In ancient times, content was scarce. It was transmitted by word of mouth by priests and scholars who hoarded it in order to withhold information, keep the general public in ignorance, and hold on to power. A breakthrough occurred with the advent of the printing press. Content became more easily available to anyone who can afford the price of books. The impact of the print revolution is a relatively minor phenomenon compared with the impact of the Internet revolution that started a few decades ago and is still accelerating. Internet content is freely and abundantly available: Authors, bloggers, podcasters, wiki users, and commentators are competing with each other to provide accurate, useful, and up-to-date content, free of charge. Traditional policies, procedures, and superstitious behaviors associated with print publishing are rapidly disappearing. This does not mean that the Internet is replacing printed content. Actually, on-demand publishing and online sales are increasing the number of print publications and speeding up their distribution.
If you want to test my claim of the abundance of content, choose any training topic and conduct a web search at amazon.com. Follow this up by googling a key word or phrase to discover the astounding amount of online content.
Here are the results that I got a yesterday when I checked out the topic of leadership. Amazon.com yielded more than 60,000 books; Google yielded nearly six billion (6,580,000,000 to be specific) items.
"Content Is Not Available"
Given these results, training designers cannot rationalize the creation of new content by claiming that specific content is not available for their training topic. Even if we assume that only one percent of the books and only one-tenth of a percent of the online documents are usable, we still have enough content to keep us (and our learners) busy. My suggestion is that we assemble various combinations of the existing content (fully respecting copyright regulations, of course) and design learning activities that require and reward interaction with this content.
When training designers complain that their topics are so specialized and no content is currently available, I challenge them. There are always user manuals, technical specifications, or job aids floating around. In the extreme case when no technical documentation is available and only a few people have the esoteric knowledge, we still have access to the content inside their crania. In these cases, we can produce instant content by interviewing subject-matter experts and recording their responses.
The abundance of content becomes clearer when we take into account these three types:
Instructional content is structured for training purposes. This type of content includes training manuals, facilitator's guides, self-instructional materials, and workbooks.
Structured content is organized for easy reference. This type includes popular and specialized books for typical readers.
Unstructured content includes raw pieces of information created for purposes other than serving the reading public or the learning group. For example, a list of quotes about leadership or a set of customer complaints belong to this type.
“We Cannot Use the Content in its Current Form”
In whatever form the content currently exists, we can design effective training activities to incorporate them. We can speed up this process by using templates (framegames) that are suited for the different types of content sources. Here are a few samples:
Textra games combine the effective organization of text documents with the motivational impact of games. In this approach, the participants read the text and play a game that uses peer pressure and peer support to encourage the recall and transfer of content.
Application games incorporate job aids such as checklists, flowcharts, and decision tables. In a typical application games, groups of participants learn different steps and reorganize themselves to master the other steps for conducting a specific procedure.
Double exposure activities incorporate the content from audio or video recordings. In a typical activity of this type, the participants watch a video and play games that help them review and apply the new concepts and principles.
Item processing activities incorporate content in the form of bits of information, facts, questions, complaints, and suggestions. In some cases, the participants themselves generate these items. These activities produce a deeper understanding of different types of content.
Sampling techniques incorporate collections of different samples (such as email subject lines or opening paragraphs). The participants analyze the samples, arrange them in different categories, identify key features, and apply the quality standards to their own products.
The 4-D approach incorporates online content. The participants study the content in an online library, practice the mastery of concepts and terminology in a playground, discuss the ideas in a chat room, and demonstrate their mastery through a performance test.
Interactive lectures incorporate presentations by subject-matter experts. The presentations are interspersed with game-like activities and team projects to ensure the mastery and the application of the content.
Interactive storytelling incorporates short pieces of fiction related to the training topic. The participants are encouraged to create and share their own stories. These activities also rewards the participants to listen to stories and modify, expand, shrink, analyze, debrief, and roleplay these stories.
Here's something that I have always noticed about the process of training design. The designer reviews, analyzes, and organizes the content into a structured form. In the end, learners are bored with the dead content. In contrast, by using these templates that require the participants to explore partially structured or unstructured content and reorganize them into a form that makes sense to them. The result of this dynamic process is an in-depth understanding, mastery, recall, and application of the content.