Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Deconstructing Content Structures


Over years of designing learning content, one of the things I have become good at is structuring content quickly. I had a lot of practice doing this because in addition to creating outlines for courses we were commissioned to develop, I also created draft structures or outlines when writing proposals. It was a self-prescribed must do for all proposals I wrote because it enabled me to make sense of the limited information (manuals, or PPT decks) that we were provided by the client at that stage. Under the circumstances defined by time pressure, limited resources, and no access to SMEs, I had to develop my own methods to quickly understand and structure whatever information I had. These methods were intuitive and I never really had a chance to deconstruct them.

Recently, I had the occasion to revisit the concept of content structures. I came across a great article about different types of content structures (the eLearning Coach) and it got me thinking of the types of structures I have used most frequently. Of the 10 types listed in the article, five caught my attention. In this piece, I share my thoughts about these. 

  • Order of Importance
  • Inherent Structures
  • Sequential
  • Simple to Complex
  • Subordinate to Higher

    Order of Importance

    When the content is essentially flat and there is no hierarchical relationship between concepts, then you can use the structure to highlight the relative importance of the different content pieces. Beginning with the most important piece of content at the start is smart because learner attention is at its maximum at the start, and at its least towards the end (learner fatigue, also somewhat linked to Design Fatigue!). By presenting the content in a certain order, you also send a subliminal message of what the organization considers most and least important.  For example, in a fraud awareness course we developed for a bank, the first type of fraud discussed was Identity Fraud, followed by Documentation Fraud and ending with Internet Fraud. Why did the SME and designer agree to start with Identity fraud? Was it because it was considered the most serious of all types of fraud? Or was it posing a current threat? Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that by placing Identity Fraud at the start, the bank sent a message about the topic's importance. 

    Unfortunately, most designers and other stakeholders in the design process do not appreciate the power of this type of structure. For example, in many induction programs that I helped design, the HR team insisted on starting with History, Accolades and Organization Structure because these were considered important by them. No amount of persuasion would change this. The reality is that new recruits need to be reeled into the long induction programs by information that is most relevant and important to them and their initial high attention needs to be used to impart messages that require most alertness. Starting with boring historical information is a sure way to lose the advantage of high attention at the start of the program. Starting with Code of Conduct would be far better, but I have never managed to convince any HR manager to do this. 

    Inherent and Sequential Structures

    Sometimes, things have an inherent structure that you can't ignore. For example, human skin is made of the outermost epidermis, the mid layer of dermis and the inside layer of hypodermis. This is the skin's inherent order of "being". When teaching a student about parts of skin, it makes sense for the learning material to follow the naturally occurring structure of the skin, starting with the familiar outermost. Changing this order will only detract from the learning process.

    I came across such a content structure when creating an online training for bank staff about the five fair-dealing guidelines issued by MAS in 2009. These five guidelines are organized by MAS as Outcome 1 to Outcome 5. Regardless of which outcome is the most important for an organization, or the hardest to implement, or the easiest, or any other criteria, the naturally occurring inherent order of the guidelines (decided by MAS in this case) will lead the design of the learning material created to train employees on following them.

    The sequential structure is similar, except that it contains an inherent order of "doing". When teaching someone about a process or procedure, for example of how to manage risks, it's most effective to teach the process in the order in which it gets done. In this example, it would be identifying the risk, then measuring its severity, putting risk mitigation actions in place, and finally tracking progress. This is regardless of the fact that measuring the severity of the risk is the most complicated of all the topics listed and would benefit from the high learner attention present at the start. In short, we set aside all other criteria and use the naturally occurring order of "doing" for the most effective learning to occur. 

    As designers, if we detect an inherent or a sequential structure, our job of structuring is done to a large extent. These inherent structures of "being" and "doing" are good friends. 

    Simple to Complex

    This is an interesting type based on the theory of constructivism, which states that the learner is the architect of her own knowledge and uses existing schemas to build new ones. Applying this principle to content structures, one starts with the simplest (and sometimes the most familiar) concept and progresses to the more complex ones.

