Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on July 7, 2015 by

Freelance Instructional Designers say, “No, Thank You” to $100,000 Office-Based Jobs.

Freelance IDs prefer the comforts of their home offices to corporate settings.

Freelance IDs prefer the comforts of their home offices to corporate settings.

Freelance instructional designers have shown just how much they value remote working conditions in a recent survey by DigitalWits: A whopping 73% of respondents said they would not take a full-time job that was office-based–even at a salary of $100,000 per year, which many companies are now offering to highly-skilled eLearning designers.

And this includes respondents making less than $30,000 per year, some of whom are the sole income provider for their households.

On the other hand, 96% said they would take a full-time job with a six-figure annual salary if it was a 100% remote/telecommute position. Respondents in this group include those already making more than $100,000 per year as freelancers, as well as those making less.

Survey: Most freelance instructional designers make < $30,000, yet would not take a full-time on-site job… Click To Tweet

Freelancers value, well, their freedom. And flexibility.

The #1 reason given for passing up a six-figure gig working onsite for “da-man” or “da-woman” include creative freedom, followed closely by flexible scheduling. Freelance instructional designers (IDs) are used to getting the work done on time, on budget and with high quality standards; they just want to do it on their own terms. For some, that means working into the wee hours of the morning; for others, it means working a few hours, taking a few hours off to do personal errands, then going back to work for several more hours. In-office full-time gigs rarely offer that kind of scheduling flexibility.

But other reasons cited for shunning the office environment include the noise from open work environments, constant interruptions from co-workers, unnecessary meetings and office politics.

Millennial freelancers not swayed by trendy on-site perks. But they do value benefits.

Fancy perks are passe for freelancers. But real benefits are alluring.

Fancy perks are passe for freelancers. But real benefits are alluring.

According to the survey results, 31-percent of freelance instructional designers have been freelancing for less than one year, many stating they are just out of college or university instructional design programs. But these millennials–from a generation that many companies assume would value socializing perks such as “happy hours,” “game arcades” or gourmet food offerings at the office–could care less about these offerings. They’d rather have scheduling flexibility and creative freedom, just like their older freelancing counterparts.

Most freelance instructional designers make less than $30,000 per year. But there’s one group of IDs that makes more.

Most freelance IDs (51%) reported in the survey that they don’t even crack $30,000 in annual income. Granted, this includes only the 227 freelancers who responded to the survey. Still, this is the data point that surprised me the most. I was also surprised that these IDs wouldn’t jump at the chance for a six-figure gig–whether on-site or remote.

But, after digging deeper into the statistics, only 23% of the survey respondents are the sole income providers for their households, so it makes sense that those who have the benefit of a second income would be less willing to take a six-figure office-based job even at three times (or more) than their current income.

Not surprisingly, all but one sole-breadwinner respondent made more than $50,000 from their freelance gigs. After all, if you’re the one who has to pay the mortgage, pay your own health insurance, buy your own car and provide other necessities such as food and clothing for yourself or your family, you’re going to hustle harder and are more likely to work full-time as a freelancer. One part-time freelancer did, however, make more than $100,000 per year–and this person would take a full-time six-figure job if it was 100% remote.

The other reason some freelance IDs may crack the $100,000 is that they may be doing high-tech programs that include gamification, complex branching scenarios or 3D simulation environments.

The lure of the full-time remote job

All but two respondents said what they hate most about freelancing is marketing and constantly searching for the next gig. One freelancer disliked the administrative work; another was annoyed with clients who pay late.

But what seems to be a deeper issue is that many freelance IDs have just created jobs for themselves, rather than creating true businesses. Living gig to gig–or even juggling multiple gigs at once as a sole proprietor–is not sustainable long-term. It’s not a business model that results in high profits over the long-haul. It’s often a path to burnout. I suspect that’s why even the lone part-time freelancer who makes more than $100,000 per year would opt-out of freelancing for a full-time telecommute gig. The only way to bigger profits is the agency model or owner of an online university.

Another reason IDs give up their freelance careers for full-time remote positions is that instructional designers as a group are not particularly entrepreneurial. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.9% of all IDs freelance. That figure includes both full and part time freelancers. Compare that to 66% of self-employed writers in the U.S. for the same period (2012),and you get an idea for the freelance-averse nature of instructional designers and developers.

It seems as if instructional designers are creative types who just love doing their craft. Taking care of business things such as marketing, invoicing, networking, and sales just doesn’t appeal to them. A full-time 100% telecommute gig is that it offers the best of both worlds: the scheduling flexibility to work on their beloved craft in the comfort of their own homes without the hassles of running a business.

That’s not to say that there aren’t freelance IDs out there who would never give up freelancing for any reason. But that’s not the majority.

Where to find remote full-time jobs

If you’re among the freelance instructional designers (or those tired of trudging into an office every day) who is looking for a 100% full-time telecommute gig, check out FlexJobs’ List of the Top 100 Companies with Remote Jobs in 2015. They also list the top industries for telecommuting.











Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on June 5, 2015 by

WANTED: Instructional Designers to Work for Six Figure Salaries


You may not have seen any help wanted ads with that headline. But companies are on the hunt for Instructional Designers (IDs) with an entrepreneurial bent and a creative flair.

And who are willing to work for a salary in the $130,000+ range.

Sound like a fantasy or a scam? It’s not.

And not only are IDs getting the higher salaries, they’re increasingly getting director-level titles.

“Creative, high-tech eLearning instructional designers are the new content marketers,” according to Jessica, a recruiter for the health-care industry who didn’t want to give her last name because she feared being overwhelmed with emails from job-seeking IDs.  In an email interview, she told me employers are after the unique skill-set of instructional designers.

Creative, high-tech eLearning instructional designers are the new content marketers. #eLearning… Click To Tweet

“My clients no longer want solely writers or marketers to create consumer education and marketing campaigns. They want someone who knows how to change behavior through education—not just someone who focuses on information delivery without behavior change. Company managers finally started saying, ‘Hey. Those are the things instructional designers do.’ That’s why there’s such an uptick in these higher-level positions for instructional designers–especially those with gamification and course marketing experience.”

“Then why not just hire instructional designers with those skills, pay them well, and call them instructional designers?” I asked. “Why offer director-level titles?”

“Most IDs with those skills are freelancers, own a boutique eLearning agency, or work for an eLearning agency,” Jessica explained. “Those people wouldn’t consider working full-time for someone else without a high-level title.  After all, they’ve earned it after owning their own businesses. And IDs working at agencies with those skills are on a development track to get those titles in those agencies. So companies had to offer those VP and director titles to entice the IDs with the talent and skills they need—even if it is only for a one-person department.”

A New Hiring and Recruiting Trend
Instructional Designers are increasingly sought after for Director-level positions for single-person content creation departments.

Instructional Designers are increasingly sought after for Director-level positions of single-person content creation departments.

I can personally attest to this hiring trend. In the past four months, I have received six unsolicited “cold call” offers for interviews from recruiters working for large companies.  Several of my freelance instructional designer friends have also been contacted by recruiters for similar positions. All of these offers were over the six figure salary mark (the range was from $130,000 to $180,000), and all titles were director level except for one, which was a VP level.  (Fortunately, for now, I’m deliriously happy at my current gig so I’m not looking to move. On the other hand, one of my freelance buddies is in the final stages of interviews for one of those six-fig gigs, and another has already accepted a Director of Instructional Design position!)

Those unsolicited calls to me and my ID colleagues made me think I smelled a new hiring trend in the eLearning industry, and that prompted me to do some investigating. After a few cursory web searches, I discovered that many companies now seek out high-level IDs for high-level positions.

Revenge of the (eLearning) Nerds
From learning nerds to department heads: Instructional Designers are sought after by training and marketing executives alike.

