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Content operations for elearning content (podcast)

In episode 149 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and Christine Cuellar discuss the unique challenges, opportunities, and considerations of content operations with elearning content.

As an instructional designer, as a person who’s creating this learning content, you start thinking about, How do I deliver this effectively? How do I ensure that learning actually takes place? That’s our goal here. We want the people to learn the thing.” 

— Sarah O’Keefe

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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’re talking about content operations in e-learning environments and elearning content. Today on the podcast, I have with me Sarah O’Keefe. Hi Sarah, how are you doing?

Sarah O’Keefe: Hey, Christine. I’m doing well.

CC: Thank you so much for being here and talking about this. This is a topic that’s coming up more and more, so I’m excited to dive more into the unique challenges and opportunities of content operations in e-learning content. I guess to get it started, what does the shift from in-person to digital look like for the classroom environment?

SO: Clearly, the trend for this year is AI. Nobody’s going to deny that, but I think this is probably the number two trend that we’re seeing is an interest in content ops for learning content [and elearning content] all of a sudden. Let’s talk a little bit about the history of this. Back when Gutenberg… No, sorry. Sorry. I’m capable of doing a podcast without talking about the printing press, I think. When digital content comes along, let’s backpedal a little bit and think about classroom training. You go into a classroom at a particular location, at a particular day and time. You have a physical environment. You have a bunch of people in the room with you, so you’re the instructor and you have eight or 10 or 15 or 45 students sitting in front of you.

Although some of this applies to school instruction, what I’m focused on and what I have some experience with is adult learners. That’s probably also worth noting on the outset. Many of you I think are familiar with school environments, but what we’re talking about here is adult learners coming in to do some sort of probably corporate training. I walk into the classroom, and we have a particular kind of computer set up because I’m doing software training. I’ve got a bunch of learners in front of me, and some of them are tired because it’s 8:00 AM. I’m cranky because it’s 8:00 AM and I traveled and all the rest of it. In the olden days, we had this setup where you would travel to a location, bring everybody together in a room, and for two or three or five days you would do a class together.

There’s some really interesting stuff that happens when you have a group in a room learning. You get interesting kinds of group dynamics. You’ve always got a class clown heckler, and you can sometimes turn them to your advantage. But additionally, you have physical issues with the classroom. The monitors are terrible, the computers are slow. There’s some commotion outside the classroom that’s going on that’s distracting. The fire alarm goes off at 11:00 AM. You have a variety of learners with different kinds of motivations, but you’ve got this physical environment that you’re dealing with and this requirement to bring everybody together all at once in the same place. Now, as we move towards e-learning where learning content is being delivered online, you can take your classroom and have a classroom online. Everybody comes together in a Zoom or some other kind of video meeting and you’re presenting to them.

In a lot of ways, it mimics what’s going on in the actual classroom, but there are some advantages and disadvantages. The big one is that people get distracted. They have screens open. They go off and do their thing. They drop because they have to take another meeting. They’re at home, they’ve got a barking dog. Now, there are distractions of the office training location also. But online training does not require people to travel, it introduces time zone issues. Nearly always instead of doing let’s say a three-day class all at once, we would do several sessions of two hours a day spread out over a lot more time. Because we don’t have to cram everything into three days because we didn’t fly in the instructor, that’s an online classroom. Then you start thinking about asynchronous training where instead of me presenting in the online classroom, all that stuff gets prerecorded.

Your job as the learner is to go watch the video that I did and then work through the handouts and exercises and things. Then do maybe some sort of interactive online thing, and then maybe there’s a test. There’s a set of assessment questions to show whether or not you’ve learned the material. Then when that happens, you introduce all sorts of other distractions. But the complexity here is that the difference between an in-person classroom environment and some sort of asynchronous online training is actually pretty extreme when you think about it. You take away that in-person interaction. You take away the group dynamics. You don’t necessarily have your buddy that you’re nudging and passing chocolate to and all this. As an instructional designer, as a person who’s creating this elearning content, you start thinking about, “How do I deliver this effectively? How do I ensure that learning actually takes place?” Which is our goal here. We want the people to learn the thing.