    I have used it in a particular project for a company where a new business objects application was replacing 11 existing applications for creating business analytics and reports.
    Keeping in mind the unavoidable resistance to change, I suggested using the first module to create a very simple report, highlighting how similar the new application was to the existing ones. As a result, only a fraction of the features available in the new application were used in the first module. The later modules progressively highlighted the more complex features of the new application. This structure was quite counter-intuitive to the architects of the new product, who needed a lot of convincing from my side to accept it.

    Point to note here is that the first module was not a pre-requisite to the later modules. Each module was complete in itself and didn’t depend on previous modules. We chose to structure the content in that particular way to reduce resistance to change, and to help learners learn faster by fitting the new application into their existing mental schemas.

    Subordinate to Higher

    In this type of structure, there is a hierarchical nature to the content. Some concepts must be learned before others can be grasped. For example, in a course on money laundering, learners can’t grasp the methods of preventing money laundering unless they are aware of the methods used by money launderers. Likewise, in a course on conducting training, learners must first know the characteristics of adult learners before they can comprehend specific presentation techniques used for training adults. Unlike the Simple to Complex structure, there are pre-requisites involved. This is not about using existing schema, but about imparting pre-requisite knowledge before the higher order knowledge can be understood and assimilated. 

    In Conclusion

    Having never before deconstructed my thought processes while designing content structures, this exercise of introspecting and reflecting on my choices for the structure chosen in a particular situation has been very satisfying. It has validated many of my decisions and also explained why I would sometimes come out of the structuring process feeling uncomfortable. Hope this will stir some thoughts in other designers and generate more food for thought. 


    1. Hi Puja,

      Thanks for sharing this very useful, informative post of authority. The wait for the next post from you has been worth it! As always.

      Let me introduce myself a little bit. I am what Cammy Bean would say an ID type. I have worked as an instructional designer for a few years now. A fellow ex-NIITian as well.

      As an avid reader of your blog and as someone who is keenly aware of the authority your opinion carries about the L&D space, I was hoping to ask a query from you.

      I am at a point in my career where I can choose from one of two diverging paths ahead: a. project management b. hard-core kick-a** instructional design.

      Having worked in the outsourcing environment only, I have seen that the project manager commands an unusual and sometimes undeserving respect. I hate to admit I am lured by it. On the other hand, I suspect that project managers in the L&D space may become increasingly redundant in the future.

      I am also aware that projects cannot be delivered to clients' satisfaction without good instructional designers. IDs can also work as consultants and can hope to work so even after retirement.

      What are your thoughts about each role? I am asking this question with a view to get inputs about the stability and importance of each profession in the future (10-25 years).

      Apologies if this has become off topic. Having read your blog inside out, I am aware that you haven't covered this topic in any post.

      1. Ravi, for some reason this comment went into the spam folder and I only just pulled it out a couple of weeks back. That's why I never responded. Apologies.

        Your question reminds me of an incident in 1998, when I attended a workshop in which we all constructed a personal 4-quad matrix of "What I Like doing" and "Opportunities at work" on two axes. I recall vividly that I had Project Management in the "what I dislike doing but keep being asked to do" quad. ID was my passion, but PM was the fashion!

        Years later, when pushed into a situation that gave me no choices, I discovered for myself a great balance. I managed large development projects and virtual teams, while at the same time honing my ID skills and fulfilling the needs of the designer in me. After so many years of managing projects and a business, I can still proudly and confidently call myself an ID.

        My opinion is not based on just what I have been through personally. I have worked with Project Managers who are so 1-dimensional that they harm customer relationships and projects overall. And specialized IDs who are so focused on the passion that they lose touch with the reality of business and needs of regular folks.

    2. Enjoyed reading this Puja. You're right we don't always, in fact never, have time to think and deconstruct why we design a certain way or detail what works best in a situation. Putting your thoughts down as you have done and share them is wonderful.