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Training Providers’ Guide to E-Learning Content Development
There’s no question about it: e-learning is big business. In fact, it’s estimated that by the year 2026, the e-learning industry will be generating nearly $400 billion annually. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the ability to transition operations to a virtual platform may well mean the difference in a business’s survival. That includes the capacity for a company to take its learning and development processes online.
For training providers, the future has never been brighter. However, this moment is not just one of extreme opportunity but also of extreme competition for your target customer’s attention, interest, and loyalty.
To capitalize on the promise of this time and to tap into the robust and growing demand for quality e-learning content, it’s imperative that you differentiate your product from a sea of others. This ebook guide will provide actionable tips that you can begin integrating into your course development strategy today to help you develop premium content that is head and shoulders above your competitors. It will also describe best practices for growing your business, driving workflow efficiency, and maximizing the value of your content. In addition, you will learn about common mistakes that training content developers make and how to avoid them.
Whether you’re new to training content development and are looking to enter this exciting field or you’re an experienced trainer seeking new ideas to capitalize on this opportune moment in the industry, this guide has something for you!
1. Understanding First Principles
When you’re developing training content, strategy is everything. In this industry, failing to plan often does mean planning to fail. So, it’s incumbent upon you to understand who your clients are and what they need before you can even begin thinking about the course plan, content, assets, and deliverables.
Understanding the Development Scenario
A vital consideration in this preliminary planning stage is the content development scenario itself. The context in which your courses are developed can vary significantly, depending on the nature of your business.
For example, your content may be designed for B2B sales, for businesses that provide employee training courses to client enterprises. On the other hand, you may be developing content for B2C, direct-to-consumer sales, or you may take special orders, designing custom, bespoke content based on your client’s unique specifications.
In many ways, the best practices for content development will be largely the same, regardless of the particular client or sales channel. This guide will focus on those more “universal” best practices, to help streamline your course development process without compromising quality. This includes the fact that when you are developing content for adult learners, you must ensure that every element is relevant, useful, and engaging, moving learners clearly, directly, and systematically toward their end goals, whatever those may be.
Content for Third-Party Vendors and Mass Market Sales
There may be times when the courses that you develop will not be bespoke or custom content. It’s possible that you may not have direct access to your course buyer and/or end user, particularly if you are creating courses for the mass market, as when selling B2C content for Shopify. That means you may not have the luxury of the customer or end users’ specifications and unique needs and goals.
However, that does not mean you’re creating blindly. In fact, there are many strategies that you can use to understand the evolving needs of the e-learning industry. Your clients can be a great source of knowledge about what businesses are looking for these days in regard to employee training needs.
It’s also good to keep watch on industry publications to help you identify trends in the market. This way, you can ensure that you’re producing content to meet current market demands. For example, the metamorphosis of the training industry since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the urgent transition to online training even by “reluctant adopters,” those businesses and organizations that had traditionally preferred to keep their training on-ground.
Understanding who those businesses are, what they do, and what their training needs are likely to be in this new remote environment will better enable you to create content that will sell. Don’t forget to keep abreast not only of industry and market news but also of the headlines. The stories in the news may well translate into stories that your target customers need to learn about and train others on. Diversity and equity, for instance, have been important themes in both the public discourse and the workplace for years.
Similarly, other social issues, from human rights to questions of environmental justice, are topics that are unlikely to disappear from the public conversation anytime soon..
Making a Plan
Whether you’re designing a direct-to-consumer or a direct-to-market product, having a clear target customer in mind and building from that to the selection of a relevant topic are the essential first steps. Once these elements are in place, then it’s time to begin developing the preliminary course plan.
No matter who your target customer is, one of the first and most important things that you will need to focus on is outlining your target customer’s goals and objectives. You’ll need to be strategic in your course design, as adult learners typically spend less than two hours per week on their online training. Focus first and foremost on determining the essentials for the course and how you can deliver that content in a way that is both engaging and actionable for the learner.
When you begin planning your course, ensure that your target customer’s needs and goals are front and center. Of course, these elements will be easier to identify in general if you are working directly with the customer and/or end user. But even if you are producing for a vendor or the mass market, you won’t be lost if you have done your research, understand the market trends, and have identified relevant learning gaps that your content can fill.
Consider your target as you begin to create. What do they need? What do they want? Are they looking to transfer training content typically delivered in-person into an e-learning format? Or are they looking to develop entirely new training content in response to evolving customer needs?
For example, your target customer might have shifted to remote operations in the wake of the pandemic and need to migrate annual on-ground training in company diversity and equity policies to an online format. On the other hand, your client might require made-from-scratch content on new guidelines regarding the COVID-19 vaccination, masks, and other timely information.
As you outline your target customer’s goals and objectives for their custom course, you’ll also need to develop a clear sense of who the learners will be and their level of content expertise. If this is a direct-to-customer development project, your client should be able to provide you with this information.
For example, certain training courses are annual or semiannual affairs, and learners will likely already be familiar with the material. You’ll need to collaborate with your customer to determine if you’re developing refresher content or courses to create new knowledge for the target learner.