From learning nerds to department heads: Instructional Designers are sought after by training and marketing executives alike.

Once considered the red-haired stepchildren of corporations, instructional designers are finally going from no-respect Rodney Dangerfields to super cool content heros. Organizations now value these high-performing individual contributors by giving them titles like “Director of New Information Products”  (this title is found mostly in the healthcare and biotech sectors), “Director of Educational Products” (found mostly in K-12 an higher ed organizations), or “Director (or VP) of New Information Products” (found most often in health care and financial services). Other six-figure titles that required an ID background include: “Director of Learning Innovation,” “Director of Instructional Design,”(found in the banking and software industries) “Director of eLearning,” “Internal ID Consultant,” “Director of Adult Education Products,” “Creative Director,” “Director (or VP) of Digital Education Publishing,” and “Director of New Product Marketing” (found mostly in the medical devices field).

For the most part, these are positions that do NOT have direct reports; they are one-person departments—which is exactly the type of position most IDs crave. Most highly experienced instructional designers I’ve spoken with over the years say they don’t want to manage people, but they feel trapped by a system where the only advancement opportunity for high-level individual contributors is through people management. It seems as if the more progressive companies have finally realized that and are giving IDs what they want, while at the same time meeting corporate growth and revenue goals.

It’s interesting that some titles (such as “Creative Director” and “Director of New Product Marketing”) were once the sole domain of graphic design, advertising and media professionals. But as more organizations discover the effectiveness of online courses in building brand loyalty and revenues, they seek people who have experience in interactive online course design and development.

Millennials driving the trend to hire high-level instructional designers
Millennials want eLearning that is innovative, uses multi-media, and has strong storylines and enteratainment value.

Millennials want eLearning that is innovative, uses multi-media, and has strong storylines and entertainment value.

Companies aren’t just hiring instructional designers with gamification experience for content and consumer marketing. They’re also hiring them to create the highly interactive, highly entertaining employee training programs that Millennials demand. My friend, Clive, who is interviewing for a Director of Digital Innovation position in the oil and gas industry said his potential employer needed to up his game because younger new hires just couldn’t relate to the traditional eLearning programs with a few branching activities and some drag-and-drop interactions. They want interactive gamified movies with real story lines that directly relate to their jobs.

“My potential boss said they were losing good employees because of bad training,” Clive told me during one of our “Pizza and Skype” chat sessions that we have once per month on Sunday evenings.

What it takes to get these gigs.
Although a college degree is required for high-level ID jobs, you don't need an instructional-design specfic degree. Experience and portfolios count more than the specialized sheepskin.

Although a college degree is required for high-level ID jobs, you don’t need an instructional design-specific degree. Experience and portfolios count more than the specialized sheepskin, except in academia.

Surprisingly, only the director-level positions in education (K-12 and higher ed) required an ID degree and/or an advanced degree; all other positions required an average of eight years as an ID consultant or agency owner, or someone who has managed multiple clients and projects while being responsible for revenue goals. In other words, companies are looking for people with entrepreneurial skills who are accustomed to working with no supervision, who can quickly and accurately identify customer needs, and who have marketing experience. Nearly one-third of the director-level ID positions required some experience marketing courses to an adult market;  about one-fourth required hands-on gamification design and development experience. And, of course, the ability to work with subject matter experts (SMEs) was listed as a requirement in most position announcements.

Clearly, the portfolio and the experience were more important than a degree–except in the educational field. For that market, you’ll need a Masters in Instructional Design or a related field. But other industries –corporations — wanted demonstrated results and proof of experience over the sheepskin.

One caveat: nearly all of the director- and VP-level positions required both design and development skills—not one or the other.

Creativity, tech skills, marketing and vendor management experience valued
Top skills employers want when hiring instructional designers for director-level jobs.

Top skills employers want when hiring instructional designers for director-level jobs.

Top skills mentioned in the job descriptions for these ID Director-level positions were innovation and creativity.

Tech skills such as HTML5, CSS, JavaScript and JQuery don’t hurt, either. You don’t necessarily need to know how to use those programming languages, but you have to know the capabilities and limitations of each. Why? Because here’s another trend: ahead-of-the-curve companies are getting away from the development restrictions of rapid development tools (and some of the browser compatibility headaches that go along with those tools) and are turning to native development. And a few  are turning to hybrid solutions: develop part of the course in something like Storyline2, and then use gamified elements created with JQuery (or something else) and include that in the final product.

Managing vendors and freelancers was another skill highlighted for high-level ID positions. Because these directors are one-person departments for the most part, they usually need to outsource some of the work. This is another reason why companies looking for candidates who have entrepreneurial experience; freelancers and agency owners have extensive networks already developed of people with 3D animation, programming, video and voice-over skills. That means the company doesn’t have to spend time hunting for those resources.

Other skills mentioned were the ability to work independently, budget managment, course marketing and course profit tracking–again, mostly skills gained as an entrepreneur of freelancer.

Telecommuting encouraged

Although some director-level ID positions seemed to be for on-site jobs, about 65% were 100% remote positions—which allows you to work from home. As Jessica told me:  “They (companies) realize it’s difficult to find eLearning professionals with all of those skills (gamification, video, script-writing, vendor management, programming and ID), and they also realize that people with those skills are going to likely be people who are accustomed to working from their homes as freelancers or small agency owners. To get those people to budge, companies are increasingly discovering not offering a remote work environment is not an option if they want the best candidates.”

Question to freelancers: Would you do it?
Would you give up your freelance ID gig for a full-time six-figure job?  Take the quiz.

Would you give up your freelance ID gig for a full-time six-figure job? Take the quiz.

All of this fancy-title-high-income talk is great. But it got me wondering about something else: Would freelancers (or boutique agency owners) go full-time if they could have a six-figure income, do the highly creative work they love (instead of mind-numbing, low-budget productions), not have to manage employees, and could work from home? Does the idea of paid vacations, paid holidays, partially paid insurance, matching 401K contributions and a regular paycheck pique your interest? Or, is the deep satisfaction that comes from owning your own business too great? Is the call of freedom (freedom to work when you want) and the ability to work with many different types of clients—rather than just one—too powerful to give it all up?

For all of you freelance (or boutique eLearning agency owners) out there, we want to know what you think. If you have 60-seconds, please click here to complete an anonymous survey. We’ll post the results on my blog when survey results are tabulated.

Or, if you want to be notified directly, just drop an email to: vicki@digitalwits.com with “Send Survey Results” in the subject line.


Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on January 20, 2015 by

Three Hidden (and Profitable!) Markets for Instructional Designers

There are hidden and untapped markets just waiting for eLearning instructional designers. Here’s where they are and how to tap into them.
Discover the hidden markets that are ripe for eLearning instructional designers.

Discover the hidden markets that are ripe for eLearning instructional designers.

In my previous post I talked about the best and worst industries, geographic locations and topics for instructional designers. (That post also includes salary ranges and job prospects for instructional designers based on those criteria.)

But there are some untapped, yet highly lucrative markets that are under the radar of most instructional designers. Here are the top three most lucrative, yet untapped or hidden markets for elearning instructional designers.

  1. Celebrity courses.


What it is: Courses with content created by high-profile financial, stock market, real estate, sports, entertainment and entrepreneurial celebrities.  Such celebrities are just starting to dip their toes into the online course movement. Why? It enhances their professional platform, and gives them a passive income source.

What it would look like:  Think something along the lines of “The Mark Cuban School of Entrepreneurship,” “The Eric Clapton Guitar Course,” or “Charles Payne’s Stock Market School.”

Most instructional designers are completely unaware of this market. But it’s starting to get some real traction among celebrities who have a skill, talent, or specialized knowledge that is recognized and respected by the general public.

