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September 12, 2022

The challenges of structured learning content (podcast)

In episode 127 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Alan Pringle talk about the challenges of aligning learning content with structured content workflows.

We’ve seen a little bit of a trend where we think about learning content and structure almost as mortal enemies, and we see some degree of resistance to wanting to use structured content for learning and training materials. And we want to dig into a little bit of why that might be.

—Gretyl Kinsey


Gretyl Kinsey:                  Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk about the challenges involved with structured learning content. Hello, I’m Gretyl Kinsey.

Alan Pringle:                     And I’m Alan Pringle.

GK:                                     And we’re going to be talking about our experiences with learning content and structured content and how they come together and sometimes how they don’t. So where I want to start is with talking about how they don’t always come together sometimes.

We’ve seen a little bit of a trend where we think about learning content and structure almost as mortal enemies, and we see some degree of resistance to wanting to use structured content for learning and training materials. And we want to dig into a little bit of why that might be.

AP:                                     Well, I want to be clear here, it’s not necessarily because of the trainers and the instructional designers. In a lot of cases, I think it’s because the tools that are targeted for those kinds of content creators are frankly not the best in the world. I think objectively we can say PowerPoint may be the worst tool for content creation of any kind.

It just encourages all sorts of bad behavior. The way that you, “Okay, I need to add text here. I need to add an image here.” It’s like how many frames can you possibly draw on a slide? Well, a lot based on some things that I’ve seen. So I mean, really, let’s take a look at the tools.

PowerPoint is not a great tool. It’s very freewheeling, gives you possibly too much latitude in how you put things together. So I think it’s fair to point that out. And then you look for example, at some of the learning management systems, and some of those systems are really good, but they have very narrow capabilities that are focused specifically on training.

So they’re very closed systems. And for example, it may not be super easy to import content into the system, export it out. So they’re closed and there’s just not a lot of interaction between systems. And then when you don’t have that level of interaction or those capabilities for systems to play together, that’s when you start seeing things like copying and pasting and other things that are, shall we say, not the most productive or free of error.

GK:                                     Absolutely. And I think it’s really interesting too that you brought up PowerPoint, because there are all those limitations that you talked about. The way that it’s really, there is no structure to it whatsoever that you can do anything you want on any slide and it is really hard to keep that templatized and consistent.

And yet PowerPoint is a very popular tool for learning content because when you think about how training is often delivered with a presentation style, that really lends itself to being one of the optimal ways to do so.

And so then what you said about having instructional designers really not having a lot of control over the fact that structured content and learning content are sort of moral enemies or don’t mesh very well.

I think a lot of that is because PowerPoint is something that they need to use because it does lend itself well to what they’re trying to do. And the same I think is true with learning management systems, they need that to be able to deliver their e-learning content for digital learning platforms.

And whenever you’ve got tools like this with these sorts of limitations that are really not conducive to structure and that go against what structure does, it really puts them in a difficult position where maybe even if they wanted to have more structured learning content, they really can’t because of the types of tools that are best suited to delivering training materials are really just not well suited to structure.

AP:                                     Sure. And then when you’re dealing with really ridiculous aggressive schedules, you’re having to do constant course updates, you are not in the frame of mind to be thinking about, “Oh, how could structure make my life better?” It’s completely understandable to me. But there are compelling use cases to have structure content for your training content.

GK:                                     Absolutely. And I think there’s a growing demand for that. As we move more and more into a digital world, we’ve seen that over time. I would say definitely in the last decade plus that I’ve been at Scriptorium, and especially in the last couple of years with the pandemic, there’s been more of a necessity and a demand for digital learning environments and e-learning. And I think that’s where structure really can come in and help with things.

AP:                                     Sure. And if you think about content creators in general and all the different places that they are, structure has pretty much moved well, very well into the product content TechComm area. Those folks have been using structure for quite a while now. We have also seen a shift in MarCom.

I have seen marketing content that is now driven by structure. So if you think about the flow of information, it kind of makes sense by extension that training content, learning content may be the next logical extension of where structured content can go.