CC: Yes

SO: A lot of the tools that are available to me as a classroom instructor are not available in a digital environment, but there are other things that are available. Recorded video’s a really good example because it means that you could go back and watch the video again, or we could provide closed captioning or subtitles for the video. You could speed it up or slow it down. You could have little glossary terminology information that pops up in the video so that as I’m using some weird jargon-y word, it pops up the definition. Lots of stuff you can do. But ultimately, elearning content, more than other kinds of enabling content. If we compare learning content to techcomm content. In techcomm, the shift from a printed book to a PDF to something like online help. There’s been some interactivity and some other things added, but a printed book in general, the reading experience of a printed book versus some text online, it’s really not that different.

Whereas in a classroom when you talk about learning and training as a process, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes on in the classroom that is very, very different in digital. As we start thinking about how do we move and how do we deliver effective e-learning, we have to think about all these issues around the instructional approach, the modality. Is it in-person? Is it not in-person? Is it synchronous or asynchronous, and all the rest of it? That makes for some pretty complex content [including elearning content]. Then we have to think about the content itself, which is of course, where we live. Because I’ve done a lot of training in my days, but I’m not an instructional designer really. But I’m interested in this question of how do I make a learning experience effective? Then we come around to how do we do that in the context of all these cool tools that we have in the content world?

CC: That makes sense. What I’m hearing is that there’s a unique tension for instructional designers where you want to create a somewhat customized experience… Because as you said, getting people to learn the thing is the goal. Creating learning content [including elearning content] that’s going to be effective is the goal. How do you balance the flexibility of being able to create a tailored training deliverable when you are trying to create a more scalable content development process?

SO: Probably the instructor has an outline of some sort. These are the objectives for the class. These are the things I need to communicate to the students. In a classroom environment that looks… Maybe look one way, I’m going to do a little lecture. I’m going to define some stuff. I’m going to have them do a group project. Put two people together, or three, have them work on some things. There’s a lot of different tricks in classroom management. In the e-learning environment, especially if it’s asynchronous, it’s on demand. I can’t really do that. I can’t tell you to go work with your partner sitting at the bench with you because you don’t have a bench or a partner, so you have to do something different. But if you step back and look at it, you have your learning objectives. I want people to learn how to log into the database.

Great. In a classroom setting, I can do that. We’d probably have a sandbox of some sort. They can log in, they can try it out. We can show them how to set their password and show them all the really dumb password rules. The really dumb password rules are the same across the board. Just because you’re in an e-learning class [with elearning content], they don’t change. That 18 bullet points of you have to use at least one special character, but not these special characters. It has to be more than eight characters, but less than 27, that thing. That content is the same, and so I think the trick becomes to identify the things that are the same and the things that are different. What content is the same, and can I basically just deliver in the same way? What content is different? For the classroom, it might say, “Spend five minutes explaining X here. Cover these five bullet points.”

In e-learning, it’s, “Run the video,” or some sort of an interactive environment where they can do stuff. The objectives are the same. The way that you deliver may be different. I think the really interesting part about this is identifying that pretty carefully and then plugging it in. This one’s only for e-learning and this one’s only for classroom, or this one’s only for a certain kind of audience. To take the dumb database login example, am I talking to users or am I talking to database administrators? If you’re a database admin, you probably have a different set of options than you do if you’re a generic user. Do we have a different class or let’s say a different lesson on logging in? Or is it the same lesson but the admin gets a couple of extra paragraphs about weirdo things that they’re allowed to do but we don’t show those to the user when you’re doing a user-level class? You have that sort of conditionality potentially.

But I think the real key here is to focus less on the form of the delivery and more on what is the backbone of the class. What are the learning objectives and how do I deliver those learning objectives in different kinds of modalities, and different delivery mechanisms? Also, where’s the overlap? If I’m teaching you how to use a particular kind of corporate software, probably lesson one across the board is how to log in for every single class. Unless of course… There might be a basic class and an advanced class. In the advanced class, we assume you already know how to log in. But it’s really, really common to have a series of classes. You’re a bank and the tellers get one kind of training, and the bank manager gets a different kind of training, and the… I’ve run out of banking roles that I know about. But you… Mortgage officers!

CC: Yeah, there we go. That’s one. I was like, “I had nothing.”

