5 words to avoid in e-learning for professional development

If you want your adult learners to run a mile from your course, ‘teach’ them content, call them ‘students’ and make them submit an ‘assignment’ that will be ‘graded’.

The words we use matter.
They help us understand what we think about those practices.
Words can continuously remind us what we all care about and what we believe in.

This vocabulary is often found in online courses where there is little engagement and where learners just tick the boxes – doing minimum work. If they don’t drop out altogether.

There are plenty reasons why many e-courses alienate their adult learners. It often comes down to inappropriate design and e-facilitation. Many e-course designers misunderstand adult learning principles or don’t really know how to put these in practice. A lot of this can be picked up by the language used.

Unless we’re training people to be compliant to a set of rules (which should only be a tiny part of our training), most courses and workshops should be inclusive and participatory. They should fully embrace constructivist principles (as opposed to instructivism) and so should the course designers.

Once designers spend time studying in-depth what that means, they feel the need to change – often traditional – training vocabulary. The words we use matter. They help us understand what we think about those practices. Words can continuously remind us what we all care about and what we believe in.

Here is a list of words I NEVER use in the eWorkshops I develop and/or facilitate:

1. Instructor/instruction

There are flight instructors, driving instructors, fitness instructors, etc.  That makes perfect sense. These topics all involve a distinct set of skills and there is a clear “I’ll show you and you’ll be able to do it after” approach.

However, would you ‘instruct’ subjects like leadership, gender mainstreaming, child protection, good parenting, new farming methods, etc.? No, that would not make sense. Why? Because contexts differ and there aren’t clear-cut right/wrong answers. Any rigid curriculum would show disrespect for people’s experience and participants would disconnect. Learners’ own stories are a very important part of the learning process. So in most adult professional development contexts we don’t ‘instruct’, we ‘facilitate’. We are ‘guides on the side’, not ‘sages on stage’.

2. Tutor/teacher

There are maths tutors, language teachers, university tutors, guitar teachers, etc. The terms are mostly used in the formal education sector. Tutors provide instruction and help students through lessons and tutorials. Although good teachers and tutors use participatory approaches in the classroom, the terms are most often associated with traditional methods.

My blog post ‘From e-tutor to e-facilitator: 4 things to un-learn’ explains the difference between those terms in more depth. Apply ‘facilitation’ principles, use the right term and watch how your participation rates increase.

3. Student

Instructors and teachers/tutors have ‘students’. Facilitators work with ‘participants’. If you use the term ‘students’ in your workshop, you inadvertently refer to the  power relationship in typical classrooms out there. People react to this – consciously or not.

The adult learners and participants in your workshops want to be appreciated and acknowledged for the experience they bring to the event. They certainly hope to learn something in this process, but that doesn’t make them ‘students’. Treat people with respect by using the right term. It affects the learning dynamics more than you think.

4. Grades

Do we seriously need grades in a leadership course aimed at adults? Or in an eWorkshop on new farming methods? What on earth do these grades mean? What purpose do they serve? It puzzles me that this is even considered, let alone wide-spread.

If you want to keep using grades in compliance courses, fine – if you must. But grades ruin professional development courses and workshops that aim at empowerment. How are adults going to be convinced that they can make a difference in the workplace if the message we’re giving them is that their knowledge comes down to a random number given by us at the end of a learning event? Nonsense.

5. Assignment

This is another term that comes straight from the school and university vocabulary. Don’t take that tone – adult learners don’t like it. They are happy to complete ‘tasks’ – on their own or in teams – and look forward to your meaningful feedback.


Does the expert facilitator sometimes wear a ‘teacher’ hat?

In advanced level eWorkshops, you can only be a good e-facilitator if you’re also an expert in the topic of the eWorkshop, unless you’re working alongside an expert and share the support offered to your group. Assuming you’re running the workshop on your own, then you must be able to put your ‘subject matter expert’ hat on and share your own experience and insights. Does that make the facilitator a ‘teacher’ in those moments? No. In most professional development eWorkshops a facilitator should never be a teacher, even when the facilitator is considered an expert.

For example, in my own e-facilitation workshop I add my thoughts to the discussions too. However, I keep in mind at all times that a lot of people in a typical group of participants have many years of experience in this sector. We all work in different contexts that shape the methods we use. What would give me the right to think that the way I approach e-facilitation is THE right way? It’s not like learning how to do a maths equation or fly a plane.

So even though I come up with – I hope – valuable input in a discussion and I happen to guide the group, I listen carefully to the views of fellow professionals and I’m always open to reconsider my ideas. Even when I share my expertise, I never step out of the role of e-facilitator. I don’t ever see myself as a trainer or a teacher.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Another good blog for me as a new e- facilitator. Thank you Anouk. I am happy I did not use any of those words during the recent WV Australia e workshop that I Co facilitated.

    It is the grade aspect I think WV is trying to include which I think may need a review.

    • Thanks Norbert! I agree that NGOs shouldn’t grade people who do their online courses. Traditional grading can only be done in courses where there is clear ‘instruction’ and that’s not an appropriate approach for most topics in this sector. We can’t grade social constructivist learning events. There are other ways to assess performance.

  • Glenn Behenna
    June 22, 2016 5:14 pm

    Hi Anouk,

    I hope you are well 🙂

    Thank you very much for such a thoughtful article, which resonates with me. Even though I work within a business school of a UK university I see myself as a facilitator of the participants learning. I certainly learn much from my ‘participants’, particularly (although by no means only), from my mature participants who have a significant range of workplace experiences to bring to the learning experience.

    I am fortunate to have benefited from facilitating in commercial learning environments where I have developed a much more participatory approach. I bring this facilitation approach to my participants, which feedback indicates is very much appreciated.

    Of course, in a traditional university environment, I am constrained by having to demonstrate achievement and this demands (for now) transparent achievement of learning outcomes by means of assessment criteria. However, I am keen to develop more innovative approaches to this as far as is possible.

    Thanks again Anouk 🙂

    Best wishes,

  • I agree Glenn (and thanks for your reply!) – assessment approaches remain a challenge in e-learning in the workplace. The fall-back position is often to revert back to what we know and what we’ve been exposed to in the past. And while doing this, it is easily overlooked that the goals of professional development are completely different to what schools want to achieve and their resulting methods (which are up for re-thinking too – but that’s another debate).

  • Gilbert Mushangari
    July 11, 2023 3:21 am

    Great insights and great learning! Thank you so much Anouk; you changed my mindset with respect to learning approaches and the language we sometimes enjoy using yet it kills the learning spirit once applied

  • Yosef Alemu Tebejje
    July 15, 2023 1:09 am

    This is ownsome insight Anouk!

    I think in this case for some of us who have come from teaching background there is a lot of need to be thoughtful on this new shift of the use of terms, that are very important to the e-workshop facilitator. I have made a promise to my self to begin practicing and using these terms today, as I am knocking off those ones.

  • Wilson Dickson
    July 17, 2023 11:22 pm

    This article is so educating. Adults don’t like taking instructions. They get demotivated and can even drop off. Assessing understanding of adults through grades devalues them. It’s like judging them of how good or bad they are in a certain sector, which could not be a true reflection.


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