Written by:

Mark Aston


February 8, 2024

With online training becoming the norm recently, the amount of e learning content development required has increased significantly.  But writing e learning content is not the same as writing for other forms of media.  It’s not simply a case of cutting and pasting bullet points from a PowerPoint slide.  It’s more akin to taking a novel and converting it into a movie.

But e learning content also comes in various formats (e.g., e learning modules, video, audio, animations), each with diverse requirements to create successful instructional products that help people learn.  So learn how to navigate the production of e learning content, including how much you need to produce, how to source information, and do’s and don’ts when creating it.  And see how the pros do it with numerous real-world examples.

What Is E Learning Content Development?

E learning content development involves creating and designing educational materials and resources for online or electronic learning environments.  As you will see in this article, writing for print or other media is very different than writing e learning content.

For example, readers of printed material are more likely to read for leisure or to gain in-depth knowledge.  In contrast, online readers are usually looking for quick and relevant information.  As online readers tend to scan rather than read, you need to write with a clear and logical structure that makes it easier to skim the text.  Online readers also expect a more conversational and informal tone than print readers, and they appreciate a personal and engaging voice.  As you will see later, many of these differences apply when developing e learning content.  But there are also many more subtle differences you need to know about e learning content development.

First, let’s consider E learning content development and the wide range of activities and materials that it can cover, including:

  1. Course Materials: Develop digital course materials such as presentations, slides, notes, and job aides that can be accessed and used by learners online.
  2. Multi-media Content: Creating multi-media elements like videos, audio recordings, animations, and interactive simulations to enhance the learning experience.
  3. Assessments: Electronically delivered quizzes, tests, assignments, and other assessment tools.
  4. Learning Modules: Creating structured learning modules or units that cover specific topics or learning objectives.
  5. Interactive Content: Develop interactive e-learning modules, such as branching scenarios, gamified activities, and simulations, to engage learners actively.
  6. Accessibility: Making e-learning content accessible to all individuals, such as providing text-to-speech options, closed captions, and alternative formats.

Instructional designers, subject matter experts, and multi-media specialists can undertake e learning content development.  The goal is to create engaging and effective online learning experiences that cater to the needs of learners in all settings.

Effective e learning content development is crucial to meet the objectives of your educational or instructional product.  For instance,

  • the course needs to be accessible to all learners
  • it needs tailoring to the specific needs of each individual
  • the content needs consistency to ensure a uniform level of quality and content coverage and
  • the content needs to meet your learning objectives


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How Much Content Do You Need For Your E learning Course?

Perhaps you have been asked to provide or create e learning content for a 60-minute online course.  Or maybe you have a lot of existing content to convert into an online course.  But how much content do you need, or how long would an e learning course be if you covered all the content you have?

Specific estimates will depend on several factors, including the complexity of the topic and the format of the material you have already.  But the following table provides estimates to give you an idea.

30 min 60 min 90 min 120 min

Words are spoken about 100/minute

5,000 10,000 15,000 20,000
Presentation Slides

This is a rough estimate, as slides can vary significantly in design/layout

25 50 75 100

Assuming your pages are letter-sized, double-spaced, single-sided.

12 – 15 30 – 40 50 – 60 70 – 80
Topics/learning objectives

Varies, but we recommend that you don’t try to do too.  With longer courses, use – caution; its better to go a little deeper with the topics rather than add more.

3- 5 7-10 15 (multi-module) 15 (multi-module)

When we develop e learning courses for our clients, it’s pretty standard that they have a mountain of content in various forms but only want a 60-minute course.  Meanwhile, their content could stretch to a course that was many hours, if not days, in length.

When Do You Need To Create E Learning Content?

So, you want to create an e learning course and realize that part of the process involves creating the e learning content.  Do you do this before you start the project?  Or do you do this at the end of the project?  Or are you doing e learning content development throughout all phases of the project?  The answer is none of these!