GK:                                     I agree with that completely. And I know that even with some of the clients we’ve worked with, we’ve seen that as a use case that a lot of these companies have where they have a need to share content, like you were mentioning, get things out of closed systems and have the ability to reuse and share across systems and across departments. Right?

So you’re talking about TechComm and MarCom, I’ve seen several companies where there’s a need to have some common core information that’s shared across TechComm, MarCom and training and then maybe some other departments as well. And structured content is the obvious go-to way to do that.

AP:                                     Exactly.

GK:                                     And there are a lot of benefits too, when it comes to having your learning content in a structured environment. So one is that it’s easier to build an intelligence. When we think about e-learning environments and we want to have something like automatic grading and scoring that shows up as you’re going through and doing the activities or taking quizzes, that’s something that’s possible when you’re learning content sources are structured.

AP:                                     Yeah, very much. And a lot of the reasons and compelling use cases you have in TechComm and MarCom and elsewhere they apply here too. Consistency is greatly improved when you are working with structure.

And another big one is reuse. Everybody, regardless of what kind of content you are writing, is going to have some kind of reuse scenarios where basically having this modular structured content that you can basically refer to and plug in wherever you need to, it reduces you having to write the same thing over and over again and it reduces the number of variations of that same content.

For example, in training, one thing that immediately comes to my mind is the kind of housekeeping stuff you do before a course, whether it’s in person or you do it online. There’s certain things you want the students to know. This is where your sample files are to do these exercises, this is when we’re going to have a break, this is how long this is going to take.

All that kind of stuff that you’d want to communicate upfront. In a lot of cases, that is very, very structured, templatized, whatever word you want to use. And it’s a matter of sometimes just picking and choosing certain bits of that housekeeping content and putting it together to explain all those things you want explained upfront. That way you don’t have to write them 400 times and have a zillion variations of them stored away somewhere.

GK:                                     Absolutely. And I’ve seen just that, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen learning materials that don’t start with that housekeeping information, but I have seen some cases where the learning materials were in PowerPoint, for example. And so they each had a copy of that same slide and sometimes the wording would be different or sometimes there would be some different images, when it really should have just been one consistent reusable piece of housekeeping information.

AP:                                     Yeah. And it’s got to be just so frustrating to have to go through and touch a bunch of files just to change a word or two and a paragraph that appears in housekeeping information. I mean, to me, this is absolute low hanging fruit on why structure can really help you out in a training environment. And like I said, that’s a low hanging fruit. There are so many other things that go well beyond that, that are probably worth discussing as well.

GK:                                     Yeah, I know one example that comes to my mind is thinking about the ability to have student versus teacher versions of the same course.

AP:                                     Yep.

GK:                                     From the same set of source materials so that you don’t have to have, for example, a copied and pasted version of an entire test just so that you can have an answer key.

If you are in a digital and structured learning environment, you want the ability to switch that key with the answers on and off so that you can have one version that’s for the teachers and one that’s for the students. And that’s something that structure allows you to do.

AP:                                     Yeah. And I think we also have to note, there are ways to do what you just described that are not based on structure. There are ways to do them, they’re just a lot more painful. I think we have to be careful and not say absolutely structure is the only way to do these things, it’s not. But it streamlines and makes doing these sorts of things a lot easier and it takes the burden off of the instructional designers and the content creators.

GK:                                     Definitely. So I want to talk about one possible solution for getting your learning content structured in a way that we’ve seen with some of our clients, and that is the DITA Learning and Training Specialization.

And this is basically a set of DITA tags that is designed for learning content. And so it comes with a really robust and flexible set of tags. You have different map types that you can use for gathering your course materials and organizing things into different modules and lessons and entire courses.

You have different topic types that are designed for learning material including things like test questions and assessments. And there are a lot of different options that are included in that set of DITA Learning and Training Specialization tags. And you can also customize those further if you need to.

AP:                                     And let’s back up just a little bit and explain what a map file is because a lot of people may not know.

GK:                                     Sure. So a map is essentially the equivalent if you think about published content, it’s similar to your table of contents, it’s the backbone or the overall hierarchy of a publication.

