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For centuries, alchemists and scientists have been trying to understand the world around us through theory and experimentation. Thanks to these great minds—along with a few nut jobs—today we have a relatively advanced perspective on the chemical processes and scientific concepts that shape our world. In a very real way, we owe our modern advancement to their curiosity and intelligence.

By the same token, the field of eLearning has roots that are older than you might expect. In 1728, a teacher named Caleb Phillips advertised a distance course in shorthand writing in the Boston Gazette. Phillips would mail his students a worksheet each week, which they could use to self-teach. Over a hundred years later, Sir Isaac Pitman introduced a similar shorthand course with the notable addition that his students would mail their completed work back to him for correction. These early distance educators introduced a system that would mature and evolve into the chiefly computerized art we know and love today.

Unsurprisingly, the fields of eLearning and chemistry have more in common than just their proud histories. We can very easily draw parallels between the two fields. Which I have done. Buckle up.

Chemical reactions

Depending on the conditions, when certain elements come into contact with one another, they will react. They might give off heat, change colors, release gas, maybe even explode. Others are inert, and can’t interact with other elements at all.

This is true whether we are talking about elements on the periodic table, or elements of your eLearning template or course. It’s your responsibility to run experiments to see which ones mix well with others. Some color schemes or fonts don’t fit with certain themes and subject matters. Some writing styles can overshadow the message you are trying to send. Make sure you are getting the reaction you want from your work.


Some chemicals, even though they themselves aren’t chemically changing in a reaction, contribute to the process nonetheless. For example, the catalytic converter in your car uses platinum to convert the poisonous carbon monoxide created by your engine into the somewhat less harmful carbon dioxide. The reaction is something that could have happened without platinum, but wouldn’t be possible in the time frame that we need it to. There just isn’t enough energy for the reaction to take place. But the presence of platinum lowers the required amount of energy needed for those chemicals to combine into carbon dioxide.

Learners need to grasp the material in a certain time frame. Given enough time and effort, I’m a believer that just about anyone can learn anything. But the problem is, we don’t always have all the time in the world with eLearning. That’s why we introduce catalysts to speed up the learning process. Take for instance the mnemonic for memorizing the 8 planets–and yes I do mean 8.

My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nachos

which corresponds nicely to…

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune

In the end, does it really matter that your mom cooked up some delicious Mexican food for you and your pals? No. Could you have learned the order of the planets without the mnemonic? Of course. But the introduction of this clever mnemonic allows you to grasp the relative positions of celestial bodies millions of miles away in the time it takes to read a cutely worded sentence.

Find ways to help your learner make connections quicker. Using eLearning games or quizzes can be a great way to create memorable experiences that will improve your learner’s information retention.

Nuclear decay

Radioactive substances are constantly spitting off microscopic chunks of themselves. These particles are extremely high energy and can be very dangerous to humans and other living things, because they can penetrate deep into the tissue and disrupt the chemical processes of our cells.

Since they are constantly shooting little particles outward, radioactive substances are also constantly shrinking. Scientists describe the time it takes for a radioactive substance to decay to half of its original mass as its “half-life.” For instance, the half-life of plutonium-238 is about 88 years. If I had 100 pounds of plutonium-238 in my backyard (purely hypothetical, please don’t put me on some government list!), then 88 years from now it would have decayed to 50 pounds. 88 years after that, there would be 25 pounds left, and so on.

Radioactive isotopes aren’t the only thing that decay like this. Knowledge has a half-life, too. Because of the rate at which we as humans are discovering new scientific principles while disproving older ones, it has been estimated that the half-life of knowledge in general science is about 45 years. That is, in 2060, half of what we know about science today will be either disproven or obsolete.

Knowledge half-lives also vary from science to science. The half-life of computer science knowledge is estimated to be about 10 years, medicine 7 years, and psychology about 5 years.

It’s important to know the half-life of knowledge in your field, especially in eLearning.  If, going through an old course, you find that the narrator talks at length about the importance of organizing your Rolodex, it may be time to consider updating your stuff before your early-’90s eLearning course decays to an infinitesimal speck.

How do you experiment in the science of eLearning? Tell us what your equation is in the comments below!

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