Our approach to creating online training consists of a 4 stage process:  Engage + Analyze, Instructional + Creative Design, Build Test + Modify, and Launch.  The vast majority of the e learning content development occurs at the start of the second stage during the instructional and creative design phase.

Spark + Co process for e learning development

For example, a typical one-hour e learning course of moderate interactivity takes 16 weeks to produce from beginning to end.  The process of writing the majority of the e learning content occurs between weeks 3 and 5.  Some additional changes to the e learning content occur during the Build, Test + Modify stage.  However, you will write most of the e learning content between weeks 3 and 5 of the project.

What Existing Content Is Useable For E Learning Content?

Most of our clients usually have access to some of the content for their e learning course, which can come in various formats.  Some of this content is much more helpful to convert to e learning than others.  Adapting your existing content is like adapting a novel to a movie.  Content might be re-arranged, certain things removed, and other changes to suit the screen instead of the page.  Below are a few examples.

“Converting existing content for e learning is like adapting a novel to a movie.” Holly MacDonald, CEO Spark + Co.

E Learning Content From Presentation Materials

Existing presentation materials, say from an in-person course, are often a good source of material to convert into e learning content.   However, presentation materials without speaker notes (i.e., slides only) are insufficient.  Additional speaker notes are especially critical if the presentation material is slides of bulleted points, lacking explanation or context.


Recordings such as podcasts, webinars, videos, and similar recordings can be handy content sources.  However, annotations and additional speaker notes are necessary.  Raw audio or video recordings alone aren’t sufficient for in-depth e learning content unless there is guidance from subject matter experts.


Raw transcripts don’t provide enough information to successfully convert it into e learning content alone.  Additional edits and information or input from subject matter experts are required to select the most essential and critical information.


PDF or Word documents can often be a good source of information.  However, they need to be accessible and aren’t helpful if they lie behind a secure internal firewall!  Or if they consist of thousands of pages of overly detailed information for the objectives of the e learning content needed.

E Learning Content From Webpages

Specific webpages for the precise information needed for e learning content development are excellent sources.  Especially if it is accompanied by descriptions of the importance of the information for the course.  But general webpage links don’t help much.  The links need to be specific to the precise topic and include the context of why the material is important.


Similar to webpages, annotated screenshots or screenshots with accompanying information explaining the critical learning points and their importance can also be very useful sources of e learning content.

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The Importance Of Context For E Learning Content

The reason to invest in building a custom e learning course is to ensure that your audience can apply what they are learning in your context.  Here, ‘context’ is a critical factor in the retention of knowledge, depth of understanding, and the ability of a learner to demonstrate acquired knowledge.  So, a vital part of the instructional design process is ensuring that you include relevant and authentic context.  Below are examples to consider when writing your e learning content.

Common Situations

When developing e learning content, it’s crucial to include authentic examples of where learners must apply their learning.  You could include these in scenarios, worked examples, demonstrations, quizzes, and other e learning interactions.

Uncommon Situations

Also, consider uncommon situations where a mistake might be critical.  Being able to describe the extremes can also help with context.  These also provide “cautionary tales” for learners, allowing them to develop their decision-making.

Cultural Dos And Don’ts For E Learning Content Development

When developing e learning content, reflecting the organization’s or setting’s culture is essential.  In the e learning content development process, consider “how we do things,” whether that is in an organization, industry, community, or other settings.


It’s not enough to teach the learner how to do that task alone when writing e learning content in situations with a specific task in an overall process or workflow.  The learner must understand the broader context of the process, workflow, or other situation.  The learner should also understand when to perform the task, what to do if the outcome isn’t as expected, and how it may (or may not) impact the process later on.


Context of the specific situation or environment is also needed when developing scripts or narration.  Providing the correct phrases and words when writing e learning content can make the experience and learning relevant and authentic.  It can also double as a performance support tool.  For example, what should a learner say in a specific situation?  The learner doesn’t have to struggle with the right words if there’s an authentic script.  They can use what you provided in the course.  This is an example of scaffolding where the e learning content builds upon itself.  So, the learner recalls more of the content with a short phrase or script.