How to break in :  The direct approach is best. Simply contact the celebrity and make your pitch. How? Create a sample module to give the celebrity a taste of what their course will look like. Then, contact his or her agent or manager or, in some cases, you can contact them directly. Some celebrities are open to pitches; others are not. We have found subject matter experts who have their own TV shows or columns in high-profile news outlets are the most receptive.

Who’s doing it: In 2014, DigitalWits solicited and sold two household-name celebrities in the entrepreneurial space on courses to promote their personal brands. Stay tuned, as they will be in a couple of months! (Sorry, we’re under non-disclosure agreements until then!)

The benefit: Celebrity courses provide a much more sustainable income that typical corporate eLearning programs because, if you set up the terms properly, you can get a percentage of the gross profit for each course sold. It’s a good idea to schedule the course release to coincide with a tour, new product release or new TV appearance of the celebrity  so that you can get more bang for the marketing buck.

The bottom line: Regardless of any special appearances, if you are good at course marketing, you won’t have any trouble selling a lot of the celebrity courses.  But the key here is that you need to provide the marketing and promotion services, in addition to the design services. The celebrity is your subject matter expert; you are the designer, developer and marketer.

  1. Educational games and courses linked to TV show and movie franchises.


What it is: These are interactive games that challenge players on some educational topic related to the show or movie.

What would it look like? Imagine an HGTV online school for interior decorators, or a DIY course on home remodeling, or a Science Channel course on the solar system.

How to break in:  Do some digging to find the right contact, then make your pitch. Finding the right contact varies from show to show, and media company to media company. For example, if you want to make a pitch to TLC games, you’d go to the parent company’s producer’s portal and submit your idea.

Who’s doing it: Several TLC shows have their own educational  games, such as Cake Boss, Hoarders, and Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress. And, of course, movie franchises have been in this game (pun intended) for some time. One of the most popular movie-themed game sites   is based on Disney’s mega hit Frozen.

The benefit: These games and courses are mostly free. Why? Because they are powerful branding and loyalty-building tools that keep viewers going back to the shows and movies they represent. Although instructional designers may not be able to get a percentage of sales if the games are offered to the public for free, designers with high-end gamification and programming skills are paid handsomely to create these offerings.

The bottom line: You won’t likely get these gigs without a strong portfolio showing your experience in creating games—or at least developing game concepts—as well as some programming and animation chops. But a few instructional designers without these skills have made some good bucks just by pitching game ideas and storyboards to the show and movie producers, although this is the more rare route to break into this market. Still, if you have the passion and a great game idea based on a show or movie, show some moxie and make the pitch!


 3. Experiential Courses for the Amateur Adventure Enthusiast


What it is: These are either courses that offer adventure enthusiasts hands-on, out-in-the-field training on anything from white water rafting to something more low key like snowshoeing. Others are hybrid consumer-education courses for thrill seekers. (For example:  How to use our product during your adventure.)

What would it look like? Pretty much any adventure sport you can imagine is fair game for a course or experiential game.

How to break in:  Look for companies that cater to adventure-seekers and outdoor entusiasts, such as North Face or GoPro.

Who’s doing it: The leaders in this space are REI and GoPro. REI has already created its Outdoor School to teach skills like kayaking, snow shoeing and outdoor photography.  But a company like GoPro could also offer online courses on “high adventure” photography to cater to the adventure enthusiast.  (They already offer a “Tips and Tricks” series of tutorials with their GoPro Athletes series, but there is so much more they could be doing with this!) The possibilities—and the corporate opportunities—are endless.

The benefit: If you love the outdoors or adventure, you could make money creating courses about topics you love. The benefits to the companies are, of course, is creating brand loyalty.

The bottom line: The overriding message here is that to tap into these markets, you need to go after them! This isn’t a case of putting up a website or doing some social media marketing and hoping these markets will come to you. They won’t. You need to be proactive. And what better time than the start of the New Year to go after these fun and exciting markets!

Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on January 3, 2015 by

The Best Markets and Industries for Instructional Designers in 2015

Instructional design is a growing field. But some sectors, topics and geographic areas are better than others for career growth. Here’s a peek into the markets, industries and topics expected to have the highest growth for instructional designers in 2015.


Instructional Designers who work in these areas and have these skills will command top dollar in 2015.

Instructional Designers who work in these areas and have these skills will command top dollar in 2015.


Infographic: Top-paying industries, topics, and skills for eLearning instructional designers. Click To TweetYour salary and job opportunities as an instructional designer in 2015 will depend upon the industry in which you work, the geographic location of the company for which you work and your skill set. What it won’t depend upon as much is your level of formal education.

According to surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale, the salary range for instructional designers is between $70,300 and $101,000, with about two percent making as much as $132,000. Most instructional designers who receive salaries on the high end of the payscale lack formal advanced degrees and education, but they do have advanced training in skills such as programming, animation, gamification, course marketing and business strategy.

General Trends for Growth

Salaries for instructional designers overall are increasing and the annual job growth rate for instructional designers is projected to be 13% per year over the next eight years here in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

So, all of this sounds like smooth sailing for instructional designers, right?

Not so fast.

Certain sectors will experience high growth rates for eLearning development. Certain geographic areas will experience high employment growth rates for instructional designers. But not all industries and states will enjoy the same success.

U.S. States with the Highest and Lowest Job Growth Rates

Looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, the table below shows the states with the highest and lowest projected growth rates.

 States with the Highest Percentage Growth Rate for Instructional Design Jobs, 2013-2022

States listed in the table below will enjoy a higher-than-average job growth rate for instructional designers.

These states are projected to have the highest job growth rate for instructional designers over the next three years.

These states are projected to have the highest job growth rate for instructional designers over the next seven years.

States with the Lowest Percentage Growth Rate for Instructional Design Jobs, 2013-2022

The table below shows states with only single-digit job growth in instructional design.

Fewer than average jobs will be available for instructional designers in these states over the next three years.

Fewer than average jobs will be available for instructional designers in these states over the next seven years.

All other states are projected to have a growth rate within the 10% to 16% per year range, which is close to the national average of 13%.


The Most Competitive States for Instructional Designers

The most competitive states for instructional designers. #2015eLearningtrends Click To Tweet

An instructional designer living in California, Texas, New York or Florida has the most competition for jobs. For example, in California there are 17,900 full-time working instructional designers, but the state expects to see only 450 full-time job openings per year for the next eight years.

But living in a state with less competition isn’t always a good thing: If you live in Nevada there are only 220 other instructional designers; however, the number of annual job openings in the field in that state is projected to be only 10, and Nevada is one of the lowest-paying states for instructional designers.

It’s partly this increase in competition that lead to instructional design falling from the 38th best career in 2012 to the 76th best job in 2013  in terms of projected career growth. (No data is available yet for 2014.)

These are general statistics that apply only to general instructional design positions—those that don’t require specialized skills such as gamification, programming and course marketing. They are also an average of growth and salary projections for all industries and all topics.

But when you delve deeper into the statistics, you find certain industry sectors and certain topics that are paying far above the average wages, and where job growth is in the 25-30% range per year.

States with the highest salaries for Instructional Designers

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, if you’re an instructional designer living in New Jersey, Connecticut or Washington, D.C., you make more than your counterparts in other parts of the country.  If you telecommute for a company located in one of these areas, you also likely make more—even if you don’t live in one of those states.

Show me the money: States with the highest and lowest salaries for instructional designers. Click To Tweet

The three states with the lowest salaries for instructional designers are: Montana, Arizona and Nevada. And yes: If you work for a company located in one of these states your salary will likely be lower than the national average even if you don’t live in that state.

Hot industries for instructional designers in 2015.

