skills and knowledge in their lives. Essentialism attempts to identify what few things learners actually need to know, do not know, and cannot figure out or look up on their own.”

Buy E-learning By Design if your work involves e-learning. Even if all you do is browse it or use it as an occasional reference to resolve a disagreement among team members, you will come to realize that Bill Horton’s “practice, practice, practice” work ethic has once again produced a book chock full of value.

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