If your content is part of annual training or certification, then you can probably move through the content a bit faster because you can expect the target learner to already have at least some level of familiarity with the material. However, your goal in this case will be to present potentially shopworn information in an inspiring manner. Annual training requirements offer an exciting opportunity to present potentially familiar content via new and engaging methods. In such cases, you’re likely not only presenting information but also helping learners apply this knowledge in unexpected and meaningful ways. This is where interactivity, for instance, can be especially beneficial. From case studies to problem-solving scenarios, recurring training courses offer tremendous opportunities for active learning!
For instance, interactive elements that include case studies, problem-solving, or other relevant event scenarios can help learners actually think about the material and perhaps for the first time, practice applying it. Annual data training, for example, might include a roster of interactive exercises that allow learners to test their understanding and recall. Similarly, OSHA training can provide learners with opportunities to respond to potentially risky situations that would be impossible to test safely in an on-ground environment. For recurring, mandatory training, it is possible to build testing options into your courses, allowing learners to demonstrate their content mastery and retention without needing to revisit familiar material. This can prevent frustration for learners while also enabling them to potentially move on to more specialized training.
In other words, the e-learning platform offers virtually limitless possibilities for creative, active learning and refresher training. Therefore, its advantage over on-campus, in-person training can be immense—yet another opportunity for you to shine above and beyond your training competitors, both on-ground and online.
On the other hand, if the training content that you’re developing is going to present new information to the learner, you’ll likely need to adjust your course plan and content presentation strategy. You may need to slow things down, ensuring that the learner has the time and space to absorb, process, and ultimately, internalize and utilize the new material.
You’ll also need to build numerous opportunities for agenda-setting, content review, and module or unit summaries into the course plan. If your course is based on a series of learning modules, as is typical, then you should begin each new module with a brief review of the most important content that has already been covered, as well as an itinerary of the major goals, objectives, and skills to be pursued in the forthcoming module. At the end of the module, you’ll then want to provide a summation of its most significant content.
Creating a bridge between modules in this way will help keep learners engaged because they will be better able to understand the relevance and utility of each element; likewise, they will see how current learning connects with the learning of the past. These “bridges,” the frequent use of agendas, reviews, and summaries, will support content processing and retention, which will help prevent learners from becoming frustrated, confused, or discouraged, which could lead them abandoning the course entirely.
When you are planning a course that introduces new material, which is likely to be the case most of the time, interactive elements will be helpful, especially ones that enable learners to test their understanding and retention. In this case, besides case studies and problem-solving scenarios, brief knowledge-check quizzes can help provide learners with the confidence and motivation to move forward with the course or can help inspire them to pause and review some of the more challenging materials that they may be struggling with. This is crucial because the ability to track and affirm their progress is often essential to motivating learners.
If you can motivate learners, not only are you going to increase the chances that they will successfully finish the course in question, but you’re also going to drive customer loyalty. When buyers realize that your content is something that learners can complete and enjoy, then they will keep coming back for more.
2. Developing the Course
Now that you have your target audience, topic, and preliminary course plan in place, it’s time to start developing the course in earnest. This section will introduce you to essential best practices that will optimize the quality of the course itself and enable you to maximize its value in the future.
Engage Them Early
The adult learner is far different than the young student. They are pragmatic and goal-oriented. So, if you don’t engage them immediately, the chances are that you will lose them forever. For that reason, it’s imperative to introduce some kind of interactive element early on, ideally within the first five minutes of the course. This can be anything from a short, interactive case study to a quick game or quiz—anything that will help involve and immerse them in the online learning environment. You want them to get into the habit of engaging with the course right from the outset to ensure that you capture and hold their attention for the duration.
One of the most important strategies that you can use when developing your course is to focus on microlearning and chunking. Microlearning presents course content in short, easily digestible “chunks,” brief lessons that are generally only five to fifteen minutes long.
Microlearning is essential for several reasons. First, the technique is ideally suited for adult learners, who may only have a few minutes each day to devote to their training. In addition, the chances are good that adult learners are snatching any opportunity to study wherever they can find it, whether on the train for their morning commute, in the break room at lunch, or while waiting to pick the kids up from school. Brief lessons will help learners take advantage of these short pockets of learning time and will give them the satisfaction of completing a quick lesson or task, instead of having to repeatedly pause and return to it.
In addition, microlearning helps prevent cognitive overload for the learner because the course is not presenting too much new content too quickly. When learners are trying to integrate training into their busy daily lives, expecting them to absorb a large amount of content in one encounter or learning session can be overwhelming and frustrating. Not only are they likely to absorb less than they would have if the content was presented in the form of microlessons, but they’re also more likely to become frustrated and discouraged, decreasing the chance that they will complete the course successfully.