So if you have a course for your learning and training materials, then the map would say, here are all of the different lessons and modules and materials in that course in the hierarchical order and structure in which they appear.

AP:                                     Yep. And I think it’s worth noting what you said about the Learning and Training Specialization having a tremendous amount of options. I think that that particular specialization, just based on my experience with it, is so wide open, you’re going to have a hard time not finding something that’s going to help you out in it.

It is an enormous set of elements and it is very robust like you mentioned. And it is so robust, in some cases you may actually want to constrain down the number of elements and basically say, “You know what? Our instructional designers don’t use this particular set of elements.

They really don’t write these kinds of topics. So we’re going to hide those so they don’t show up when people are authoring.” There are ways to take the DITA standard and shrink it down just to the tags that you use to streamline your authoring and course design efforts.

GK:                                     Yeah. And we’ve seen that a lot of times where, for example, if you are delivering training in a school classroom, and maybe the only things that you need are your actual learning material. So that would just be learning content. And then also if you need some assessment questions for tests.

And maybe let’s say all you need is multiple choice and true and false, and you don’t even need the other types of test questions, you could narrow that specialization down to where you only have your learning content for the courses themselves and then those two types of test questions and that’s all you need.

And then on the opposite side of the spectrum, if you need more than what comes with the DITA Learning and Training Specialization, which I think is pretty rare because it does come with so much. But if you do for example, need a type of test question that does not exist, then that can also be specialized.

And I know that Scriptorium has done that before where we had someone who needed a couple of different types of questions besides what was already available. So we created I think two or three new ones. And yeah, that level of flexibility is 100% possible with the Learning and Training Specialization.

And it really can help you get your learning content into that type of structure that you might need for an e-learning environment or for doing something like a split where if you’ve got in person and e-learning and you need all of that delivered from one set of sources, DITA Learning and Training is a really ideal way to do that.

AP:                                     Yeah. And I think it’s worth noting too, even if you use the specialized set of elements that are specifically for learning content, people in other departments who are creating content, for example, people in your product content department, people who are creating the marketing content, if they are also using DITA and they are creating topics for example, that have very good explanations of concepts around your product or service or have the specifications for your product, you can take those and refer to them, borrow them.

Pull them into your content and reference them so you don’t have to recreate those specifications that another group has created in DITA. So there’s a lot of cross pollination and sharing that can go on to, again, give your company, not just your department, but your entire company, all content creators will have a much more consistent voice and be sharing things out to the public, to the customers, to their clients that are much more consistent in messaging and the information being shared.

GK:                                     Absolutely. And it makes updates easier as well. Because if you think about a company who needs to train new employees and the products are constantly going through upgrades, it’s a lot easier to get the training materials updated to reflect those product upgrades if all of the information is structured and connected and your learning content is pulling in and reusing information from your product content that automatically gets updated alongside of those product upgrades.

AP:                                     Exactly.

GK:                                     And just one thing I wanted to point out about learning and training as well is that Scriptorium has a website called and all of the course material on there was created using the DITA Learning and Training Specialization. So if you want a real world example to get an idea of what some course material that was created, what that structure looks like, that is a really good place that you can go and all of it is free to access.

AP:                                     Yeah. And it’s worth noting that site is just one way that content could have been displayed. We hooked it up to a learning management system that’s based on the WordPress platform. But you don’t have to do that. We could have taken that content, we could have created printed study guides with it.

We could have done all kinds of things. We could have ported it into a different learning management system. You are really not limited in the ways that you can transform your structure source content into whatever. It’s really, the possibilities are nearly endless.

GK:                                     Absolutely. So we have talked about a lot of those possibilities and the benefits with using structured content for your learning material. But there are some common challenges that we see with this as well when it comes to moving to structured learning content.

And one of those is that it goes back to what we talked about in the beginning with the tools limitations. It can be really difficult to find a good learning management system that is both going to meet your training team’s requirements and allow you to work with a structured content like DITA. And that goes back to what you said earlier, Alan, about issues with close systems and difficulties with important export and connectivity.