For more information on the importance of context in learning design, read Connie Malamed’s article.

What Makes Something Learnable?

Have you ever been taught something but can’t do it the next day or later that afternoon?  Being told how to do something doesn’t necessarily correspond with learning how to do something.  Generally, there are several factors we can influence to make it easier for people to learn.

  1. Readability – the ease with which text can be read and understood. It depends on a text’s presentation (font choice, spacing, or colors) and context (the words and sentences on the page).  Other factors that affect readability include sentence length, sentence structure, and the average number of syllables per word.  How well your e learning content will be understood is based on these factors.
  2. Usability – the degree to which something is easy to use. Usability refers to the quality of a user’s experience when interacting with products or systems, including websites or applications.  Usability is about effectiveness, efficiency, and the user’s overall satisfaction.
  3. Memory – designed for how memory works. Memory significantly impacts learnability, so understanding how to use design to help working memory is important.  When we read or hear something, it goes into our short-term memory.  But unless our working memory processes it, it doesn’t go any further, and we quickly forget it.  Building instruction that uses working memory well is a foundational instructional design task.  The third stage is long-term memory.  Getting information from the working memory to the long-term memory is another critical instructional design task when writing e learning content.For more details, see Patti Shank’s article on How To Design To Help Working Memory.
  4. Prior Knowledge – incorporates what people already know. Previous knowledge is important as it is a foundational building block for new knowledge and assists learning.
  5. Cognitive Load – the amount of knowledge in working memory to knowledge in long-term memory (prior knowledge). Activating prior knowledge allows us to focus the instruction at the right level, in the gap between what our learners know and what we need them to learn.  If the gap is too large, the learner suffers from cognitive overload and cannot process the information to learn the task. One way to avoid this in e learning content development is to break problems down into parts that are easier for learners to process.  Find more details on Cognitive Load Theory applied to learning from the Medical College of Wisconsin.


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Style Guide

A Style guide is an important document you’ll need to refer to for e learning content development.  It ensures the organizational writing rules stay consistent regardless of what’s created or who is creating it.  This document should communicate the do’s and don’ts of what to write.  There is also likely a separate brand guide that focuses similarly on the visual elements.

These guides between them often specify the following:

  • Voice and tone
  • Logo’s
  • Brand story
  • Grammar
  • Content types
  • Branding guidelines
  • Audience personas
  • Typography and fonts
  • Color palette
  • Design elements
  • Visual guidelines
  • Formatting
  • Writing guidelines
  • Image guidelines

Using Multi-Media Learning Principles

Multi-media learning is a form of digital instruction that uses two modalities simultaneously.  For example, visual elements like images, animations, text, and videos combined with audio (music, voice-over).  Researcher Richard Mayer wrote a book called Multi-media Learning, where he explains his research on how best to structure content to maximize learner comprehension.  The graphic below is a good representation of many of Mayer’s principles.

graphic of multi media principles

Graphic produced by Mike Taylor.

Considerations When Writing Online Content

As you now know, writing for online courses demands a different set of skills and knowledge than traditional writing.  Honing your skill in this area can significantly improve your content and its readability by learners.  Online writing requires a unique style of writing.  Novelists paint a picture with words.  Reporters report the news with dramatic flair.  Academics explain complex ideas in context with citations.  But, online content writers share information as succinctly as possible.  So, when writing e learning content, there are many factors to consider.

  1. Write Concisely – Keep your paragraphs short—no more than 3-4 lines of text. Look for opportunities to cut words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs if they do not contribute necessary content.  The ideal standard is to use 20 words or less in a sentence.  And you can use dashes instead of semi-colons or, better yet, break the sentence into two.