Six hot (high-paying) industries for instructional designers. Click To Tweet

The industries with the highest demand for highly-skilled instructional designers include:

  1. Financial Services

Large banking institutions will hire a lot of instructional designers in the coming year—both freelance and full time. But the biggest growth area will be with small-to-mid-sized financial services companies that are hiring instructional designers to develop, design, and market consumer-based financial education courses. Larger institutions will hire IDs primarily for compliance and regulatory training.

 2. Security

Sony. Home Depot. Chase. They’ve all been the target of cyber attacks over the past year. The increase in the frequency and reach of the attacks has caused companies to invest more in both security service and security training.

 According to a report by Symantec, there was a 91-percent increase in targeted attack campaigns in 2013, including a 62 percent rise in the number of breaches. IBM says an estimated 1.5 million monitored cyberattacks occurred in 2013.

Because of these increased threats, companies are hiring additional on-staff security experts, as well as security firms. Many cyber security firms can’t keep up with the demand, so they are scrambling to hire and train security specialists. Several security vendors we spoke with also plan to create and market courses to large companies that teach internal IT staff how to handle security threats. All of this means the security industry is a good market for instructional designers.

 3. Oil and Gas

Safety and compliance training and big areas for instructional designers in this field, but there’s one topic that is of equal concern to oil and gas companies: cyber security. I mentioned earlier that security is a growth area for instructional designers in all industries, but it’s even more so in the oil and gas field.

Over the past three decades, the oil and gas industry has been the target of well-known cyber attacks. One of the largest was discussed in a Lockheed Martin Corporation report, which disclosed that in 2012 a terrorist group launched an attack to stop oil and gas production in Saudi Arabia’s largest exporter within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).   This has increased the need for security training in oil and gas.

The number of job postings for instructional designers in oil and gas has also been on the upswing the past few months, and shows no signs of slowing down in 2015.

 4. Biotech

Yes, this last week of 2014 has been a volatile one for biotech. But the overall trends are bullish for this sector in the New Year. Why?  For one, the iShares NASDAQ Biotechnology Index Fund (IBB) was up 35.2% in 2014, and the SPDR S&P Biotech ETF (XBI) was up 45% for the year, which points to things heading in a positive direction for the industry in the upcoming year.

There’s also been a small cap breakout and a lot of innovation and momentum in immunotherapy. Combine all of that with innovative technologies in personalized medicine and you have a huge training need in safety and regulatory compliance for these new treatments and therapies.

Biotech companies are also paying large salaries to instructional designers with gamification experience similar to Fold.It (to assist with product development), as well as specialized knowledge or experience in the pharmaceutical industry.

 5. Software

Software dominated venture capital investments in 2014, and all those new software products will need implementation and end-user training. That, of course, means more opportunities for instructional designers.

 6. Medical

Our obsession with health and wellness shows no signs of slowing down, and hospitals and health care organizations are taking advantage of this. Last year my company saw a 17% increase over the previous year in the number of consumer health and education courses we produced for hospitals and clinics. Health care organizations realize it’s good marketing and good branding to provide courses to their patients and potential patients on everything from diabetes education to physical fitness tutorials. Plus, health care providers realize they have to go where the patients go to search for health information. A McKinsey report shows that 96% percent of adults who use the Internet use it to search for health information.  That same report says health and wellness will be the next trillion dollar industry.

Given that online courses are already a $4 trillion business, online consumer health education seems to be the perfect high-growth market for instructional design jobs.

Topics with the highest growth rate

Teach to the Top: Topics that generate the most income for eLearning instructional designers. Click To Tweet

 Regardless of industry, certain topics seem to stand out as high-growth areas in the training and instructional design field. Those include compliance and regulatory training, product implementation and end-user training, consumer education and personal improvement courses (which teach everything from how to improve your finances to how to improve your health).


The New Year is here. And it looks like it will be a great one for instructional designers with the right skill set who are working in high-growth industries and living in or working for a company in a high-salary area.





Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies Tagged With: , , , ,
posted on December 30, 2014 by

The Top 8 E-Learning and EdTech Trends for 2015

What does 2015 hold for eLearning and edtech? We uncovered some surprising trends for businesses. But what surprised us most was what we found in store for instructional designers.

We here at DigitalWits spent the past four months talking with people in large companies, elearning agencies, corporate training departments, human resources, recruiting, edtech-focused venture capitalist firms, staffing agencies and our own clients over the past year to come up with our 2015 eLearning Trends Forecast. We identified eight key trends. Some of the trends didn’t surprise us, as we’ve had our eye on these for a while. But there were some—dealing with instructional designers–that had us snapping our heads back in a double-take.

Top Eight eLearning Trends for 2015


Discover the Top Eigth E-Learning Trends for 2015 from DigitalWits!

Discover the Top Eigth E-Learning Trends for 2015 from DigitalWits!

The Top 8 Trends for eLearning and EdTech in 2015. via digitalwits.com Click To Tweet

1. Learning & Performance (L&P)  departments will become profit centers.

Learning and Performance managers plan to pump up corporate profits by creating, marketing and managing for-profit MOOCs.

Learning and Performance managers plan to pump up corporate profits by creating, marketing and managing for-profit MOOCs.

I’ve talked about this before , but training managers in medium and large companies tell us transitioning from a cost center to a profit center is a main focus for their departments in the coming year. Big data will play a big role in this trend, too, as companies will be forced to track eLearning ROI and effectiveness. Some ways L&P centers will achieve revenue-generating status are through other trends, such as SaaS (School as a Service) and authenticated MOOCs (as opposed to free, or open, MOOCs).

2. SaaS (School as a Service).

School as a Service is an significant area of profit for corporations moving into educational publishing.

School as a Service is an significant area of profit for corporations moving into educational publishing.


This trend is already huge in the academic sector, but more corporations are starting to get into this arena. Just as companies have already become their own publishers and producers, they will now become their own schools and academies where they build, market and manage their own online degree and certification programs.

School as a Service(SaaS) will be a major source of corporate profits in 2015. #elearningtrends Click To Tweet

One of the biggest challenges corporate managers say they face in 2015 is closing the skills gap. It’s not surprising, then, that the end-goal of SaaS initiatives is to attract, train and retain recruits in high-tech fields like programming, mobile application development, cyber security and biotech. But the manufacturing industry is also entering the SaaS environment to recruit and train workers on new factory technologies like 3D printers and laser scanners. A recent Accenture study shows 75% of manufacturers report a moderate to severe shortage of skilled workers. In manufacturing, the approach will be semi-synchronous, hands-on, and use mobile smart-watch learning (see trend # 7). It’s clear corporate America is embracing edtech in spades.

3. MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) move mainstream and require authentication.

MOOCs continue to be a strong growth area for Learning & Performance departments in 2015.

MOOCs continue to be a strong growth area for Learning & Performance departments in 2015.

The biggest trend from 2014 continues into 2015, but wtih a twist: MOOCs in corporate America will move from employee training to recruiting, vendor education and consumer education. And don’t expect these courses to be “open;” they will be fee-based and require learners to sign up with their real names, addresses and emails. Another projected area of growth is co-branded MOOCs between corporations and established academic universities.

4. Gamification will be the new problem-solving tool – not just a tool to enhance learning.

Gamification expands beyond eLearning and training.

Gamification expands beyond eLearning and training.

Gamification will no longer be limited to learning; it will be the killer app for new product development and complex problem solving. Companies will get the entire organization involved in solving problems once reserved for engineers, scientists, chemists and programmers. This has already happened. FoldIt gamers solved–in a mere three weeks–the riddle of the HIV enzyme that had baffled scientists for over a decade. And now casual gamers in corporate America may soon be able to devise new medical and pharmaceutical treatments, or find creative solutions to more common problems such as distribution hiccups, through gamifying the problem.

