CXO

Creating classes: Ask the five Ws and an H

A lot goes into the finished product that trainers present to students. Bruce Maples goes from the start of the process to the finish in this column, which includes advice on how to develop an outline and how to polish and revise your lessons.


Most trainers spend their entire working lives on the delivery end of the instructional pipeline. They may occasionally get to help with some planning or curriculum development, but even then, it’s usually a matter of choosing among already-existing courses.

For over a year, I’ve been splitting my time between the two major divisions in the training world: creating classes and delivering them. Last year, I helped write the Business Solutions Curriculum for Microsoft. Since January, I’ve been working on the training material for some custom software. I enjoy the time I spend on the creation side as much as my time spent teaching, because it combines two things I love: teaching and writing.

I thought it might be interesting for stand-up trainers to learn a little about what goes into the creation of the material you deliver. I also know that some TechRepublic readers work on courseware development, and it might be good to share some thoughts with you as well.

Five Ws and an H
It sounds like a beginner’s lesson, but the first thing you should do when creating or revising training is to make a plan, and that plan should answer the five Ws and one H we all remember from English class:



The last question is the one that often gets the short shrift. I could spend an entire column on each of these (and may at some point), but for now I simply want to point out the need to answer each of these completely and effectively before you put the first training module on paper, screen, or wherever it’s going.

Surprisingly, not everyone seems to realize the need to plan first, then execute. You would be amazed at the number of projects I’ve seen, and even been part of, where one or more of these questions hasn’t been answered thoroughly or at all.

If you ask a potential customer, “What do you want to accomplish with this courseware?” you are liable to get an answer like “Teach them to use our product. How much will that cost?” When you explain that you can’t give an estimate without getting specific answers to the questions above, the customer gets frustrated and says something like “All that stuff is your business. Just tell me the bottom line.” These are the times when I wish one of the guys from the radio show Car Talk were with me to administer a “dope slap.”

Shaping the raw materials of a class
Once you’ve got the basic parameters figured out, it’s time to start the creative process. And the first piece of that is that fondly remembered relic of junior high English: the outline.

Building the course outline is, in my opinion, the most important and most critical task in the entire development process. A well-thought-out, detailed outline makes content creation flow and connect; a sloppy outline dooms you from the start. It’s the old “front-end loading” principle: Put more effort into the plan, and you’ll save effort in the execution.

When you are teaching a class, you have basically two raw materials: the courseware and the students. It is your job as a trainer to mix the two as effectively as possible. When you are creating courseware or other training material, your raw materials may include something as concrete as a piece of hardware or software, or something as ephemeral as a complex scientific theory or a touchy-feely personnel issue. It’s your job to take these raw instructional materials and mix in three essential ingredients:
  1. Your understanding of the teaching or learning task
  2. Your sense of design
  3. Your own creative ability

It can be a daunting task. There are bursts of productivity alternating with periods of ennui and impasse. I have often said that the creative process sometimes feels like finding an obscure footpath through the jungle at night while blindfolded: You feel around with your foot, find the next step, take it, and then repeat the process. Somehow, you get the basic content written and the outline filled in.

Design is more than just cute buttons
Once you get the content done, it’s time to lay it out for print, or put it on screen, or both. Now the fun begins.

While good design cannot rescue either a bad outline or bad content, bad design can sure destroy a good outline and good content. All of us who train have thought at one time or another, “Who designed this mess?”

Unfortunately, the proliferation of authoring tools for on-screen delivery has only exacerbated the problem. Now anyone can create the tutorial-from-hell in his spare time. Just throw some buttons on the screen—make sure they are cute and colorful and play music when you push them—and you are good to go with a bad tutorial.

I think the key to effective courseware is holding one or more beta classes, with lots of time for feedback from both the students and the instructors. I also know that the reason we have so much lousy courseware is the lack of such “delivery testing” due to the push of deadlines and dollars. “Get it out the door” is the cry; never mind whether it actually accomplishes the learning goals or whether the instructor has to juggle three sets of material to teach the class.

As either the customer getting someone to create training material for you, or as the person doing the creating, you simply have to insist on a clean design and adequate time for beta teaching. It’s just like software creation: you either allow time to find the bugs before delivery, or your customers will find them for you.

The baby is delivered; now what?
Finally the day comes when you are done: the final beta session is history, the last edit has been made, the last graphic has been changed. It’s time to send your baby out into the world.

It’s interesting; the emotions you have when you are done. Someone asked me how it felt to work on a big courseware project, and I told her, “It’s like having a baby. At first, you’re really excited and everyone is congratulating you on getting the work. Then there’s a long period of just slogging through the work and making progress toward the goal. By the end of it, you’re just tired and want the whole thing to be over. When you finally ‘deliver’ the project, there’s both celebration and relief.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. Courseware creation is just that: creative, and, like any creative process, involves both the joy of creation and the letdown after it’s finished. It takes a special person to be able to repeat that cycle, over and over, and to do it with both constant quality and a continual search for the best method, the best design, the best word.

Fortunately, there are those special people throughout the training industry: people who take the teaching/learning task seriously, who care about both the learners who will be learning from their material and the trainers who will teach it. The next time you teach a module that is well written, well designed, and effective, say a silent “thank you” for the special people who make it happen.

Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville. KY.

Have you created a class that is effective and enjoyable? Is there a particular module that students ask to take, based on other student recommendations? Tell us what it is and how it got to be so good, so we can share your successes with other trainers.

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