AP:                                     Yeah. And those issues around tools of course, affect people’s perceptions and how they’re going to view things. If they’re really overworked and who isn’t these days? Frustrated with continually updating things, their mindset may be, I can barely handle what I’m doing now, can I manage this jump to structure?

And one way to kind of handle that I think is to really take a look at your pain points, what things are making things really hard for you. And listing out those pain points. And then having either someone in your organization who’s familiar with structure or even hire a consultant like we are to come and say, “Okay. Let’s take a look at your pain points.”

This is how structure could help address those pain points. And the thing is, you don’t have to go in a hundred percent at first. Do a small proof of concept. There are ways you can bite off a small section of what you need to do and focus on that because you can kind of grow and build upon things.

Start with one kind of training content, start with one particular subject of your training content, whatever. Break off a manageable amount that still reflects kind of the overall structure, the overall process that you’re going through. And then use it to do basically a test to see how things can work for you. You don’t have to do it all at once upfront.

GK:                                     Yeah. And another thing that I see as a challenge when it comes to moving to structure is that we talked about reuse and we talked about how that could really help bring some benefit to when you’ve got different departments like TechCom, MarCom training and others that need to share material that reuse can really help them out.

But reaping the benefits of that reuse is going to require collaboration across all the departments involved. And that’s definitely a challenge that we see because it’s a change in the way that people work. And to the point that you just made, when people are already overwhelmed and stressed and overworked, then getting them into a mindset of collaboration when they’ve previously been working separately can be a pretty big hurdle to cross.

AP:                                     Yeah. And this is when it can be very helpful to have someone come in who has seen this and done it, whether you hire, bring someone in who has had these experiences or you bring in a consultant. That can really help you focus and identify those pain points, figure out ways to address them, and then do your proof of concept testing.

GK:                                     Yeah. And I think that’s also going to really help show just how much time and cost can be saved if you’ve start reusing content that you have not been reusing before.

AP:                                     Yeah. And this gets into the return on investment. This is a very important part of doing structure for any content. Or it’s not even content that I’m talking about here, this is for any business initiative. You need to figure out what your return on investment is going to be on making these changes.

You don’t want to invest a tremendous amount of time, energy, frankly, pain into something for which there is no return on an investment. It just doesn’t make sense. So again, this is part of why you want someone who has done this before to come in and help. They can help you figure out what that return on investment is going to be for reuse and other aspects of your content.

GK:                                     Yeah. And I think that gets into what I see as one of the biggest challenges for moving to structure is you have to invest to get value. And because of that, you have to know what that return on investment is going to be.

And budget and resources tend to be one of the biggest limitations when it comes to making a change like moving to structure. So that is why it’s so important to be able to demonstrate, improve that return on investment before you dive in.

AP:                                     Yeah. And this sounds ridiculous, but you need to invest before you invest. You need to invest some time and money into doing a really good strategy and then think about how you’re going to implement that strategy. Don’t just dive into the tools, that is one of the worst mistakes you can make. And that is not just training content. Trust me.

GK:                                     Absolutely. So I think the overall question that we pose at the beginning or the thought that we pose at the beginning about learning content and structure being mortal enemies, is it possible for them to stop being mortal enemies and for you to get good structured learning content at your organization? And I would say yes, but it does take a lot of work, time and money.

AP:                                     Yeah. It’s a loaded question and maybe a little unfair, but it’s a valid point. You are not just going to go into in a new system, a new way of doing work and expect it to magically work. That is not how it works. It does take some analysis, it takes money and it takes time and patience to get these things to work.

GK:                                     But the good thing is if you do prove that return on investment is going to truly benefit your organization and it’s going to resolve your pain points, then you’re going to know that that investment will be worth it.

AP:                                     Yeah. And we do have clients who have been working in structure for years for their learning and training content. We know it can happen, they know it can happen. So it is possible. Yes, truly.

GK:                                     And I think that’s a really good place to close things out. So thank you so much, Alan.

AP:                                     Thank you, Gretyl.

GK:                                     And thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.