5. MVC (Minimum Viable Course) Development will become the norm in tech and software industries to shorten product launch cycles.

Minimum Viable Course development will expedite product release cycles.

Minimum Viable Courses will be an eLearning development trend in 2015 and will expedite product release cycles.

Rather than wait with launching a product until the entire product training is completed, companies will develop short, just-what’s-needed-now modules, and then roll out the rest of the training in a MOOC as consumers and vendors complete the initial MVC modules. No more waiting for the entire course to be developed before the product “goes live.”

6. E-Learning moves from “seat time” to competency and in doing so becomes more personalized.


Learning content, questions and feedback will be tailored to the learner’s proficiency level, interests, and personal motivators. By learning about learners, e-courses will help learners learn in the manner, pace and method which suits them best. Personalized feedback systems are mostly handled through Artificial Intelligence (AI) subsystems.

7. You’ll be wearing your learning.

"Wearable eLearning" will be incorporated as a "while-you're-doing-it" app. Radical eLearning design changes will be required for the mini screen.

“Wearable eLearning” will be incorporated as a “while-you’re-doing-it” app. Radical eLearning design changes will be required for the mini screen.

When watching eLearning trends, the one to watch is the watch. #eLearningTrends2015 Click To Tweet. As in smart watch. Obviously the micro screen isn’t suited to all types of mobile learning, but it has direct applications for in-the-moment and on-the-job performance improvement to immediately alert learners when they are performing a task incorrectly (or unsafely) through motion-sensor technologies like accelerometers, gyroscopes, compasses, and pressure-sensors. These learning-on-your-watch programs will be much like an interactive virtual coaching session via a connected Bluetooth headset. Adidas has already done this on the consumer education side with its miCoach Smart Run virtual coaching product.

8. Freelance eLearning ID (instructional designer) rates will decline; salaries for full-time IDs – with specialized skills–will increase.


"Super IDs" who have gamification and programming skills will be in high-demand for full-time positions. Freelance IDs will be hired for short projects and staff augmentation.

“Super IDs” who have gamification and programming skills will be in high-demand for full-time positions. Freelance IDs will be hired for short projects and staff augmentation.

This is the trend that surprised us most. We expected freelance rates to increase, given the rise of the gig economy and contingent workers. But there are a few things happening in the eLearning industry that entice companies to pay more for certain types of full-time IDs, and less for “general practice” freelance IDs who have just the basic skills (instructional design chops, proficiency in rapid development tools such as Storyline and Captivate, graphic design abilities and strong writing/storytelling skills).

Salaries for full-time IDs likely to increase in 2015; rates for freelancers to go down. #eLearningtrends2015 Click To Tweet

Six Instructional Designer Salary and Freelance Rate Trends

1. Companies are bringing development of gamified solutions and highly creative training developpment in-house.

As companies make the move to branded, gamified, for-profit academies, they are upping their game (pun intended) and bringing highly-specialized IDs (those with instructional design, gamification, 3D animation, business strategy consulting and course marketing expertise) in house.  As they do more of these high-end courses, it becomes more cost-effective to hire full-time “super IDs” instead of expensive eLearning agencies.

Finding an ID with all of those qualifications is a tall order, to be sure. But IDs with all of those skills do exist, and they are paid well into the six-figures for their unique expertise. In our research, we uncovered 24 different companies who either have recently hired or plan to hire so-called “super IDs” for the 2015 MOOC and gamification initiatives. Surprisingly, none required an advanced degree in instructional design; they all indicated a strong portfolio demonstrating the skills desired far outweighed an advanced degree in an ID discipline.

Some companies are not looking for an all-in-one “super ID,” but rather one with course marketing, business strategy and game theory (mathematical modeling and user-interface design expertise); they get the other skills by hiring media experts with animation, motion graphics and programming experience.  Even hiring two FTEs is less expensive than hiring an agency if most courses developed will be high-end.

Of course, regardless of the position–whether “super ID” or general practice ID- instructional designers will need  a solid foundation in adult learning methodologies (either through direct on-the-job experience or education). But the trend is clear: the general-practice ID will likely find fewer and fewer full-time options, but more freelance options for fill-in-the-gap projects.

2. Companies that don’t hire full-time instructional designers for high-end courses, hire eLearning agencies—not freelancers.

Companies that may have only a few high-end courses (thereby not warranting FTEs) shy away from freelancers — even if the freelancer has all of the high-end skills required. Why? Agencies (an incorporated organization with about 15 or more concurrent clients) specialize in complex course development and have the portfolio and experience in gamification and 3D simulation environments. Corporations feel more confident in agency abilities than those of a freelancer. A few hiring managers told me they are leery of freelance IDs who may have to subcontract to other freelancers for additional skills. Training managers simply feel more secure hiring a single agency with all of the talent under one roof.

3. Freelancers will be used primarily for staff augmentation and Level 1 and Level 2 interactivity programs.

Although these programs require experienced and talented instructional designers, they don’t require the high-end skills of programming, 3D animation, gamification or business strategy consulting. Because the complexity of these programs is much less than the Level 3 and Level 4 courses, companies aren’t willing to pay as much for freelance, sole-proprietor IDs.

4. Supply and demand: The freelance market is getting crowded.

There are more and more freelance IDs (who either freelance full-time or do it on the side as a supplement to their full-time income) and companies can pick and choose highly talented IDs from a very large pool for their general practice courses. Several freelance IDs say they see more and more of a bidding-war environment than they have in the past—even when pitching to direct clients, as opposed to staffing agencies.

5. Smart Sourcing: The new outsourcing

Although outsourcing in the U.S. has declined, thanks to consumer backlash, smart sourcing (the practice of hiring IDs who live in low cost of living places within the U.S.) is on the upswing. That means a freelance instructional designer living in New York, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., would likely lose out on a project to an ID living in Keokuk, Iowa, or Cincinnati, Ohio. The Iowa ID can afford to take a much lower rate and still make a good living and hiring managers know this. Of course this only applies if the project is 100% remote, but most are now.

6. Tax Headaches: Blurring lines between freelance and full-time workers.

Another reason companies shy away from sole-proprietor instructional designers for larger projects comes down to simple tax compliance. Hiring an incorporated eLearning agency, or a sole-proprietor with an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) designation, makes it very clear to the IRS that the people doing the work are not employees of the company. (This applies to U.S.-based companies.)

When hiring a freelancer without a corporatet structure for a long-term, complex project, those employee/contractor lines are quickly blurred—especially if the company is the only client the freelancer has for an extended time period. Hence, freelancers are increasingly only hired for short-term, one-off projects and not put on retainer as they have been in the past.

Another trend to avoid tax issues: Companies are hiring more freelancers for fewer hours per week for a single project. In the past, companies hired a single freelancer to handle one entire project from start to finish. Now, however, the trend is to hire two to three instructional designers, and limit the IDs to 10-15 hours per week each.

However, the freelancer with an LLC designation will have a leg up for such contracts. Hiring managers at eLearning agencies that hire freelancers told us they are increasingly demanding freelancers have a corporate structure–as well as business liability insurance and errors and omissions insurance. Part of the reason is to protect the agency, but the other part is that agency clients demand agency subcontractors are also businesses–not individuals.

There are a couple of very bright spots for freelancer instructional designers.  As companies hire full-time employees primarily for those high-end, high-profit courses, they are turning to freelancers to do the routine, but much-needed and ongoing, employee training. So, although freelance rates may decline, the volume of work open to freelancers should increase, even if the projects are shorter-term and limited to 10-15 hours per week. The other bright spot: Because most of the freelance work available will be Level 1 and Level 2, instructional designers new to the field will have a real opportunity to get some experience.

