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e-Learning Process Improvement: How's Your Content Production Working?

by Bill Brandon

May 9, 2005

Feature

by Bill Brandon

May 9, 2005

"The design process and the production process are subordinate parts of the overall business process known as e-Learning. What we do as e-Learning producers has a great deal in common with traditional software projects, and I believe there is much that we can learn from best practices in that arena."

In e-Learning today, we are all under pressure to improve speed, productivity, and cost efficiency. Frequently, we respond to these pressures by looking at modifications to our current processes rather than asking whether the process we are using is fundamentally correct and adequately supported. The content collection and materials production processes are the least understood, least often addressed, and least studied elements of e-Learning creation. This is unfortunate. As a result e-Learning production can be a chaotic affair in many organizations. (See Figure 1 for one view of a worst case process.)

Editor’s Note: Parts of this article may not format well on smartphones and smaller mobile devices. We recommend viewing on larger screens.

 

Figure 1 A typical e-Learning content development process

 

Experienced e-Learning managers, designers, and developers appreciate just how much time, cost, and effort are associated with content collection and materials production. Typically, problems arise when:

  • Employees, users, and customers are not involved, other than coincidentally, in the definitive steps of the process
  • Designers fail to connect their work to the larger business issues
  • Much of the content input comes from individual subject matter experts, who may not see the big picture
  • Critical content comes to the design team in a variety of forms: digital and analog, structured and unstructured
  • Because of this diversity, unstructured and analog content gets lost, digital content is not searchable through one common interface, and there is no common repository or index for the content that has been collected
  • Analysis and organization of the collected content and conversion from analog to digital form are tasks left to the design team These weaknesses add to the risk associated with instructional development projects. Fortunately, they are business process issues, and as such they can be addressed by taking a fresh look at the production process.

In this article, I offer two related approaches to process improvement in the content collection phase of e-Learning production. No matter how excellent the design process, content collection is the critical step in development. Content collection is the transformation into consistent formats of individual knowledge and expertise, organizational goals, existing online and off-line information and materials, and relevant but unstructured information from the world at large. Any steps taken to improve the business process for that phase will improve the result. In addition, the availability of tools and infrastructure to support content collection, to facilitate communication among stakeholders, and to regulate the information flow into structured digital content from the very beginning of the process will save time and reduce risk.

Design versus production

In its purest form, design is about determining the strategies and tactics required to solve a specific problem, arranging these in an effective sequence, and establishing the most appropriate way to evaluate the success of the solution. Production is about execution to the plan developed in the design phase. The production phase must allow flexibility for iteration and evolution.

Each of these phases is dependent on the other. A beautiful design without a production process to support it is only wishful thinking. A production effort without a design to guide it is a nightmare. At the same time, even though both phases exist within a single business process (e-Learning), it is essential to understand the unique nature of each.

The design process

Within each of the major paradigms or models for learning and for instructional design (behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism), there are dozens if not hundreds of algorithms (methods) for accomplishing learning objectives. A major function of the design process is to determine the choice of algorithms.

Among the several competing design models, the one that most e-Learning professionals are familiar with is referred to as “ADDIE” (Analysis-Design-Development-Implementation-Evaluation). ADDIE applies the systems approach to instructional design. The systems approach is a problem-solving method which offers a series of steps to:

  1. Define the problem as clearly as possible
  2. Analyze the problem and identify alternative solutions
  3. Select from the alternatives and develop the most viable solution mix
  4. Implement and test the solution
  5. Evaluate the effectiveness and worth of the solution

These steps are fine for design purposes (when they are actually and correctly carried out — often not the case), but they’re not sufficient guidelines for production. Steps three and four, for example, do not articulate the issues which our discussions of rapid e-Learning revolve around, our connection to business outcomes, our concerns over authoring tool selection, the endless questions about LMS and LCMS use, and many of the debates over effective use of graphics and audio, to name just a few of the practical concerns that keep e-Learning producers awake at night. All of these are production issues.

The production process

The production process for e-Learning involves at least four elements, all aimed at execution of the design:

  • Content collection
  • Application production and packaging
  • Collaboration between experts and among the production team
  • Knowledge sharing and knowledge management

Associated with each of these steps is a large set of software and hardware, connected via network, that can facilitate the production process. (See Figure 2.) Many of these tools have applications beyond e-Learning. In many cases organizations already own these tools, but have not applied them to e-Learning development. In other cases, the software or hardware is simply not familiar. And finally, especially in the case of hardware, recent improvements in capabilities make it possible to realize big gains in productivity at relatively low expense.

Figure 2 An application architecture
for e-Learning production

The tools in Figure 2 include those which will assist in creation of structured digital content by subject matter experts, designers and developers, and they include infrastructure applications to facilitate and manage collaboration and knowledge creation. Discussion of tools for e-Learning development often focuses only on the application production and packaging tools.

Content creation and selection tools tend to be chosen by default, as indicated in Figure 1 earlier. In other words, by default, subject matter experts develop their content input by using PowerPoint and Microsoft Word. By default, designers and developers tend to use analog tape recorders and handwritten notes as the basis for capturing expertise and knowledge during interviews, and then later transcribe this information into Microsoft Word. In addition, collection of input from secondary subject matter experts, from employees, from users, and from customers is often done through informal, handwritten notes. Other input may arrive in digital form from various sources, but the formats are rarely consistent with each other, or optimal for use by the design and development teams.

In an organization where the tools and infrastructure depicted in Figure 2 are not available, content collection frequently results in information accumulated in a variety of digital and analog forms, including files, images, video, recordings, etcetera. By dint of a great deal of effort on the part of the design and production teams, this accumulation is transformed into instructional content: the facts, concepts, procedures, processes, and principles delivered to the learners.

A revised, supported content collection process

Figure 3 presents an idealized view of the content collection process, correctly supported by an infrastructure that includes collaboration support and knowledge sharing and management tools. The process is also supported by content collection tools to provide structured digital input of sketches, notes, transcripts, content outlines, email, still and video images and audio, and scanned content. Support for structured digital input from online search, purchased content, re-purposed content and learning objects is maintained as before.

 

Figure 3 An idealized e-Learning content development process

 

In addition to the infrastructure items, for full effectiveness the designer and production team should have access to a knowledge management system that will deliver structured digital content from the analog world. Such a knowledge management system need not represent an enormous financial investment for the organization.

The further intent of the idealized system in Figure 3 is to establish collaborative input from the in-house subject matter experts, together with regular and routine input from outside subject matter experts, from organization leadership, and from employees, users, and customers, within a single common collection system. To the extent that this system eliminates analog input, and to the extent that it reduces the variety of formats while improving communication between all parties, the system will reduce risk of failure, and lower the time and cost associated with e-Learning development.

As I noted earlier, some of these tools will be unfamiliar to readers, or the notion that they might be used in e-Learning production may be novel. Let’s look at the tools in a bit more detail.


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