Questions about developing training material?

Subject: Questions about developing training material?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Jens Reineking <reineking -dot- arbeit -at- gmx -dot- de>
Date: Mon, 21 Aug 2006 09:43:22 -0400

Jens Reineking wondered: <<I'm changing fields again and will be working on training materials from October on. The topic will be project management. So, I've got a couple of questions and I hope you will have some answers or can point the way to some useful information (courses, books, journals, arcticles, websites, blogs, newsletters, forums, ...).>>

The problem with training is that it is a broad and complicated field, and you can spend several years in various colleges and universities developing the basics. (Though you'll more often hear to the subject described as "instructional design" in my somewhat shallow experience.) One "shock" for us writers is that we come from an entirely different philosophical world from the world of the teacher: we focus on one-way dictation of information, whereas teachers increasingly recognize that learning is interactive. You can cross that mental chasm if you're aware of it, but you have to learn to think outside the "writing box".

I've taken a few courses in the subject over the years and have read a fair bit on the subject--enough to be an educated amateur, but by no means an expert. With that caution firmly in mind:

<<So, who on this list as experience in developing training materials and is willing to share some of his/her experience with me? The first area of interest is the process (design, execution, review, field test).>>

The first thing to do in any instructional design is define the learning objectives. If you don't know what the students must learn, you can't possibly figure out (other than by chance) how to effectively provide that knowledge. Learning objectives fall into various categories: skills (e.g., here's how you click the mouse), knowledge (e.g., the computer perceives clicking the mouse as a command, so if you want to send a command...), behaviors and attitudes (e.g., "I now know that I should click the mouse, and I plan to do it), and possibly other things, but those are the big three.

The second thing is knowing the audience: their needs, their constraints (e.g., fear of computers, illiteracy), their existing knowledge, their learning styles (e.g., conceptual vs. experiential), and so on. With a few cultural and other exceptions, it doesn't much matter how old they are, their income, their sex or gender, and many of the other meaningless demographic data we're often told to collect in technical writing. These demographic data are often correlated with the primary considerations, but only weakly in my experience. Audience will tell you, for example, whether your students are dispersed around the world and require some form of online training, or all work in the same building, in which case classroom training becomes a viable option.

Once you know what you're trying to achieve and the audience characteristics that provide tools to support or barriers to interfere with learning, you can start figuring out how to achieve your goals. Methods include lectures (one-way communication), dialogues (multiple-way communication), cross-references (fitting new knowledge into existing knowledge), examples, exercises, practice, more practice, tests, and many more. The tools for supporting those methods are less important than the methods themselves: whether you use Web-based training or instructor-led training, students must go through the same steps in learning. Just as in writing, the concepts are the same whether you use a pencil or Framemaker.

Curiously enough, this overview is exactly the same process we should go through as writers--but seldom do. There's probably a lesson in there somewhere...

<<The second area is theoretical background (psychology of learning and perception, ecucational design and writing, ...).>>

Again, the bad news is that there are several different types of degree programs that teach this material. Moreover, there are several competing theories of how people learn, and the debate often seems to revolve more around opinion than science. In short: It's not something you can learn in an hour reading of techwr-l replies.

Saul Carliner has written a bunch of books about this subject; he's a friend, but is also internationally well-respected in the field, so I can recommend that you check out some of his books. If you're an STC member, you can find reviews of some of his books (and those of others) in _Technical Communication_.

<<The third area is about some practical questions: - Does single sourcing work with educational material?>>

Does it work with technical writing? <gdrlh> Less facetiously: It works if you design it right. That's not as easy as some would have you believe. "Design for reuse" is not a gift we're all born with. You need to learn it and practice hard until you "get" it.

<<- What software would you recommend for building the material?>>

Whichever software supports the learners and delivery method you've determined in response to my previous suggestions. Until you know that, you can't pick an optimal tool. And like so much else in technical communication, the tool is usually the least important consideration. We're communicators first, tool users second.

<<- Are there special things to be considered when localising training material?>>

You can't imagine. There are sometimes impenetrable cultural barriers. For example, one dynamic in China is that students don't like to challenge a professor or stand out in class by aggressively promoting their own opinions, and it can take an enormous amount of effort to convince Chinese students to participate the way you'd expect Western students to participate. There have been some good articles on this over the past decade or so in _Technical Communication_ (and even if you don't read journals, these articles are easy to read and full of practical advice).

Best bet: if you don't intimately understand a culture, talk to a teacher from that culture to find out how they see their students, and the cultural conventions related to learning. Then ask them to review your proposed plan before you start implementing it.
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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

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Questions about developing training material: From: Jens Reineking

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