Then, too, there are many high-profit areas freelancers are overlooking, where they won’t have to worry about being limited to 10-15 hours per week, or lower rates. DigitalWits has another report coming out soon: The Top Most Lucrative (Yet Hidden) Markets for Instructional Designers. If you’d like to receive the free report, just sign up by entering your name and email in the formm below.

One thing is for sure: 2015 will bring exciting new opportunities in edtech and eLearning!

Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on December 30, 2014 by

Five Cognitive Hacks that Help Your eLearners Learn Faster

What if you could give your elearners the superpower of learning faster?  Sound impossible? Not if you know the cognitive hacks to boost brain performance. 


Your subconscious mind is smarter than you. It makes most of your decisions without you–and without the permission of your conscious mind. It’s the fastest-acting part of your brain. Yet most eLearning courses engage the slowest acting part of the brain—the neocortex, seat of logic and reasoning.

How do you access and activate the subconscious in eLearning? To find out, let’s first look at the brain structure.

Your noggin has three brains and we make most subconscious decisions with the bottom brain.

The top brain, where we might say our smarts are, is the neocortex. It’s like a supercomputer. This is where we do logic and reasoning tasks. (1+2=2; If condition X, then result Y.)

Down a bit farther in the skull is the limbic system, which processes emotions. (Aw, cute puppy!)

But it’s the brain at the very bottom—the reptilian brain—that is the fastest-acting  and most active of the three brains.

Problem is, it doesn’t think. Or process information.

It just reacts. (AIYEE!  SNAKE!)

It’s this reactionary part of the brain where most subconscious decisions happen.

But the thing is, this part of the brain has powerful goals. (Find food, have sex, stay safe, run, fight.) And it reacts to triggers in the environment that it perceives as either advancing or hindering those goals.

The trick is to provide those triggers that help your subconscious jump into action and go onto high alert. In this heightened state of alert, the reptilian brain will process the information faster—and attach a higher degree of importance to the content. Thus, your learners learn faster.

 Here are the four brain hacks to help your learners learn faster by activating the subconscious.


  1. Start with an Emotional Trigger.

Start your eLearning course with an emotional trigger to activate the subconscious. (And when I say “start” I mean this is the first thing in the course—before a title page, before a branding page, before anything! Starting with a title page or branded company screen automatically puts the brain into “nothing-new-here” mode.)

We are emotional creatures and for the subconscious to truly buy into a goal – to truly want it – you have to create an emotional attachment to the outcome of the course—within the first six seconds of the screen populating! The most effective emotional trigger in eLearning is to show the learner in a common, everyday situation that causes him or her extreme frustration, fear, pain or loss.

For example, if your eLearning course is teaching learners how to use a new expense tracking software, you might start off with a brief scenario showing the stressed learner frantically searching for lost receipts from a business trip, or the hassle of keeping track of receipts, or the pain of getting a rejected expense reimbursement request because he has no receipts. These types of scenarios trigger anxiety about not getting paid, and it activates the subconscious to take action to “fight” to protect itself (in this case from financial loss). The subconscious then sets up to go on a hunt to prevent financial loss from lost receipts. (You can read more about the addictive power of the hunt in elearning courses in this post.)

 2. Have a conversation with your learner.

We humans are hard wired to want to have a back-and-forth conversation with someone else. But that means more than just posing a question to learners and moving on to the next screen. Linguistic anthropologists tell us that to truly engage the brain in a conversation you have to have the elearner actively participate in the conversation. How do you do that with a self-paced, online course? One way is to personalize the responses of an on-screen avatar to the responses of the learner through branched interactions.

Staying with our example of the expense tracking software course, below is a sample of how to personalize the conversation.


Notice how the tone and playfulness of the response changes based on the initial learner response and how the avatar actually seems to have a personality (as evidenced by the slightly sarcastic and slightly humorous response to the second learner response). It’s exactly what happens in “real time” conversations. To make this approach even more powerful, be sure to use an animated avatar—not a static character cutout. Why? Because the subconscious is also activated by watching human movements and actions. Many anthropological studies confirm that we respond to human faces, emotions and movements more than any other types of images and movements. So use them to your advantage in your eLearning courses.

  1. Engage the mirror neurons.

    Your brain can’t tell the difference between seeing someone do something, and actually doing the task yourself. In my book (Instant Appeal: The 8 Primal Factors That Create Blockbuster Success, AMACOM, New York, 2010), I devote nearly an entire chapter to the power of mirror neurons.

 To understand how mirror neurons work, let’s look at exactly what happens when you’re watching a football game on TV. You stare at the screen and watch the players rush across the field. Photons – or units of light – hit the retinas of your eyes and send the images of the rushing players to the visual centers of your brain, where the players’ actions are analyzed and patters of movement are detected. This information is then sent off to the mirror neurons of the brain and these cells remap the patterns of running, tackling or passing onto the appropriate sequence of muscle twitches that help you produce the identical actions—even while your butt is firmly planted on the couch.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never played football. At that moment, your brain unconsciously thinks you are playing football. That’s why when a player suffers a particularly pounding tackle you winch in pain; your psyche tells you that your body took the same brutal pounding.

With our travel software training example, you could activate the mirror neurons by showing an animated video of a character leaving his hotel room and forgetting to take the receipt with him. Then, when he begins to submit his expense report, he realizes he’s forgotten his hotel receipt and his anxiety rises. But then he remembers that he just started using the new software program. When he logs on to his software account, he finds an electronic copy of his receipt has already been submitted to his account directly from the hotel. He’s relieved. By watching the avatar use the program to overcome the potential of lost reimbursement from a lost receipt, your learners’ brains will think they have saved money, time, and worry by using the program. The subconscious minds of your learners will actually feel relief.

  1. Use exaggeration, caricatures and comics.

Researcher Vilayanur Ramachandran , Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of San Diego, says most engaging designs adhere to certain “laws of art” that titillate the visual areas of the brain. One of those laws is the “peak shift effect,” which is well known in animal discrimination learning. In peak shift, animals sometimes respond to more exaggerated version of the training stimuli.

Ramachandran found that the exaggerations in caricatures and comics, in particular, light up our primal aesthetic sense and is a clever brain hack to get people to engage with and remember content. I’ve found this to be true anecdotally as well; the comic panel and graphic novel eLearning courses I have created have been among the most successful (from a learning outcomes standpoint) and most well received of any I have created. (I also cover the peak shift effect extensively in my book.)

Others have applied this exaggeration principle to human learning successfully, too. When Jim Kwik , CEO of Kwik Learning teaches people to improve memory, he tells them to exaggerate the things they are trying to remember. That’s because, like Ramachandram, Kwik knows the brain craves novelty and mental exaggeration is a quick and simple learning hack.

 5. Provide instant gratification.

The reptilian brain is programmed to want results NOW. It doesn’t care about the future. It’s present-focused. To appeal to this subconscious desire, be sure to include an immediate call to action – the one thing learners can do now to improve their situations or change behavior.

Putting it all together in a quick, easy way.

I’ve covered a lot of information in this post, and I realize it can be a bit overwhelming to try to figure out how to fit all of these into one short (15-minute) course. To help you out, I’ve created a one-page cheat sheet that shows you how to incorporate all five of these hacks into a 15-minute training module.

Click here to get your free, one-page cheat sheet with a step-by-step plan to incorporate all five learning hacks into your next e-course!

Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on September 16, 2014 by

Cha-CHING! Corporations Find New Profit Center in Consumer eLearning.


“We’re looking to you and your company as our new rainmaker.”

I’d never really thought of an eLearning instructional designer like myself as a rainmaker for large companies before. But, as I sat at the 12-seat conference table and listened to the fourth Fortune 500 company executive in as many months excitedly explain his plan for an online membership university, the idea was starting to sink in.

