How the arts can help you get into e-learning

 11 August 2015

Whether you’re fresh out of education or in the workforce, you're likely to have done some online learning. However, organisations are seeing a huge gap between their digital training content needs and in-house capabilities. With an average salary of above £40,000 a year according to the eLearning Guild, is it time to look into an e-learning career?

"Many people fall into e-learning as a career without having trained for it." (Images - Simon Tibbs, © BBC Academy)

According to Ambient Insight, 98 per cent of organisations are predicted to use online learning courses as part of their workplace learning strategy. 

Yet only 31 per cent say their in-house staff is capable of developing digital training content. 

So what is e-learning and how can studying the arts help you into this industry?

What is e-learning?

At its simplest, e-learning is defined as: "learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the internet". This can range from links to instructional materials posted on a Learning Management System (LMS) to intentionally-designed online courses with multimedia and interactive elements and assessments.

E-learning draws people from a range of backgrounds, from writers to graphic designers to video editors to project managers.

It could mean instructor-led courses with weekly online meetings and class discussion forums, or it could mean a curriculum that allows individuals to go through material at their own pace.

The National Careers Service defines the job of an e-learning developer as: "work[ing] with others to develop courses that can be studied on a computer network". They say that good communication and presentation skills are key, as well as the ability to "design interesting learning programmes".

What is instructional design?

If you're interested in e-learning development, then you need to be familiar with the field of instructional design. Rather than producing written, audio, graphic or video content for informative or entertainment purposes, instructional designers create and tailor content specifically for teaching and learning, whether it's online or in-person.

This involves working with subject matter experts to identify what students need to learn or be able to do, then creating the learning objectives. Based on those, the instructional content needs to be created or revised to fit the goals of the course. The content may also include interactive elements, simulations or assessments to test learners' knowledge.

An e-learning team may be split into several roles such as:

  • project manager
  • content producer
  • visual designer
  • web programmer.

An arts background could lead to creating more engaging and appealing content, ensuring it is accessible.

Or it may be one person who can wear many hats. Either way, it's important to understand the whole instructional design process.

While this may sound a bit overwhelming or too technical for someone who's interested in the creative arts, e-learning actually draws people from a wide range of backgrounds, from writers to graphic designers to video editors to project managers. In fact, many people fall into it as a career without having specifically trained for it.

What arts skills are employers looking for?

Virginia Barder, director, learning content of Kineo in Brighton

City & Guilds Kineo runs a graduate scheme to train new graduates as learning designers.

Virginia says: "A good learning designer in e-learning will be very well-rounded, with an aptitude for technology, an understanding of learning theory, a good visual sense, plus great client-handling skills."

However, she adds: "The really core skill is good writing, as the heart of what we do is working with words – not just in terms of scripts, but other project documentation, etc. So writing is always our starting point for this role.

"The people we tend to recruit into learning design roles always have some kind of writing experience, and we’ve found that people who have been journalists or technical writers can do well in this role."

Mark Gibson, head of e-learning and innovation at Ericsson in Glasgow

Mark oversees a team of six e-learning developers and coders with a mix of skills ranging from user experience and user interaction design to educational psychology. When hiring, he says he looks for candidates who understand instructional design.

"Understanding how someone will utilise the learning, and how to enhance knowledge transfer/retention and meet learning objectives, is essential", he says. However, "An arts background could lead to creating more engaging and appealing content, ensuring it is accessible and goes beyond the norms of template-driven education."

In other words, creativity is also important!

How can studying the arts lead to e-learning?

Helen Hutchinson, multiplatform producer at BBC Academy in London

Helen Hutchinson studied Literature at uni. After doing a postgraduate diploma in Multimedia Journalism, she worked on BBC programmes such as Crimewatch and Watchdog.

She eventually got involved with the BBC's training and development department, where she has managed online courses through from initial concept to final delivery.

For a typical course, Helen first meets with stakeholders and subject matter experts to discuss the objectives. Then she analyses the audience, determining what they need to know and how long they have to learn it. After initially mapping out the course using a whiteboard and post-it notes, she decides what delivery mechanism (animation, text, quizzes, etc.) would suit the content best and why. Sometimes she develops courses herself using rapid e-learning software like Mohive, and sometimes she storyboards and works with developers.

98 per cent of organisations are predicted to use online learning courses as part of their workplace learning strategy.

Helen feels that her love of literature and TV production background were useful when moving into e-learning, as storytelling is key to both. She says that in both entertainment and education, it’s important to ask questions like: "Who are your audience? How do you grab their attention and keep it? What do you want them to remember? What is the most appropriate way of getting your message across? What style and tone should you use?"

Grant Carruthers, freelance e-learning developer in Newcastle

Grant Carruthers studied Graphic Design at uni and ended up in instructional design after several years. As a designer, he says he got involved in "designing the look and feel of a couple of CD-ROM learning packages", and eventually set up an e-learning consultancy business.

"Visual design is obviously really important in e-learning, whether it’s to design a clear interface or to create interesting graphics which help to explain complex concepts to learners."

Like Helen, Grant is involved in multiple aspects of e-learning development, including developing high-level outlines, storyboarding, and liaising with subject matter experts. He also creates graphics for content, develops interfaces and uses e-learning development software such as Adobe Captivate and Articulate Storyline.

Grant emphasises that learning about instructional design principles is important: "It’s one thing to create a pretty interface which is graphically exciting and has a lot of bells and whistles – and clearly you need to create something which is exciting and engaging for learners – but there is a lot more to it than that.

"Your job is to not only make the learner feel like they are on an interesting learning journey but also to help them overcome the gap in their skills."

Advice for arts graduates

Aside from arts skills and an understanding of the field, Grant suggests that: "You’ll have to understand and explain difficult concepts to learners in a simple and clear way, so develop a mindset of curiosity to help you get interested and engaged with a diverse range of subjects."

"I have found being a bit of a jack-of-all-trades is incredibly helpful", says Helen.

"Being able to write treatments and scripts, use Photoshop and Adobe Premiere and pick up a camera and film contributors have all been invaluable – and these are highly transferable skills."

So what are you waiting for? If you're looking to expand your creative skills into a rapidly evolving and in-demand arena, why not try e-learning?

Further resources


If you'd like to learn more about this rapidly evolving field, these books are a great place to start:


While a degree in the areas of instructional design or educational technology is not a requirement to work in e-learning, you may find that you can rapidly upskill and prepare yourself better for a career in the field with an advanced degree. Here are some programmess that could help:

Stay updated

Sign up for our weekly careers newsletter

View our privacy policy.

Related events & opportunities