How to Maximize Your Course Shelf Life in the Development Phase
At a recent meeting, the director of training operations at a global biopharmaceutical company was asked a fairly simple and straightforward question:
“What is it that keeps you awake at night?”
After thinking about it for a moment, she said: “Well, my group is developing more than 50 new courses this year, and I’m not too worried about those. My problem is that we now have more than 400 courses in our LMS and, due to a application upgrades, organizational changes, and general changes with our learning and development environment, almost half of them need to be updated this year. With my staff fully utilized with the new development efforts, I honestly don’t know how I’m going to maintain all of those lessons.”
The recent proliferation of e-learning development in the workplace has added an extra layer of complexity to course maintenance. There are now many more courses packaged into shorter, more highly focused segments to accommodate learners who want to pick and choose only the training topics that they really need. To make matters worse, today’s blended learning solutions require that you use numerous delivery mediums, and some of those blended learning components (such as performance support systems, information repositories, online user guides, and so on) are not even under our control!
The truth is that even before blended learning became the norm for training in the workplace, course maintenance was often overlooked or even forgotten as a step in training development methodologies.
>> The ADDIE process (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluation) ends with evaluation.
>> HPI (Human Performance Improvement) is a circular process, and it does not touch on maintenance.
>> Dick & Carey’s systematic approach only briefly touches on course maintenance and, significantly, their approach was designed in the early 1970s.
In other words, you are, more or less, on your own to determine the steps you need to take to minimize your maintenance effort.
There are, however, practical steps that you can take to prevent today’s dreamy training program from becoming tomorrow’s unforgettable nightmare.
If the maintenance nightmare hasn’t disturbed your sleep yet, consider this recent real-life example. In the spring of 2009, Mike Costello, training director at Thermo Fisher, introduced a new training module that was deployed to his entire company’s 35,000 employees.
The training course contained many references to the executive-level organizational structure and was proudly announced in the company’s weekly newsletter. In that same newsletter, a new CEO and a new division were announced — making the training out of date on its first official day!
Keeping this example in mind, let’s discuss some steps that can help to reduce your maintenance nightmares.
Content Indexing System
A number of instructional design tips can reduce the maintenance burden, but at the core of your environment, there must be a cross-referencing index that contains a list of all topics that are covered in all courses. With it, you can pinpoint all courses affected by a system or organizational change and effectively plan for the future. Without it, you can use your dartboard and hope that your luck holds up for a while longer.
What type of tool do you need for this type of index? A database tool is ideal, of course, but you can get off to a very good start with a simple spreadsheet. Essentially, you want to make sure that you are tracking two types of information in the index:
>> Course identifiers: This includes things such as course name, course ID, publish date, course type, audience, author and so on.
>> Course content: The course topics and tools and materials used to teach the course. Do not simply copy the table of contents into this section! You will want to know if the course requires a flip-chart from a vendor who has gone out of business or if the course will only run in Internet Explorer 6.0. Add all content references that may change over time and all elements that are needed to run the lesson.
When designing and developing your courses, think about the information repositories that are available to your audiences. In almost every organization, a wide variety of repositories store detailed information regarding people, processes, procedures and more. Instead of including every single detail in your training course, simply point to the repositories and instruct your learners how to find the information. This step by itself can drastically reduce your maintenance work.
For your course exercises, don’t forget to include a search for specific repository information as a part of one or more of the exercises. If you are teaching a software application, your course exercise could include steps that require the learner find specific information in the application’s online help or an online user guide that is stored on your network. Make sure your learners know where the repositories are and how to use them!
To make the training worthwhile, make sure that you offer tips for accessing the information quickly. For example, if the information resides in your company intranet, remind learners that they can access a frequently used intranet page immediately by dragging the icon in their browser’s Web address field to their desktop.
Avoid Time Stamps
When you proofread your training materials, make sure to eliminate any wording that contains a time stamp. This would include wording that refers to a product or program as “new” and terms such as “this year” and “next year.”
Along those lines, make sure that you avoid mention of a specific version number when describing software applications. For example:
>> High-maintenance phrase: “Internet Explorer 7.0.533.1 has many new features.”
>> Low-maintenance phrase: “Internet Explorer has many useful features.”
If you really need to specify a version number, try to avoid specific point-release details and refer to the application as “Internet Explorer 7” or “Internet Explorer 7.x.”
Make Employees Generic
The simple rule here is to avoid specific employee names whenever possible, and remember that even pictures of employees can lead to problems.
The more specific you are with references to employees, the more you may need to update/maintain your materials. Whenever possible, refer to “our chief marketing officer,” not “Jane Doe, our chief marketing officer.”
Also, include as many generic pictures as possible by using one of the many online photo providers. It’s nice to put your colleague’s faces in your lessons for a number of reasons, but the more company faces that you put in your materials, the more you are risking that the materials will become out of date.
Let’s face it. People simply do not stay at one organization for life anymore. When attrition happens and your courses are full of references to specific employees, you have an extra maintenance requirement that you may have been able to avoid very easily.
To ensure that you are aware when changes happen to key information in your information repositories, try to set up automatic e-mail notification with the repository. Many systems (such as MS SharePoint, for example) have this capability, but few users take advantage of it. If in doubt, check with your IT Administrator.
If you design a lengthy e-learning lesson and then need to update a handful of pages in the courseware, how are you going to update the narration? Will you be able to easily get the same narrator — keeping consistency throughout the lesson?
If the narrator works for your company, if he or she is still employed there, and if he or she has the time available to record the changes, you’re all set. However, this approach leaves a lot to chance — many “ifs.”
Think ahead. If you are developing e-learning lessons with narration, consider using two or more narrators, providing more options for any potential updates needed. Find just one of the original narrators to record the new narration, or simply find someone else that sounds similar to one of the original voices.
Aside from the specific recommendations in this article, the most important general recommendation to help you with your maintenance burden is simply to have a maintenance plan when you do your development plan.
For example, if you are using ADDIE as your process model for instructional design, make sure that you add an “M” (for maintenance) at the end. The ADDIE-M model (think: “Wizard of Oz”!) will force you to look beyond the deployment of your course and to plan for things that will save you time and effort in the years ahead.
If done correctly, this simple but often forgotten step in the development process can maximize your course shelf life, and that will allow you to focus on other important matters — like not keeping awake at night because of your overwhelming maintenance workload.
—The author, Mark Simon, is a senior training specialist at the eClinical Solutions Division of Eliassen Group. He has more than 20 years of hands-on experience design, development and delivery of e-learning and instructor-led training. He has a master’s degree in instructional design from the University of Massachusetts-Boston and a bachelor of science degree from Miami (Ohio) University. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.