It’s not that I didn’t understand the concept of how online universities can make money. I experienced it first-hand when I started one of my own back in 2008 for solo entrepreneurs. That site had a monthly membership of 1600 and each member paid a $587 annual membership fee to get four new courses per month and membership in a private “mastermind” Facebook group. A large business consultancy bought out my little university in 2010 and it was at that time that I realized the profit potential in Business to Consumer (B2C) eLearning. But large corporations weren’t seeing the value then; to them, eLearning was just something for internal employee training or, at the very most, vendor training.

Education Capital”: The Great (New) Differentiator

But, oh what a difference a long-term economic downturn can make.

Companies – especially those selling commodity products and services – are looking for ways to stand out from competitors and to offset dwindling profits in highly competitive, low-margin markets. These organizations are using their internal knowledge, or “education capital,” as the new differentiator—and as supplemental profit centers for ongoing, passive income.

And it’s a lucrative market. Last year, Inc. magazine called online for-profit courses “one of the top 8 niche markets” and predicted branded eLearning would remain a lucrative market for several years. The numbers bear that out: Online courses are a $4 trillion business worldwide and a $1.5 trillion market in the U.S. Who are these companies and what types of courses do they offer? According to an August, 2014, survey conducted by DigitalWits, here are just a few that plan to launch branded, consumer-based courses:

Fluke or trend?

Corporations are spending big on consumer eLearning.

Corporations are spending big — and seeing some big returns — on consumer eLearning.

According to an August, 2014, survey conducted by DigitalWits, more and more companies are developing “eLearning profit centers” where they sell courses directly to end consumers. Why? Because just as content marketing (blogs, articles and white papers) builds loyalty, brands, and profits, so do online course offerings. The survey was sent to 300 Fortune 500 companies and 300 Small-to-Medium-sized companies. One hundred seventy-eight Fortune 500 companies responded to the survey; 204 of the smaller companies responded.

When asked if they had plans to create online courses as part of an advertising or marketing campaign, 47% said they “had seriously discussed the idea with C-suite executives;” 28% said they had either “no intentions” or “had not even considered” using eLearning for anything other than employee training; and 1% said they had “no opinion.” But here’s the kicker: 27% checked the box that said they were “in active development or will launch within the six months” a consumer-based MOOC or online university.

Cha-Ching! Corporations turn to eLearning to boost profits, brand awareness and customer loyalty.

Now, 27% may not seem like a large percentage. But remember: Just four years ago virtually no companies – large or small– used eLearning courses or online universities as part of a marketing and sales strategy. But those companies in the 27% group will, no doubt, be market leaders in their industries because they have found a way to differentiate themselves in a commodity-mindset economy. And most (89%) companies that plan to use eLearning as a brand builder also plan to charge for those courses—anywhere from $19 to $197 per course. As one of the survey respondents from a Fortune 100 company stated, “We’ve done the market research and customers are clearly hungry for one-off courses that can help them solve a problem or develop a skill. We wouldn’t be investing in this if the payoff wasn’t there.”

Small to Medium-Sized Companies Get Biggest Return on Investment from Online Courses—So Far.

The survey responses show that companies in the Fortune 500 group had little sales and marketing impact data from their online branded courses. This is likely because they are late to the party; enterprise organizations are still in the pre-launch phase, whereas most of the small and medium-sized companies (100 to 500 employees) have had branded courses in place for one to two years. Of those companies with at least one year of data to report, 37% attributed an increase in product sales directly to the courses; 34% said the courses increased customer loyalty and retention; and 29% said it increased their position as a top-of-mind provider in their market niche. Measurement metrics included customer click throughs to product and purchase pages after completing a course, surveys that asked customers how they had heard of the company, satisfaction surveys, and market and competitive surveys.

Three paths to eLearning profits

But just what are these companies teaching? How do they sell online courses while staying true to their core product offerings and brands? For answers to that, let’s go to the survey results.

  1. Consumer Skill Development
    Of the 27% of companies that will launch consumer-based courses within the next six months, more than half (61%) say they will use the courses to help people develop skills that relate to their products. For example, a plumbing manufacturer (full disclosure: one of my clients) plans to launch an online Interior Design School (complete with a certification) that will teach the basics of aesthetics, colors, technology and emerging design disciplines through a 3D simulation environment. Each course will focus on a different room in the home. The courses will be free, and hosted on the company website. The anticipated payoff? Company officials say as consumers take the courses, trust and brand loyalty will be built and when people want to put those design skills to use in their own homes, they’ll think of the company’s products first. A large food company has a similar approach, with plans to launch online gourmet cooking classes for amateurs with high-profile chefs making cameo appearances in the courses. This company plans to use a combination of in-house content, curated content and user-generated content.
  2. Thought Leadership
    Twenty-two percent of survey respondents plan to leverage the knowledge and experience of their key managers to create online business courses. High-profile CEOs, Marketing Directors, or other C-Suite types can build not only their own reputation, but that of their companies through interactive and entertaining courses. But one company from the survey isn’t using its big wigs as thought leaders; it’s using the company’s scientists – the worker bees in the lab who create all those cool products. Starting next February, these skilled professionals will teach how to use the scientific method to solve basic, everyday problems. By making science more understandable to the general population the company hopes to get consumers excited about the science and, in doing so, get them excited about the science behind the products the company creates.
  3. Professional development courses
    The trend driving this eLearning niche is the decline in corporate-sponsored employee professional development. Most in-house employee training is geared toward product-specific training or technology skills development and that leaves a big gap – and a big need—for more “soft skills” courses. And 14% of the companies in our survey see closing that gap as a smart marketing move. Professional development courses leverage the intellectual capital of a company to help professionals build skills in a particular industry. For example, one startup talent management company that responded to the survey has plans to build brand loyalty by launching a “Power Recruiters Academy.” Their courses will teach advanced techniques in candidate interviewing, sourcing and creative (and unconventional) ways to use Pinterest and SnapChat to woo Gen Y recruits. The strategy is that as recruiters and HR professionals take the courses, they will also then think of the company’s talent management software as ‘best in class’ when their companies are in the market for new HR-related software.

Is creating online courses for profit right for your company?

Online course creation for marketing, branding and income is not for every company; it takes a serious time commitment, requires more resources than traditional employee learning, and the courses must be of a much higher caliber and quality than much of the employee-based training we see today. The rapid-fire “churn and burn” eLearning development cycle in most companies today won’t work for a for-profit course offering, or even for a free brand-building course. Plus, you need someone experienced in consumer education marketing.

But it’s important to know – before you start gathering resources and creating courses – whether you will get the financial payoff from the course, and whether or not there is a viable, profitable market for the course(s) you are considering. How do you know if you have a profitable niche for a course—and whether it makes sense for your company to use online courses to bolster your corporate reputation? You can use our free “Branded Course Decision Roadmap .” The roadmap is quick, easy, and straightforward. Through a series of yes/no questions, you’ll know if your course idea has profit potential or brand-building power– or lacks the market interest to make it a winner.

Click here to get your free Course Decision Roadmap




Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on August 7, 2014 by

How to Make Learners Crave Your eLearning Content

We’re all on crack.

No, we’re all not walking around smoking cocaine. But we are all dopamine junkies and our modern-day “crack” is information. Specifically: digital information.

A Google search activates a powerful dopamine loop that makes searching for content addictive.

A Google search activates a powerful dopamine loop that makes searching for content addictive.

Don’t believe me? When was the last time you went to do a quick Google search on a particular topic and an hour later found yourself reading about something completely different from the original subject matter of your search because you kept linking to different sites? Or, you planned to just check in on Facebook for a few minutes before bed and two hours later you were finally powering down your computer? Or, you just couldn’t stop scanning your Twitter feed?

