Online learning experience

How to create a successful online learning experience

  • 5 mins read
Rob Verheul
by Rob Verheul
Managing Director

Graphite's Managing Director and a BIMA 100 winner. Also on the BIMA Young Talent Council, which is focused on creating a pipeline of future innovators in all areas of digital.

Published on Thursday 7th September 2017

The online learning experience 

The future of learning is here - at least that's what we've been told for a while. Computers and digital technologies have been expected to replace classrooms and provide most of our learning needs for some time now. So why do people still prefer face to face, classroom-based courses in the workplace? And why are e-learning courses so unpopular and ineffective?

Typically the ways that companies have implemented online learning in organisations have been pretty stale. Courses are dry and boring, and the more 'forward-thinking' ones have gimmicky characters and 'interactions' to try and make them more palatable. Whatever the course creators try, it's rare that users don't just want to skip straight through to the end and test out.

So what's going on here? Why do people have such an aversion to being taught in this way? And what can we do about it?

Why should I care?

The answer seems to lie with a psychological model called the affective context model, advocated for in online learning by Nick Shackleton-Jones of PA Consulting. In short, the model explains that people will readily absorb information about things that have a high affective context - in other words, things they care about deeply. It's the reason that my friends at school had a harder time learning their times tables than the names and attributes of all 151 Pokémon, or the names of all the players on their favourite football team.

But 'caring' doesn't have to just be about our hobbies - it's about whatever motivates us at our deepest level. If you’re fascinated by tech, enjoy solving mathematical problems and have friends who are building web apps and software, you don’t need much motivation to learn to code. You can’t stop yourself.

Typical compliance training subjects like health and safety or information security just don't appeal to those same instincts; they have a low affective context. The reason that most learning doesn't happen the way we hope is that people don't care. The challenge therefore is to make them care - or find out what they really need.

The reason that most learning doesn't happen the way we hope is that people don't care. The challenge therefore is to make them care - or find out what they really need.


To convince people to care, you need to up your game. Text on a bunch of slides won't do; it needs to be made visceral - even emotional. Compare the thought of using a flight simulator with a AI-led tutorial gradually handing you control to reading the manual cover-to-cover with each chapter locked down until you complete the previous one. Which would you be more likely to learn from?

For any kind of task where the response might be 'why should I learn this?', simulations and experiences are the way to go if you want real learning to take place. These require careful, bespoke planning to pull off, but the rewards can be huge.

Resources, not courses

On the other end of the scale, tasks with a high affective context aren’t really suited for courses either. Think back to the last time you had a conversation with friends where one of you couldn't remember a fact or started speculating on something you were curious about - what did you do? You googled it. You wanted a quick, straightforward answer to something that either you forgot or knew could be found out at a moment's notice.

For subjects with a high affective context, this is all you need - connecting people's questions with answers, with as little friction as possible. Graduates need to know how to gain a promotion, executives need to know what the latest behavioural science says about their customers, and new starters need to know where the toilets are. The motivation is already there, so there’s no need to convince them they need to know it.

Affective context in action - BP Advance

Our favourite example of organisational learning done this way was a project we worked on with BP to revolutionise soft skill training for their graduate scheme. With a performance support mindset, the first step was to research the user base and understand the problems both at an organisational level and with the employee experience, as well as the general tasks and needs that they would inevitably encounter while on the scheme, regardless of their department or role.

With this information, we worked on producing high-quality and beautifully designed resources that met those needs quickly and concisely, whilst offering food for thought on how to improve further. We also added features like skill progress tracking, line manager reporting, gamification and badges to help them explore the platform and monitor their improvement over time.

BP Advance was a huge success, with the platform being heralded as a flagship for online learning in the company.

At Graphite, we take a strategic approach to organisational learning content creation, and use our understanding of product design, marketing and branding to create experiences that help our customers achieve their objectives and take them closer towards that online learning future that has been promised for so long.