Recently, I found myself in a social setting with a diverse group of professionals, some of whom I know well and some of whom I was meeting for the first time. When the conversation turned to careers and then to my passion – interactive multi-media, simulations and learning – I asked about their experiences taking online courses. I was astounded and saddened by what I heard.

I decided to do a mini-research project. My premise was simple: Why do learners dislike e-learning, and what can we do about it? What came of this exercise is hardly a scientific study, but it did reveal an elephant in the middle of the training and development living room.

My research subjects were four successful, hard-working individuals of varying ages: Brad, an accomplished attorney in a well-known software company; Wendy, a dedicated charge nurse; Glenn, a seasoned Pentagon executive with high-level security clearances; and Linda, who works in middle management at a global hotel conglomerate. (All names have been changed.)

My focus was their experience with required online compliance courses. My subjects, all contacted separately, were asked the same four questions and asked to briefly but honestly share personal experiences and feelings.

When asked, “What do you like most about taking online compliance courses?”, I received a unanimous response from all four: They are convenient. Linda elaborated that she likes being able to “do it quickly, and I don’t have to turn in completion certificates or anything else because it is all handled with the system we are using.”

Next, I asked, “What do you like least about taking online compliance courses?” You’d think a lawyer would highlight the importance of learning compliance topics, but Brad’s response was, “I am required to take them.” The word “boring” appeared in three responses, along with one use of the term “mind numbing.” There were also several mentions of the words “repetitive” and “predictable.”

Linda, an expressive subject, stated, “It seems like they are all the same. Very repetitive. They just change the words and pictures and ta-da! I am given a new course that I have to spend an hour I don’t have on.” Brad finished his response with, “They are predictable which makes them boring. Usually, the content is read to you while you click through the slides. Then there is a scenario and you have to answer a multiple-choice question. Then repeat, repeat and repeat until the end.”

The third question was, “When you take an online course, do you pay close attention, pick up useful information and apply it in your job; try to speed-click through it as fast as possible; or somewhere in between?” The answer was a landslide: Every single one said they tried to click through compliance courses as fast as they could – even Brad, who stated, “I only pay attention to answer the questions correctly and pass the test. If there is no test, I multi-task and do not listen at all. I just click the next button and get it over with.” Wendy, who has always been studious, tried to qualify her answer by saying, “When I am taking nursing courses for continuing education credit, and there is new medical information that I need to know, I’ll go slower and absorb it. But for something like this (compliance courses), I usually click through it quickly.”

My last question was, “Do you think these online compliance courses help your work climate? Or do you think they are mainly for internal legal protection, checking you off as ‘compliant’ so the organization protects itself? Or somewhere in between? Why?” This question is where I received some interesting answers.

Glenn told me a short story: “Last week, I walked by a colleague’s desk and noticed he was doing something against security protocol. I pointed out ‘Didn’t we just take a course on cyber security on Monday?’ He said, ‘About doing this?’ Yes… this was in the Pentagon.”

Brad said, “These courses are just to cover the company in the case of litigation etc.” (As the lawyer, he should know.) Wendy was convinced that her HR department only cared that she completed it. She offered a bit more of a balanced answer, saying, “The company has to cover itself legally. But I also think that we are required to take this type of training because they know that these are important issues. I just think people are numb to taking online courses that lecture you about the rules. They don’t seem to make any difference.”

Creating Engaging Online Compliance Training

What did my impromptu micro study uncover? When attempting to teach a behavioral topic (like most compliance issues), traditional online learning methodologies just don’t cut it. For my subjects, using the customary didactic approach failed to result in any engagement, let alone attitudinal or behavioral improvement.


After many years, I have learned that if you want to positively impact attitudes and behaviors, you have to trigger the learner’s affective domain – which means plugging into emotions, values, motivations and empathy. You cannot accomplish this goal online with a “teach-by-telling” approach. Incorporating storytelling into the learning experience is a powerful way to achieve engagement.

For example, user-driven interactive video simulations allow learners to play out scenarios, make their own decisions and experience the consequences. When addressing compliance, an experiential learning methodology is far more effective at improving attitudes, behaviors and performance than having text read to you while you view images. If you have never seen or played a user-driven interactive video simulation, try this sexual harassment prevention video.

It is also crucial to distinguish between procedure-based compliance topics and those involving complex human elements. There is a big difference between ensuring that a facility is properly locked and the use of power to coerce an employee to succumb to sexual demands.

Unfortunately, such diverse topics are often bundled into a single library of courses in the name of efficiency without regard to effectiveness. However, as we have seen in an ongoing onslaught of outrageous headlines, this approach is dangerous. One size does not fit all, and the few dollars saved on packaged deals pale in comparison to the size of lawsuit settlements and brand damage.

If you are relying on a suite of online courses that uses the same instructional format for emotionally charged learning objectives as it does for its other courses, you may want to reconsider your investment. Are you willing to take the risk that your employees are disengaged from training and merely clicking through to completion? Or do you want to send a message from the top that the organization actually respects and cares about its people?