I thought so.

Spending time on the interwebs is addictive. (Sigh.) Imagine how much people could learn if only online courses could be that addictive. But wait…they can be addictive!
The dopamine loop—the key to making content addictive and getting learners to crave your content.

It’s been widely held in scientific circles that dopamine regulates pleasure. But recent research finds that’s not true. Researchers now say dopamine neurotransmitters regulate motivation to continue pursuing a goal—not pleasure once we have achieved a goal. In short, we’re primordially programmed to be hunters. And we love a good Internet hunt.

So, how does that play into making a Google search addictive? It has to do with the so-called dopamine loop. When you seek information on Google (or LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, for that matter) the dopamine neurotransmitters in your brain get excited and make you want to continue the search. Then, you find the information you were looking for (in most cases rather quickly.) Score! The pleasure center (the opioid system) lights up and makes you feel good and that, in turn, makes you want to search again for something else. This thrill-of-the-hunt-pleasure-of-the-reward cycle continues. And that’s how a five-minute Google search can turn into an hour-long cycle of hunting for information, finding it, and hunting again by clicking on other links.

That same dopamine loop can also be activated in the brains of people taking online courses if we create an environment where the learner can experience these same hunting-and-finding / exploratory addictive loops.

Make your content addictive with these four dopamine triggers.

The dopamine neurotransmitters are triggered by four specific circumstances. To make your eLearning addictive, add some – or all – of these dopamine triggers to your eLearning content.
1. Include the thrill of the hunt. Rather than designing a typical eLearning course that has standard “next” and “back” navigation, structure the program as more of an exploratory course. Don’t structure the course in a linear manner, or use standard interactions such as drag-and-drop, tabbed interactions, or matching exercises. Don’t tell learners the information; make them find it through exploration of a problem.

Present a problem for the learners to solve—one where they need to “hunt” through various parts of a simulated environment to find the solution(s). Gamification is also a perfect way to make your course light up the dopamine neurotransmitters through “the thrill of the hunt.”

2. Give the brain regular jolts. In the film industry, there’s a well-known audience retention technique called “jolts per minute,” which is the number of times the action changes—either by sight or sound—in a TV show or movie.

These jolts could be laughter, violent moves, comical moves, quick camera angle changes, changes in music tracks or visuals, and so on. (I was astounded last weekend when I closed my eyes and merely listened to a movie that I had seen previously. In the span of one minute of dialogue, the musical sound track under the dialog had changed twelve times—either in volume, tempo, or a complete change of musical score—and there were nine different additional, albeit subtle, sound effects in that same time! If I had been watching the visual part of the movie, I would have noticed many visual jolts in addition to the audio jolts.)

But exactly how do these “jolts” that movie and television producers use keep people interested in the shows? Dopamine is stimulated by surprises and unpredictability; those jolts provide the surprises that the dopamine neurotransmitters crave. And our neurotransmitters need more jolts to keep our attention than they did in the past. Consider: The 1950’s Mr. Rogers show contained an average of five to 15 jolts per minute; today, a typical MTV presentation has a minimum of a dozen jolts per second! Anything less is considered boring by media producers. In his book, Critical Perspectives on ADHD, Thomas Armstrong points out that we are addicted because we have short attention spans, and we have short attention spans because we are addicted to these constant jolts.


Digital content today is, on average, about 60 times more addictive than content from the 1950s.

Digital content today is, on average, about 60 times more addictive than content from the 1950s.

Whatever your opinions may be about our attention-span-of-a-gnat society, the reality is that our learners do have much shorter attention spans. And it’s our job as instructional designers to create learning that will increase retention and comprehension by accommodating these shorter attention spans.

One way to do that is to follow the lead of film producers and include elements of the unexpected – jolting changes in audio or visuals — in our courses. Those “jolts” could be something as simple as frequent video cuts, changes in audio, a scene change, a change in camera angle, animation or an unexpected sound effect. If you include gamification, then a surprise challenge or a sudden change in the rules will trigger a dopamine high. (Sort of like on Cutthroat Kitchen when they introduce a new curve ball every few minutes to which the chefs have to adapt.) Another method is design each module with a completely different look and feel.

By the same token, eliminating repetitive static elements – like company logos and copyright statements on every screen – can increase attention. When all the screens contain the same static elements, learners tune out the content on the rest of the screen—even if the other content on the screen contains jolts. Think of repetitive logos and copyright info as anti-jolts; instead of emotional “uppers,” they’re mind-numbing “downers.”

I’m not suggesting we resort to dizzying MTV-like jolts per second. After all, if we have too many jolts then the dopamine loop is opened too often, which leads to hyperactive updating of memory and results in little or no learning. On the other hand, if the loop is not opened often enough, memory is not updated when it should be, and learning doesn’t take place. Much of our eLearning today mirrors the mind-numbingly slow (by today’s standards) jolts per minute of a Mr. Rogers show, and that pace is simply out of sync with our learners’ attention spans.

3. Put a little Pavlovian puppy in your program. It’s almost hilarious to watch people in stores when their cell phones ring, or when they hear their text message alerts sound. Many frantically reach for their pocket or purse and grab their smartphone like a ravenously hungry dog lunging for raw steak. But that’s how we’re all programmed. (And as much as we may not like to admit it, we’ve all done that ‘dog-after-a-raw-steak’ move a time or two with our smartphones.)

Dopamine is sensitive to both auditory and visual cues to rewards. (Remember Pavlov’s dog?) So when it comes to designing your eLearning, build in auditory cues to let learners know there is a reward coming. The cue could be a “ding” sound effect when points are earned from solving a problem or answering a quiz question correctly, or an alert every time learners complete any task. (I use a To-Do list program called Wunderlist, and I love the sound alert each time I cross an item off my digital list. I feel so motivated to complete the next item on the list just so I can hear that sound again—letting me know that I am being productive! Those auditory cues are powerful [addictive?] motivators and many app developers use them to keep us motivated—and keep us using their apps!)

One final point on visual and auditory cues: If your course contains gamificaiton, be sure to include sound effects whenever a learner moves up the leaderboard, achieves an award, or earns points.

4. Present a learning byte appetizer–not a main course. The brain prefers tantalizing educational appetizers to satiating full course meals. Small bits of information that leave us hungry for more information sends the dopamine system into overdrive. It makes us want more. It makes people want to take the next module, learning byte or educational challenge.
Of course, there are other ways to make your eLearning addictive, including the use of compelling stories or on-camera talent to create a relationship with the online learner—both of which activate the limbic system of the brain which is also key to creating addictive content. But as far as dopamine is concerned, these four triggers will help to make learners crave your content.
Who knew? Learning can be addictive—even in corporate environments where attention spans are particularly short.


What do you think of this? Will you include dopamine triggers in your eLearning content? Or, do you think the learner ultimately has the responsibility to motivate himself or herself to be engaged in the training? Let me know by posting your comments below.


Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies
posted on June 5, 2014 by

The eLearning Paradox: Unprecedented Industry Growth and a Plethora of Jobs, But Many Instructional Designers Feel Left Out.

Instructional Designers see a lot of opportunity, but rush jobs and lack of respect are key stress points.

Instructional Designers see a lot of opportunity, but rush jobs and lack of respect are key stress points.

Online learning is in the midst of massive growth. Inc. Magazine named online learning “One of the top eight most lucrative industries in which to start a business for 2013 and beyond,” and Money Magazine listed “instructional designer” as the 38th (out of 100) best job in America for this year, citing a 28.3% job growth rate through 2023, and an average salary range between $63,700 and $97,400. But eLearning instructional designers still face challenges. [Read more…]

Filed Under: eLearning Design Strategies