2.    Use Transition Words
Connect sentences seamlessly by using transition words such as

  • And
  • In addition to
  • As well as
  • Furthermore
  • Besides
  • But
  • Also
  • Another
  • Equally important
  • First, second, etc.,
  • Similarly
  • As a result
  • For example, for instance

3.   Use Bulleted And Numbered Lists

4.   Use Hyperlinks – Use hyperlinks for important information for the learner to find out more about a topic. But use links for only the most critical info.

5.   Bold Important Info – Bold text that is crucial to understand.

6.   Use the words your users use – By using words that your users use, you will help them understand the e learning content.

7.   Chunk your content – Chunking makes it more scannable by breaking it into manageable sections and reduces cognitive overload.

8.   Use Active Voice – One of the key factors in writing for online channels is to use Active Verbs rather than Passive Verbs. Most people naturally gravitate to using passive verbs in their writing.  However, readers and learners prefer a writing style using active verbs.  When a sentence is in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action expressed by the verb.  In the passive voice, the subject is the person or thing acted on or affected by the verb’s action.

For example,

Active voice: Jerry knocked over the lamp.

Passive voice: The lamp was knocked over by Jerry.

Using Active verbs/voice is preferred for online writing for several reasons.

  • It has a firmer tone and is often less wordy and more straightforward
  • It is usually easier to read and sounds more natural
  • It emphasizes who is performing an action, resulting in more dynamic and engaging writing
  • It provides clarity by explicitly stating the subject performing the action, leaving no room for confusion
  • It creates a firmer, more engaging tone that helps to maintain the reader’s interest

If you need help, use free online tools such as Grammarly or Hemingway to analyze your writing.

9.   Use images – Use images, diagrams, or multi-media to visually represent ideas in the content. Videos and images should reinforce the text on your page.

10.  Use white space – Using white space allows you to reduce noise by visually separating information.

11.  Personal Tone – Readers expect a personal, upbeat tone for e learning content. They find bureaucratic writing out-of-place and often ignore the message it’s trying to convey.  So avoid bureaucratic language and eliminate jargon.

Make Your Content Accessible

When responsible for e learning content development, you must remove accessibility barriers in your content.  Not only is this a societal norm, but it is now a legal requirement in many jurisdictions.  So examples of what you must do include

  • Use a font size that is large enough and choose an easy-to-read sans-serif font type
  • Use text colors that show up clearly against the background color
  • Use transcriptions or captions on videos
  • Ensure visual consistency – when navigation changes around the page when you move between content types, it can become challenging to identify and navigate
  • Format electronic documents and screens so that they can be e read by a screen reader
  • Don’t use blinking, fast-moving, or flashing content – or moving content that does not allow the user to pause or disable
  • Use descriptive links so users know where a link will take them or what the downloadable linked content is
  • Make sure your code lets assistive technologies know what every user interface component is for, what state it’s currently in, and if it changes
  • Include ‘Alt-Text’ descriptions for any images or graphics – this enables images to be “read” by assistive technologies such as screen readers and allows images within web content to be understood.

Also, it would be best to consider the different ways people interact with content.  For example, learners might

  • Use a keyboard instead of a mouse
  • Change browser settings to make content more accessible to read
  • Use a screen reader to ‘read’ (speak) content out loud
  • Use a screen magnifier to enlarge part or all of a screen
  • Use voice commands to navigate a website

How might these factors affect the e learning content you create?

A good resource for more information is how to make your online content accessible by Roberta Beattie.

Use A Writing Process To Guide Your E learning Content Development

We have discussed many factors necessary for writing e learning content.  But it’s also vital that you have a process you use for writing.  You could use many processes that include combinations of pre-planning, drafting, and editing.  One such method is below.  You don’t have to use this process, but you should use one that suits you, applied to e learning content development.

writing process for e learning content

E Learning Content Development Examples

We have covered a lot of information on how to write e learning content, guidelines and rules to abide by, and factors to consider.  Now, we provide examples of how to prepare e learning content and what not to do.  We also include powerful e learning content development examples by pros in the field.