SO: You think about it though, and how to log into banking system is probably going to be pretty much the same and delivered in lots and lots and lots and lots of different classes as lesson one. That’s great, but you need a system that allows you to write the canonical how-to log in, and then use it over and over and over again across all these… Not just all these different audiences, but all these different delivery mechanisms. Whether I’m in the classroom or I’m online or I’m here or there, I want that here’s how you log in and here’s our password policy to be delivered to have the same content delivered so that all my people learn what they need to learn in whatever learning environment.

Right now, and I said this was one of our trends for this year, what we’re hearing from the people that are coming to us and talking to us about learning content is, “Yeah, I have how to log in procedure or a how to log in lesson, but what I actually have is 10 copies of it, or 20 because they’re all stashed in different systems and I have no way of actually managing them. I just make a copy and make the version for the teller, or I make a copy and I make the version for the database admin. I can’t share, I can’t link them. I can’t do anything other than make copies.”

CC: Which creates a lot of clutter, I guess you would say, in the content system. I’m sure that that leads to inaccuracies. That could lead to… That’s just also a lot of busy work on the part of the instructor. If it’s already done once, why repeat it a bunch of times? What I really like about what you’re saying is there’s a huge piece of intentionality that ties back to what are our goals for all of this elearning content? What are we trying to accomplish and what do we want people to take away from this? Then that is informing what content gets created and how that content gets developed and produced.

I like that because I’m sure as organizations grow and develop, they’re trying to catch up with learning content and get people what they need while they’re doing a myriad of other business functions, trying to keep things going. Taking a step back to really assess what your learning content is doing and where it’s going seems like a really valuable piece of this process. However, that also sounds like there’s a lot to do within that. What options do people have when it comes to managing their learning content? Is it basically a one track that you recommend? Are there a ton of options? Where do people get started when they’re trying to move in this direction?

SO: It’s tricky because we have to actually think about managing learning content and maybe separately managing learning. Let me start with the second one. When you talk about managing learning, it’s once I put this class together, whether e-learning or classroom or anything else, let’s say that there’s a requirement that you take a particular class and you take a particular assessment or test and you pass it at a certain level. Learning management or learner management tracks that. Have you taken the class? Did you take the assessment? Did you pass? Are you off the hook for sexual harassment training for this year? That type of thing. It’s kind of like a front-end learner experience, learner interaction. Also, there’s some really interesting things you can do around learner behavior. Everybody’s watching this video, but they all watch it at double speed, and it’s pretty clear that they’re just trying to get through it as fast as possible.

Then they’re all passing the assessment at nine out of 10 questions correct. That indicates that either your content is really good or the questions are too easy, or who knows? But a learning management system, an LMS, allows you to track those kinds of things. If you think of a school… We’re talking about adults probably. But if you think about a school, you have attendance and grades and tests and report cards, all that stuff is learning management, basically. That’s the front end. That’s where I as a learner and then the instructor as a teacher interacts with the system. Separately from that, we have the backend, which would be probably the learning content management system or an LCMS. Sometimes this is done in component content management systems. An LCMS is a content management system tuned for learning content, and a CCMS is a component content management system, which could be used as an LCMS.

CC: Oh, okay. But it’s not necessarily specifically an LCMS?

SO: It’s not necessarily explicitly, “Hey, I was built for learning content,” but maybe it is.

CC: That makes sense.

SO: Then you’ll find some LCMSs that say, “We’re totally a CCMS.” So, welcome to my world. We are creating learning content [including elearning content] and we are delivering it into all these different delivery channels and delivery experiences like synchronous learning online and asynchronous elearning content and classroom, maybe. Probably not. I don’t do a lot… Aside from the pandemic, which is a big aside from. But classroom training is rare these days. It used to be everything, and now everything’s online, which is a whole other thing. You can make effective online training, but it’s not easy. It’s much easier to pick a fun, dynamic, entertaining instructor and put them in a room. That’s how you make good training in a classroom environment. It’s just that it costs a fortune and people have to travel and they have to be in the same room.

There’s all these constraints, and it’s super expensive. We have our learning content management of some sort, and now what we want to do is go down the line of all the standard content management systems and think about how we’re going to do this. What information can I reuse across multiple delivery channels, multiple audiences, and multiple places in my system? Where do I have information like my user versus admin distinction where I need to use some sort of conditionality? This paragraph should only go over here. The canonical old-school example of this was a test and an answer key. The students get the test. The instructor, we hope, is the only one that gets the test with the answer key. But that’s really a conditional text problem. How do I suppress the answer key? Rather than making two copies of the test, you have one copy of the test. When you render it for the student, you don’t show the answers. Of course, now we can put it in a learning management system and have it present the question to you [for your elearning content].

