Start with a higher-level approach when developing course content
In my experience as an instructional designer, we usually haven’t stepped back and taken a big-picture view of what content we’ll need to create for a course; instead, we’ve developed it in bits and pieces. In addition, we haven’t always considered the time needed for updating content over the long term as we’re initially developing a course.
Because of this, I’ve been in some challenging situations: overinvesting resources to develop content that may not be critical to the learning experience, creating a set of materials that will be challenging to keep updated, or both.
Based on my experience in technical writing, I knew that good content strategy could provide a solution to these challenges. How content strategy should be framed for higher and professional education learning experiences was the missing piece, so I started developing a framework.
My approach to content strategy for higher education courses borrows elements from a strategy that Kivi Leroux Miller developed for nonprofit organizations. It seemed like a good fit because nonprofits often have the same goals that we have in higher and professional education courses:
engaging with and building community among a group of individuals;
making sure that the group receives and understands information they need in a timely way (without losing their attention by coming across as interruptive or repetitive); and
investing effort wisely in content development so that you don’t exhaust your resources.
My framework begins with a high-level view, first gathering some background information on a course’s content development needs. Then, it has us consider the 5 types of content typically found in a course and how they align with Leroux Miller’s 3 categories for content development. Finally, the framework recommends a way to structure a course’s content to keep learners engaged.
5 Initial Questions
Before assigning types and categories to course content, I realized that we needed a set of questions that would suss out some basic information. These 5 provide a good starting point:
In what format should the content ideally be in (video, text, audio, interactive media, etc.)?
How many learners will engage with the content over a two-year period?
How critical is the content to learners’ success in the course?
What’s the time commitment going to be longer term for keeping the content updated?
Who will be able to edit the content when it needs changes?
The information gleaned from answering these questions helps us prioritize which content to develop first based on its importance and reach. And in cases where we are on a too-tight schedule, it allows us to triage content development across multiple design cycles.
Next, I wanted to define the types of content that can be found in most courses. I came up with 5 types, which I’ve outlined in Figure 1 based on how they fit into the flow of a week or module in a typical course. (More detailed descriptions for each type of content are listed after the figure.)
Invite: Messages (emails, announcements) sent at the start of each week that invite students to engage with the course.
Introduce: An “agenda” for the module or week that’s typically set up as a page within the course’s site in a learning management system; it introduces the week or module’s focus, outlines its learning objectives, and lists its activities or assignments.
Lecture: Longer-form materials (videos, interactive media, articles) that present a unique perspective on the week or module’s area of focus, unpack complex topics, and contextualize readings, videos, and/or other third-party materials.
Instruct: Materials that include assignment instructions, software tutorials, handouts, case studies, etc.
Update: Brief emails and/or announcements that remind learners about upcoming due dates or events, notable news stories that relate to the course topic, etc.
Note that if a subject-matter expert is designing a course that someone else will teach, they’ll likely focus on developing Introduce, Lecture, and Instruct content. The instructor teaching the course will develop the Invite and Update content.
Next, we’ll consider how these types of content align with different categories of content, which will help us determine the best media format to use as we develop content and how to integrate it within the learning experience’s structure.
Before you start developing your course content, also identify for each piece of content which of the 3 different categories in Figure 2 it will best fit into: Evergreen, Perennial, or Local Color (Leroux Miller, 2013). These categories are based on how often you’ll use the content and how frequently it’ll require revision; they’re outlined in more detail after Figure 2.
Evergreen content stays relevant from term to term, and it rarely needs changes or will only occasionally require minor tweaks. Content typically included in this category is lecture materials and introductions for each module or week in a course.
Since evergreen content rarely needs major updates, it makes sense to invest in more resource-intensive formats, like video and interactive media. However, if the content is optional for learners, if your course has lower enrollment, and/or the course isn’t offered very often, you may want to focus on easier-to-produce formats for some of your evergreen content.
Content could be considered perennial if it covers a topic that will be addressed at least every other time a course runs, and it will only need minor to moderate revisions on a more regular basis. Perennial content includes materials like assignment instructions, supplemental handouts, and technology tutorials.
For perennial content, your best format option will depend on how frequently you anticipate it needing updates or revisions. For less frequent changes, informal video or narrated presentations may work well. However, if you know you’ll need to make minor revisions every term, you may want to stick with a format that you can easily edit on your own, like text and images.
Local color content includes short updates that will likely only be used once or twice because they’re related to time-sensitive events or news items. This category of content may include invitations, reminders, global feedback, or something fun, newsworthy, or interesting to share with students.
Given its short shelf life, local color content should be quick and easy for you to create on your own, i.e., text, simple graphics, or informal video.
Aligning Categories With Types and Formats
Table 1 summarizes the alignment of each content category with types of course content and recommended formats for each one.
narrated presentations or screen capture videos, text & image-based short articles
text and simple graphics, informal video
Table 1. Alignment of each content category with types of course content and recommended formats
A significant benefit of content strategy is that it allows us to structure the 5 content types in a way that makes it easy for students to navigate a course’s online components and helps them stay engaged and on track. Conceptually, you could think of your course content as a two-part interconnected system:
Introduce, Lecture and Instruct content form the core of a course; typically, they all “live” within the course’s site in an institution’s learning management system (LMS).
Invite and Update content are messages that the instructor sends (emails, announcements, etc.), preferably on a just-in-time schedule; they direct students to the Part 1 content.
Figure 3 illustrates how the relationship between these two different parts work together.
This structure enables an instructor to communicate with learners following a predictable rhythm, check in with them regularly, and present learners with information they need as they need it. Table 2 outlines an example recommended communication schedule for a course with week-long modules.
Send your Invite content
Send your Update content
Link to Introduce content (which directs to Lecture & Instruct content)
Link to Instruct content (with reminders and encouragement for assignments coming due)
Table 2. Recommended communication schedule for one week in a typical course
While this schedule might not seem all that important, consider some challenges that you might experience if you don’t have a structured communication approach:
Randomly sent messages make it more likely that individual students will email you for information because they aren’t sure when they’ll hear from you.
Messaging more frequently may make your messages come across as “noise,” and learners may skip reading some of them.
Messaging less frequently, especially if you send form-like messages, may give learners the impression that you’re not authentically engaged with them.
This framework is a work in progress, but I hope to refine it in the next couple of years. Feel free to adopt and tweak it as needed—and be sure to share your ideas and results with me!