How to love content (1 of 3)

Sometimes ‘content’ gets a bad name in instructional circles. It’s associated with this:

Postman carrying bundle
We need to get this content converted to elearning asap!
or this:

Anxious man talking to secretary in office
We need to get this content in front of everyone by the end of October and give them a test so we can prove we’ve done it!
We prefer to design a learning experience, based on realistic work activities rather than dress up content, and rightly so. But every elearning project still has to present  some information.  In this series of articles I’ll be looking at an idea from the early days of instructional design which I think is still relevant when you’re trying to make sense of a mountain of information that a Subject Matter Expert (SME) has dropped in your inbox. I’ll talk about how I found it, what I did with it, what did and didn’t work and how I see it differently, but still use it, now.  I’ll also address the challenge that we shouldn’t even be allowing SMEs to think of information-based courses.  Cammy Bean has recently published an excellent paper on Design Patterns for elearning. I see this in the same vein, but at a more granular level. Cammy deals with entire courses, I’m looking at specific bits of content.

Back in 1989, before you were born, I was a fresh-faced Computer Based Training creator, a year or two out of ‘basic training’ and I had the good fortune to attend two  workshops led by Dr Ruth Clark.  I remember the atmosphere as much as the content. Ruth was dynamic and funny as well as rigorous and demanding and the mood was electric. Much of what we covered would now be classed as basic instructional design (instructivist, not constructivist) – things like needs assessment, task analysis, learning objectives and so on.

The thing that stayed in my mind and informed my work for years afterwards was what she called content categories.  She said all the content you’re asked to present can be classified as one of five types:

  1. facts: one-off pieces of information
  2. concepts: categories and classes of nouns or verbs
  3. procedures: prescriptive steps to achieve an aim (how to …)
  4. processes: descriptive steps showing how something works
  5. principles: rules of thumb where some judgement and interpretation is involved


If you look at content this way, then for each category there are

  • appropriate ways to present it
  • appropriate learning activities
  • appropriate testing activities

Don’t forget instructional design began from behaviourism and military training, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s. Training was a technical problem – if you present the information in the right way, and give the learner the right activities, the learner cannot help but learn. Efficiency and effectiveness were just a question of getting the techniques right.  By the time Ruth was talking to us, such a mechanical view was on its way out, but this was Ruth’s background and the introduction of personal computers into learning was quite recent.  What Ruth was giving us was a simpler version of David Merrill’s Component Display Theory from 1980.

In the 21st century, with the web and social learning,  we’ve moved on, and many are questioning the value of instructional design at all.  I think there is still a place for this type of analysis and in the next article, I’ll talk about what I did with it in my work, what was successful and what wasn’t, and how I and others developed it.

Do you already use these content categories? Does this all seem very old school? Are they taught to new designers? I’m interested in your take on these.  Please comment below and let me know.

No 2 in this series

No 3 in this series



Let’s Get Rid of the Instructional Designers
Design Patters for Learning (Cammy Bean)
David Merrill’s Component Display Theory
Ruth Clark’s site[/one_half]

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