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How to crack the puzzle of content analysis

After four years of being a Learning Designer, I continue to experience the same feeling of panic, confusion, and stupidity when first setting eyes on a piece of content from a client:

They want me to make this into a comprehendible and interesting piece of e-learning?

Raw content comes in all shapes and sizes – whether it be a policy document, a PowerPoint presentation, or set of trainer notes… No matter what format the raw content is provided in, the majority of the time the topic is unfamiliar, the documentation extensive, and the structure unclear.  It’s similar to the way you might feel when embarking on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle; one that you’ve discovered on a rainy day at the back of someone else’s cupboard.

I’m quite proud to admit that over time I’ve managed to transform many monsters such as these into clear and engaging pieces of e-learning, and have developed strategies for doing so along the way.  If your role is to create training, you might be luckier than me in how you typically receive the core content, but if you can relate to my experiences, perhaps these tips will help you out.  Whereas if you’re a client, this piece will give you some insight into what your Learning Designer needs from you, in order to create an effective piece of e-learning.

Imagine having to complete that 1000-piece jigsaw without the picture on the box to guide you.  Most of us would have difficulty determining where to start, make a large number of mistakes along the way, and possibly never get it right!

Likewise, analysing content is much more difficult without a view of what the client wants to achieve with the finished piece.

The request for proposal (RFP), which is sometimes issued by a client as part of the tender process, is a great way for us Learning Designers to gain an insight into the big picture.  The RFP will typically highlight the business aim, list the learning objectives, describe the audience, outline the technical requirements, indicate the ideal duration, and communicate the desired approach.  All of these details will guide you in determining what content you include in the module and how you present it.

Alas, it’s not always so easy. RFPs aren’t issued on every occasion, so be prepared to get the client on the phone to find out these vital details as soon as possible.  Knowing their requirements will save you a great deal of time and effort in the long run!

Consider the scope

With the requirements in mind, it’s time to get stuck into the content.  It’s at this point that I take note of the scope, comparing what I have in front of me to the duration the client has specified.  Scoping out a client’s content can only be an estimate at this early stage, but a guideline of one PowerPoint slide of content equating to one minute of e-learning usually works – providing there’s not too much text crammed onto each slide!

While less content than expected isn’t so much of an issue (providing that the objectives are effectively addressed by it), too much content can cause problems – not just in terms of exceeding the client’s budget, but damaging the learner experience too.

Does the content support the learning objectives?

So, you know how the jigsaw is supposed to be 1000 pieces?  Somehow, there’s double that number crammed into the box.  It’s clear that some of these pieces are from another puzzle, and they’re not going to help you achieve the intended masterpiece.

Similarly, when getting to grips with client content, it’s common to find that not all of what’s provided is necessary to include in the solution.  The temptation for clients to “information dump” means that they will often send over every single document that has the slightest relevance, without sifting through it first.  This is why we often find that the content exceeds the desired scope.

But rather than pushing back to the client and asking them to cut it down, why not help them out and suggest parts to omit?  The only content that is helpful to the learner is that which is going to help them achieve the learning objectives.  So, keep these aims in mind as you critically analyse the content, and highlight any parts that don’t support the users in meeting the objectives.

However, this additional information could still be accommodated, for those learners who are keen to explore further, without increasing the scope, by linking out to it from the e-learning as supporting materials.  Alternatively, you could summarise some of the lengthier points.  Either way, it’s important to keep the solution streamlined, in order to maintain learner engagement.

Conversely, you might find that there’s content missing – a learning objective has been stated but there’s no information to help learners meet it.  Unfortunately, we’re not the SME, so you’ll need to ask the client for the missing piece of the jigsaw.

In the early stages of content analysis, it’s useful to map out a structure for your solution, to see how everything will fit together – much like completing a jigsaw, where it helps to start by locating and placing the corners, as the pillars upon which to build.

In terms of e-learning, this means defining the modules and/or topics that the content will sit under, then breaking down and rearranging the content into these sections.  To do this, I pick out the key concepts as the topic titles and ensure that the amount of content in each equates to a reasonable length – not too long or short.  But don’t worry about making them equal lengths – the pieces of a jigsaw are never the exact same size!

Understand the content

At the risk of becoming perceived as a jigsaw enthusiast, I once again return to this analogy for content analysis.  There are inevitable stages of jigsaw completion where certain pieces don’t seem to make sense – whether it’s because you can’t make out what the piece is depicting, or you can’t determine how the darn thing fits into the overall picture.

As you venture into the depths of analysing the content, there will inevitably be parts that you can’t make sense of.  Undefined acronyms or technical terms, unlabelled diagrams, unsupported facts… all make my head spin and are points that require elaboration.  No matter how many courses you’ve helped produce in the past, sometimes assistance from someone in the know is required (i.e. an SME).

It’s important to clarify any ambiguous content with the SME as early as possible; if you’re struggling to make sense of something, chances are your learner will too.  Perhaps an accompanying visual would help, or a real-life example to add context – both of which you can request from the client.  Images and examples will also make the content more memorable.

Finally, ensure that any stated facts are backed up with legitimate references, in order to give them credibility.  You want the learner audience to be totally convinced and amazed by this content, rather than taking each point with a pinch of salt!

In conclusion, in the modern workplace we need to take a very different view of how and who manages learning and performance.

What approach will you use?

There are many different approaches you can take when designing a piece of e-learning to make it as engaging as possible – you might consider incorporating a narrative, a visual theme, a mentor character or gamified features.  As you analyse the content, try to determine which overall approach would be best suited to the nature of the content.  You want to grab the audience’s attention without distracting them from the key learning points.  If the client has stated their preferred approach within the RFP, use your expertise to determine whether this approach will actually be effective.

More specifically, as you read through the content, note down any ideas for presenting particular sections.  For example, an introductory case study to set the scene could be very impactful if delivered via an upfront animation.

Similarly, make a note of any points in the content where you feel an activity would add value.  I’ve found them to be beneficial as a way of introducing a concept or practicing a skill in a safe environment, as well as the more obvious use of testing learner knowledge.  The notes you make now will aid you at the scripting stage when the content will not be as fresh in your mind.

In the same way that a jigsaw with an interesting picture is more fun to complete than one depicting a lifeless scene, an e-learning module with a stimulating approach is more enjoyable than screens that simply present the core content.

Completing the puzzle

Getting to grips with a piece of content can be the most tedious and confusing part of an e-learning project, but it’s vital to do it properly to avoid problems further down the line.

Outlining the structure and deciding which parts of content are relevant to the objectives will help you to ensure that the content is useful, streamlined, and in a logical order.  Make sure that you understand every concept and term communicated within the content, asking the client for clarification or supporting examples where necessary.  Finally, as you make your way through the content, consider what approach would really bring the solution to life, taking the client’s requirements and preferences into consideration.

Much like completing that pesky jigsaw, it takes attention to detail and perseverance to successfully carry out content analysis, but by the end of it, you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the finished picture.


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