Chunk for Scalability
Chunking content isn’t just good for learners, however. It is also an excellent way to promote efficiency and scalability in your course development process. When course elements and assets are composed of small segments of material, that makes it far easier for you to remove, modify, or add to the course content without having to scrap the course and revise it largely or wholly from scratch. Your courses will always be agile, capable of being adapted to changing learning environments or customized to the evolving needs of your target customer. Such scalability will enable you to maximize the value and profitability of each course across its entire lifespan.
Use Multiple Modalities
When developing training content for adult learners, it’s essential to remember that the adult learner isn’t a monolith. Each learner will bring their own unique learning style, needs, goals, and habits. You will need to give the learner options for engaging with learning content.
These should include multiple types of content for each module, including visual, auditory, and interactive elements. Building in multimedia to supplement and enhance the content presentation will help keep learners focused and engaged. In addition, providing transcripts for all auditory content not only will serve the needs of learners with hearing impairments, but it can also help learners navigate their courses and work on content when they are in environments where it is not feasible or appropriate to listen to audio. Similarly, ensuring that your courses include narrative descriptions for visual content will help ensure course accessibility for learners with vision impairments.
In addition to involving all the senses and supporting the learning styles of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners, you should also ensure that you are developing for multiple platforms. This is all about recognizing the unique needs and behaviors of the adult learner. As we’ve seen, adults typically train whenever and wherever they have the time and opportunity.
You should design your content for desktop and laptop and for mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets. However, when you’re developing courses for multiple platforms, you need to ensure that you are also testing your content across all devices. You may lose points with learners or clients if the learning content isn’t as engaging, navigable, and functional on mobile devices as it is on PC or Mac.
Make It Navigable
Navigability is also an issue that you’ll want to attend to carefully. Learners want to easily find the content that they want when they want it. They also want to be able to track their progress, especially when time is of the essence and they’re striving to integrate their training into an already packed daily schedule.
Optimizing the navigability of your course means ensuring that every screen and element includes navigation menus that allow learners to search, review, pause, save, and scan their process. You’ll also need to ensure that your course’s navigation panel is uniform across each section. A brief instructional element at the beginning of the course to show learners how to find and use the navigation panel is ideal. The less demand that you can place on learners’ time and memory, the better they will focus on the critical elements of the course and the more satisfied they will likely be with the course in general.
3. Rolling Out the Course—and Beyond
Once you’ve done the heavy lifting of developing the course, that doesn’t mean
you’re finished. If you want to maximize the value of your product, you have to resist the “set it and forget it” mindset. A course is never truly finished unless and until the learning environment changes so profoundly that it is more efficient and practical to retire the course and start fresh. If you’ve built your course for scalability, that point will likely be a long time coming. In light of this, however, there are crucial things that you need to do to keep your courses fresh, relevant, timely, and marketable.
Test, Test, Test
Testing is an essential yet frequently overlooked aspect of course development, especially after the course rolls out or goes to market. However, testing shouldn’t end just because the course proved to be functional before being sold. At the very least, you should test each course quarterly.
You should test for the accuracy, relevance, and timeliness of your content in an evolving knowledge environment. Also, include testing of the technical functionality of each course element across all modalities. This will ensure that any product that you have on the market performs optimally, delivers the highest quality experience for the customer and the learner, and drives client loyalty and positive word of mouth.
Get the Data
Testing isn’t the only strategy for monitoring the efficacy of your courses after rollout. In fact, an even more powerful method is to leverage the capacity of data reporting. Integrating reporting tools into your courses will enable you to access vital information about both the course and the learner. For example, you can learn the modules’ completion and abandonment rates, the average time spent with each module, and which elements are used most and least frequently. That only skims the surface of the kind of data that these tools can provide.
Armed with this information, you can make strategic modifications as needed to improve the course itself and revamp or refresh your development process to ensure that you are meeting—and exceeding—customer expectations.
If you’ve been developing courses for a while, the chances are that you’ve created a robust content library. That’s a great thing because the more learning assets that you have, the more efficient your development process will be. However, to make the most of this resource, you’ll need to be deliberate and strategic in managing your library.
For example, you’ll want to devise a strategy for naming assets and classifying them by type. This will help you easily navigate your growing content library, efficiently searching for—and finding—the materials that you need when you need them. It also enables you to maximize the value of each asset and gives you more time to focus on creating new items.
Managing your content library also means routinely inventorying your assets and archiving those that are no longer accurate, relevant, or useful. Don’t discard these items, however, because you never know when you may need them again! Archiving will make the search-and-retrieval process more accurate and efficient.
It has perhaps never been a more exciting time to be a training content developer.
The process is not exactly easy, but it is certainly fascinating, inspiring, and rewarding work. With the evidence-based best practices demonstrated in this ebook guide, you can streamline your process, maximize the value of your products, and provide an exceptional experience for customers and learners alike.Firmwater is more than an LMS training provider. We partner with customers, providing them with the tools and expert insight that they need to implement the best in-practice e-learning course development and delivery. Our customers have been trusting us for years to deliver their high-quality training, freeing them up to focus on growing their business.
Ready to use an LMS that’s designed for the way YOU work, with a team dedicated to YOUR needs? Take Firmwater for a free 14-day test drive today!