 You check the box or you type in your answer or you do whatever, and then it says that was correct or incorrect because the system has that data. Components, how do I break down a class into lessons, learning objectives, and then learning objects that go with that? How can I mix and match and repurpose those learning objects to put together what I’m trying to do? You think of this as just this puddle of instructional content of learning objects. Then I want to sequence them in a certain way. They have to build on each other. You can’t go around telling people how to do SQL commands before you teach them what a relational database is. There’s sequencing implied there, and there are prerequisites and hierarchy. If you’re doing hands-on kind of training, hardware training, you very often have prereqs like, “Here’s the equipment that you need to do this. You need a screwdriver and you need this and you need that and you need the other.”

You need physical objects and you need to make sure everyone has them at hand or has them in their class or whatever. If you’re doing e-learning, you probably have interactive components. Again, instead of an instructor lecture, you’re going to have a video, or you’re going to have maybe a hands-on environment where people can get into a locked down, safe environment where they can play around with stuff, but it won’t break anything. It’s a fake environment where they can try out certain things without being worried that they’re going to transfer $2 billion inadvertently out of their bank account … which we’re not for that. There are all these different options out there on the backend to create all these learning objects and then think about how you’re going to deliver them in an optimum way for all your different kinds of channels, whether it’s online or my beloved and long-lost classroom and all the rest of it.

CC: We do have more information about optimizing content operations, about learning content. We’ve been doing some blogs and other podcasts, so we’ll have those available in the show notes. Sarah, for someone who’s hearing all of this for maybe the first time or maybe they’re just starting to become aware of this whole new way of thinking about learning content and they’re wanting to move to this approach, I’m sure they’re in the middle of everything that they’re doing already. They’re in the middle of producing content. It’s an overwhelming prospect, so where would they get started?

SO: The ideal answer is, of course, to call us up and bring us in to help you. But assuming you’re not quite ready for that today, I would actually suggest that you go look at our learning data site. If you go to, you’re going to see an online e-learning environment [and structured elearning content]. Now, I’m not going to tell you that it is necessarily the best possible, most amazing experience in the world, but it’s effective. Here’s the key, you can look at that site and you can also, if you dig into the About page and how was the site put together, it will tell you where the files live for that site because they’re all open-source.

There’s a whole bunch of, in this case, DITA XML underlying the site, which then is pulled into a stack that involves WordPress and LearnDash. Which is, as I said, a learning management, an LMS system that sits on top of WordPress. You could take a look at how that’s put together and how the source files are then transformed into the learning experience for e-learning. Of course, we can also from that, do PDF handouts. I think we do have some slides in there and all these other things. I think that might give you a reasonable idea of what it looks like to think about learning content as being flexible objects that you can remix and repurpose.

CC: That’s great. We’ll have Learning Data linked in the show notes as well. It’s really easy to check it out. It’s completely free and that’s a great idea. Sarah, thanks so much for talking about this. Is there anything else you can think of that you want people who are interested in learning more to know? Is there anything you feel like we haven’t covered or any other nuances about e-learning content that you’d like to address?

SO: E-learning content or learning content is complex because we’re not just dealing with the question of how do I get it on a printed page? But also that question of how will a learner engage with this content? I think that focusing on that question, focusing on how do I make this as effective as possible across all these different delivery mechanisms is probably the key to making this work. Then secondly, the universal theme that we’re hearing from our learning content friends is we can’t keep up. There’s too much stuff. There are too many deliverables. There’s too much change. Everything is going really, really fast. What we’re describing here, a component-based approach to managing learning content [including elearning content] has the potential to address that and to help you manage the velocity that you’re being required to manage. Finally, I’ll also say that we didn’t touch on localization and translation. We do have the ability within an environment like this to support localization in a reasonable manner. That’s another potential reason that you might need to go in this direction.

CC: That’s great. Thank you so much, Sarah, for being here. I really appreciate your time, and-

SO: Thank you!

CC: … letting me pick your brain about this [elearning content and content operations]. This was great.

SO: Anytime.

CC: 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.