E Learning Course Module

A traditional e learning course module can include a range of interactive exercises but provides a guided experience.  It is usually 10,000 words per hour if using voice-over narration and could consist of an additional 5,000 on-screen words.  This e-learning content is an excellent choice for providing instruction and blending it with hands-on practice.  After learning the content, the participant can also engage in a practice activity with provided feedback.

When developing e learning content, you should

  • Put yourself in the learners’ shoes
  • Be conversational and informal
  • Keep the “so what” in mind
  • Visualize yourself speaking to the learner directly
  • Provide enough background context
  • Reinforce the learning with lots of practice
  • Let learners try and then give feedback

Also, don’t

  • Only put bullet points on the screen
  • Write in a formal tone
  • Use complete sentences on the screen, as it’s likely unnecessary
  • Forget to provide instructional feedback to the learner

Below is an excellent example of this type of e learning content development.  This example was an affordable e learning course that Spark + Co created and typically takes 16 weeks to produce from start to finish.

Kidney transplant course

Creating Scenarios

Scenarios are commonly used in e learning content as applied examples that allow the learner to choose an option and see some consequences of that option.  When developing scenarios, we suggest using a conversational tone and nuanced situations.  The most important outcome from a scenario is that someone has rehearsed what they would do in a specific problem.  Typically, a scenario will consist of about 500 words only.

When developing a scenario, it should be

  • Realistic and authentic
  • Provide a challenge to the learner
  • Allow learners to be primed ahead of time so that they can develop a mental model of what the scenario is about
  • Have them consider, “What would you have done?”

In your scenario, you shouldn’t

  • Be afraid to push the boundaries – for example, use language the audience would use. A course on sexual harassment shouldn’t shy away from using situations that make people uncomfortable.
  • Make it too obvious – you want the learner to have to think
  • Expect that the learner needs to learn content before trying a scenario
  • Be overly critical of the choices they make, although you do need to provide feedback

Below is an excellent example of a well-prepared scenario involving Conflict Resolution.  Try it out.

image of e learning content course

Using Case Studies In Your E Learning Content

Another common instructional technique is to include case studies in your e learning content.  Case studies are often longer than scenarios and could be 1500 words.  They allow an in-depth exploration of the causes or contributing factors to a situation.  And case studies can allow you, with an instructional opportunity, to highlight many aspects related to your topic.  It also allows you to bring in various perspectives and points of view.  You can present it as a document or in an interactive way.  Harvard Business Review case studies are a good example.  Especially so if you have an academic audience.

When developing a case study, it should

  • Provide enough details to ensure the learner has options
  • Expose the learner to multiple viewpoints.
  • Analyze a past situation to provide lessons for future action
  • Allow the learner to receive instructional feedback or compare their answer with an “expert”

In your case study, you shouldn’t

  • Give only one answer
  • Rely on words alone. Use pictures and audio to tell the whole story

Below is an excellent content development example of a case study in an interactive video format.

image of interactive video

Worked Examples

Worked examples are problems where you show your work as you walk through an example.  It may be in the form of annotations or notes that identify essential aspects of the situation.  The word count for worked examples in your e learning content can vary significantly while keeping the wording concise wherever possible.  When preparing a worked example, think you were sitting beside the learner, guiding them through a problem or situation.

When developing e learning content in a worked example format, you should

  • Write a clear example with one central point
  • Include “why” the situation is occurring
  • Add tips along the way

In preparing your worked example, you shouldn’t

  • Be afraid of the learning failing. While you don’t want it to be impossible to figure out, having it challenging and providing corrective feedback is instructive
  • Treat it like a test. Enable learners to access reference content or get hints

There’s an excellent worked example in our free course on How To Write Effective E Learning Content.  Sign up and see this and many other examples of highly effective e learning content.


