Nature of Content – A Deciding Factor for Training Design

Nature of Content - A Deciding Factor for Training Design

Is there content that can be taught most effectively only through a certain medium? How do you decide on what should go into what medium of delivery? The nature of content is an important consideration when designing the training solution. Ideally, you should analyze your content thoroughly before deciding on the medium used to deliver the content. Content can range from simple to complex. Content can also have a low shelf-life and get dated quickly. Make sure that you invest eLearning budgets for content that has a longer shelf life.

Any content is for the purpose of imparting:

  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Attitudes

At the macro level, all instructional material no matter what the subject matter is tries to answer the following questions:

  • What? (Concepts, facts, principles)
  • How? (Procedures, task-oriented)
  • Why? (Process flows, decision points, best practices, principles)

The intent or purpose of the content will help you take decisions around whether to go for self-paced eLearning, face-to-face learning or blended solution. Specific content lends itself to a specific format. Typically eLearning is ideal for teaching concepts, facts, theory, or anything in the cognitive domain. You can also use eLearning for software simulations. Standard trainings such as process and product trainings also are best taught in the form of eLearning as they ensure a consistent message in the quickest and most efficient way possible.

It is important to have a clear grasp of the kind of content you want to teach and for what purpose. For instance, if you want to impart knowledge, which is primarily factual, or conceptual, it is easy to do this with eLearning in a self-paced module. You could even teach procedural knowledge very easily with eLearning. However when it comes to higher end teaching of decision making, best practices etc. that calls for a situation-based learning with role plays and feedback, it is difficult to teach these complex items through eLearning. Such kinds of content may call for a face-to-face component in which frequent interactions and feedback is essential to go along a certain path of learning. Highly interactive eLearning can help in creating branching scenarios that can also effectively help the learner take decisions and move along a certain track, but then again, such modules are quite cost-intensive and it may not be feasible to put as many scenarios into eLearning as possible. In such cases, you might want to teach preliminary content through eLearning, followed by classroom training, again concluding with eLearning modules. This is what is referred to as a ‘Digital Bookend’ model of learning.

When you analyze content to be able to take decisions around which delivery format is appropriate for what type of content, do keep the type of content in mind as well as the level of learning desired.

  • Yes, the nature of the subject matter and performance you’re trying to teach is critical.

    You can teach a lot of overview and background info through elearning or other self-study cost-effectively. However, for complex, interactive skills — like many sales, leadership, other interpersonal, and technical skills — you often need an expert performer to observe the practice and provide specific, targeted feedback. So options like classroom training and structured on-the-job training or coaching are more appropriate for final, integrative practice. You can teach many of the prerequisites and building blocks via elearning but for “whole practice” you need real-time human interaction.

    Another consideration is cost of mistakes. If you have learners working on expensive equipment that they could damage, you may provide simulations or other elearning for initial learning, then provide face-to-face training for hands-on.

  • And some thoughts about the question about how to decide what kind of content (facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and principles) should go into what medium of delivery….

    Start your analysis by getting clear on the performance — not the subject matter — that you expect of learners. In other words, what you expect them to DO (procedures and other types of behavior) and what you expect them to PRODUCE (work outputs). In fact, if you define work outputs first, then the lists of behavior gets shorter and more focused — to avoid “paralysis analysis” — because you can get very specific about what behavior is needed to produce those outputs. And outputs, with performance criteria defined, also tell a learner when they’re “there” — when they’re performing to standard and contributing to business results. We ultimately care about behavior only when it helps us achieve organizational results.

    Thomas Gilbert, in his groundbreaking book, “Human Competence,” was the first to clearly articulate the value of defining work outputs during performance/job/task analysis, although he called them “accomplishments.” That concept is core to ISPI’s Human Performance Technology (HPT) and ASTD’s Human Performance Improvement (HPI) methodologies.

    After you’ve defined the performance (outputs, behavior), then define the subject needed to support the performance. That way you end up with very lean-but-effective training, and you’ll find out if you’re missing anything when you pilot it. On the other hand, if you start with subject matter, you’ll end up with overly-fat training — a burden to instructional designers and learners and a cost to the enterprise. And to make it worse, when time for training is tight, what gets cut is often practice and feedback, those factors most critical to building performance.

    I find it very effective to build an analysis spreadsheet (“performance support plan”) with outputs and tasks/behavior down the first column, then populate other columns with data about those outputs and tasks (speed requirements, complexity, environment, etc.) — which provide the data to make decisions about job aids vs. training-to-recall, delivery media, etc. Those decisions get captured in additional columns. It helps me organize my thinking and make good decisions and it’s great to walk through with the client.

    You don’t always have the need or the time to capture all of this data, but it’s critical to at least capture outputs, criteria and tasks. Without some level of performance analysis it’s almost impossible to develop performance-based training — training that actually contributes to performance.

    I originally learned this sort of analysis through Joe Harless’s Front-End Analysis and later ASTD’s Performance DNA toolkit (taught in ASTD’s “Analyzing Human Performance” course – part of the HPI Certificate). Lately I’ve become a raving fan of faster/simpler toolkits like the Six Boxes Approach (

  • Ayesha — Great post! You’ve succinctly identified some key points around matching content to purposed, an important intermediary step in matching content to delivery modes. I’ll be including a link to this post in my monthly list of Quick Clicks so others can benefit from it as well!

    I’d add to Rick’s thoughts that when selecting a delivery mode that you consider consistency of content, which is handled particularly well in asynchronous online learning because once the course is built, you can be sure that the same points will be made in the same way over and over to all learners. This is especially important for training individuals in compliance issues, regulations, etc. Following up with an interactive session (online via Web conferencing or face-to-face in a classroom) provides ways for learners to ask questions, engage in debate and discussion, etc.

    I handle specific content-to-delivery method choices in my book (aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning) — it would take more space than allowed here to describe a process for considering all the options and making those choices. But there’s no question that some topics can be handled in certain delivery modes more effectively than others can.