Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sizing Up an eLearning Lesson

By Shelley A. Gable

If you’re designing a one-week course, or even a partial day course, how do you divide its content into lessons?

Intuitively, I used to define lessons by topic. Some lessons I’ve designed are as short as 15 minutes, while others are up to four hours. The topic would drive the length. Conversely, an instructional designer I used to work with felt strongly that a lesson should be an hour, and he would look for ways to logically organize content into one-hour chunks.

Why does lesson size matter?

The length of eLearning lessons matters for at least two reasons:

-1- Learner Perception

Lessons clearly chunk content within a course, which can help learners keep the information organized in their minds.

Lessons also create natural breaks, which might encourage learners to take breaks at key points throughout a course. Although the nature of eLearning usually allows learners to set their own pace and take breaks whenever they want, many opt to wait for clear stopping points (i.e., the end of a lesson).

Appropriately sized lessons can also help create a sense of progress for learners. A single, four-hour eLearning lesson may feel like it’s never going to end. This can cause learners to feel antsy, lose focus, and start clicking through the content too quickly. In contrast, several 30-minute lessons can make a course feel less massive and overwhelming.

-2- Reusability

If you need to develop training for several audiences with similar but different needs, you may find it helpful to design lessons in a way that makes them reusable in multiple courses. Smaller lessons with a more limited content focus can be helpful in this case.

For example, consider this scenario:

You’re designing new employee training for a telecommunication company’s customer service function. The function has several departments, each servicing a different product line (e.g., landlines, cell service, internet, consumer, commercial, etc.), and each department works with a different computer system. Although the various departments perform similar types of tasks, each department follows a different procedure for a given task.

At a glance, it might seem like each department needs its own unique training program. However, with detailed analysis of the content to be trained, you might find that some lessons can be shared across multiple audiences if the content is chunked just right. This might mean designing lessons that address a single performance objective.

For example, if a customer calls to cancel an account, most companies want employees to determine the cancellation reason and attempt to keep that customer’s business. If this conversation is handled similarly by the various departments in our fictional company, then the soft skills related to this task might be taught in one set of lessons that are shared across the departments, while system procedures related to the task might be taught in another set of lessons that are specific to each department. The shared lessons result in fewer training materials that must be developed, stored, and maintained.

What are your best practices for dividing course content into lessons?

Do you aim for a certain lesson length? Do you divide it by topic? By tasks? Do you optimize for reusability? Or do you follow a completely different train of thought?

1 comment:

  1. If reusability is something you’re interested in learning more about, I’d recommend checking out the reusability white papers produced by Cisco. While several authors have tackled the topic, Cisco’s papers provide a helpful foundation.


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