Microlearning is the name given to short instructional activities, including videos, interactive infographics, quizzes, and games.  It delivers content to learners in bite-sized (3-5 minutes) bursts at the point of need, with a focused and specific learning outcome.  These activities are often part of a series of e learning content since they are short and only 500-750 words.

These need to be highly interactive and very focused to provide instruction in a short period.  It’s best to custom-design these around the content.  So Think “do” instead of “tell.”

When developing microlearning, it should

  • Have action-oriented language
  • Have immediate application
  • Be written in the first person (e.g., you will)

With microlearning e learning content development, you shouldn’t

  • Just shrink or chop up a more extensive course
  • Decide on the format first
  • Skip the audience analysis – you want to know where and when your users are going to access your microlearning

Try out these 8 Microlearning Examples That Prove Less Is More.

Live Video

By Live video, we refer to a video featuring a person narrating, interviewing, etc.  This type of e learning content is approximately 125 words per minute.  In this situation, video is a substitute for someone explaining the content.  And while it can be highly effective, it’s essential to recognize that there are limitations to an instructional video.  For instance, video can be very passive, so it’s crucial to explore adding interactivity wherever possible.

When considering live video e learning content development, you should

  • Write out your expected outcomes ahead of time
  • Work with technical experts when you can
  • Use a script to reduce the number of ‘filler’ words used (‘erm,’ ‘um’) and to stay on track
  • Rehearse lots before shooting the final video
  • Match the tone with post-production techniques and supporting media

And make sure you don’t

  • Wing it unless you’re an expert presenter
  • Rely on talking head videos
  • Make them too long
  • Overproduce or have poor transitions and choppy cuts
  • Use distracting background music

An excellent example of a live video is the narration and video below from Harvard University in a 6-minute clip about steps for brain-building with your child.

harvard university live training video


  • The structure of the video: introduce the concept, demonstrate with live people and instructional elements are woven throughout
  • Music adds to the tone but doesn’t distract or add to cognitive overload
  • They use two voices
  • The effectiveness of the spotlight

For more information on Creating Better Video For Learning, Patti Shank has a three-part very informative series.

Motion Graphics / Animation E Learning Content

You can use motion graphics or animation to create e learning content in a video format with non-human characters or words/images on a screen to explain a topic.  As with Live Video, there are usually 125 words per minute.  One of the benefits of this type of video is that they are easier to develop because you don’t need to schedule the shooting or do post-production editing.

When developing motion graphics or animations, you should

  • Script it
  • Storyboard it
  • Use plain language
  • Ensure animations meet accessibility requirements
  • Remember, this is for learning, so you don’t need to produce a Pixar movie

If you are interested in learning more watch this excellent video on the 12 Principles of Animation.

But make sure that you don’t

  • Put all words on the screen
  • Don’t make any music too loud as it can compete with other audio, increasing cognitive load
  • Overdo the animation

image of animation used in training

Again, above is an excellent example of this type of e learning content from Harvard University.  Notice the captions, the simple but engaging animations, and the precise narrative message supported by on-screen text.  And even though there is background music, the narration comes across clearly.

Audio Lessons

Instruction that relies on audio as the predominant format can be an excellent tool for guided thinking and reflective topics.  It is an underused and in-expensive way to produce e learning content compared to video.  Typically, a 40-minute episode will require 3,000 words.

With this format of e learning content development, you should

  • Write a script
  • Add “show notes” and additional links and more in-depth information
  • Write conversationally – imagine you are talking to one person
  • Include pauses so that the listener/learner can reflect

But don’t read your script like a script!

An excellent example of an exciting and well-produced podcast lesson is Habits 101.


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Effective E Learning Content Development – Some Final Thoughts

So now you know that e learning content development is a complex process that’s much more involved than you first thought.  But with the principles, do’s, and don’ts and the powerful examples of highly effective e learning we’ve included, you’re now prepared to develop e learning content that will result in actual learning and behavior change.  And if you need further details, you can sign up for our free online courseHow To Write Effective E Learning Content “.

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