How Evolution of the Web Is Shaping Learning’s Future

Excerpt from Chapter 5: Key Skills for Instructional Designers for Learning-on-Demand from “Learning on Demand” by Reuben Tozman (ASTD, October 2012).

By Reuben Tozman

What will the learning-on-demand world require from an instructional designer? What skills does an instructional designer need to be successful?

Keeping up with the evolution of technology is a daunting task for all of us. You might be thinking to yourself, “How do I, as an instructional designer, focus on what’s important and not have to worry about programming or technical builds?” If the paradigm for delivering learning content will shift toward a learning-on-demand model, as practitioners in the education and learning industry we need to consider how to do things differently.

The big question is: What does an instructional designer need to be doing differently as a designer? Instructional designers already possess many core skills that will make them successful—and probably already have. Also, of course, they need to learn new, unique skills required to capitalize on the Web’s evolving nature.

New Skills a Designer Needs to Develop

Today, instructional designers possess or have easy access to three types of skills that will serve them well:

  • Developing business analysis skills, including needs analysis or front-end analysis
  • Applying learning theory to help in modeling instruction
  • Communicating ideas, concepts, processes, and skills

Some of the new skills an instructional designer needs to acquire are

  • Content modeling
  • Managing content
  • Analyzing engagement through analytics

Let’s look briefly at each of these skills.

Content Modeling

For the instructional designer, content modeling is simply defining and analyzing the content requirements needed to support the business processes within the context of the learning-on-demand system. Content modeling is the glue that binds the learning-on-demand system to the business processes using content. It entails looking at business processes and determining the content required to support the different checkpoints in the process, determining who and in what context will they access the content, and establishing what format the content is required to be in. This will ensure that the learning-on-demand system is able to support the business processes as part of the information technology ecology supporting all business operations, through the proper delivery of content at the right times, in the right formats, for the right people.

In today’s “big data” world, this means being able to search for and retrieve the information you need in real time. A content model that is improperly structured will only contribute to the problem of big data as opposed to taming it.

The Role of Content Management

When internal clients call the training department and ask, “What training do you have on customer service?” it may take days if not weeks to find what training does, in fact, exist. We don’t have solid ways to manage, organize, and track our existing content. Content may live in multiple locations or have multiple versions—and there are a number of ways for things to get lost in translation.

The role of the instructional designer in a learning-on-demand system is providing the right kind of access, to the right people, at the right time. At its core, this is content management. Content management is about managing the smallest piece of content that needs to be managed independently from other pieces of content. If content A and content B are always delivered and presented together, there is no need to manage them independently from one another. However, if content A gets recombined with content C and content D, then content A needs to be managed independently from everything else.

All too often, those who implement content management systems create unnecessary layers of management for the possibility of one day managing a piece of content independently. Take a minimalist approach at first, so the additional layers of management you create do not appreciably add to the work later to retrieve information and logically string information together.

In the case of learning content, the entire exercise of content modeling is intended to contribute to a content management strategy. As more organizations implement newer technologies and newer systems to manage content, training and development staff members need to be at the table when the organization is defining its taxonomy, which is the output of its content model—that is, the language used to describe its various levels of content management. As a learning practitioner, if you are not prepared to sit at the table when your organization is implementing content management, it will only open a gap between the organization’s true needs and your functional role. But if you arrive ready to contribute to the taxonomy and have a content model in place, you will demonstrate the link between organizational performance and training and development.

The Role of Web Analytics

From a skills perspective, instructional designers need to be able to find patterns within data reports and build cases for fine-tuning the learning-on-demand system so it can more efficiently encourage optimal employee performance. Instructional designers and e-learning practitioners have been stewing in conventional reports coming out of the learning management system that do little other than provide data that, left to its own silo, can have no meaningful impact on learning or performance. The typical learning practitioner is trained to look for outcomes instead of looking at data streams—which would be much more useful.

A data stream is the flow of data that is being collected and stored continuously by systems that are tracking various behaviors of users. Analytics allows us to look at the most recently collected data points or to expand the aperture of time and look at a single point over a period. You can also adjust the lens of data points to focus on multiple points over a period or at a single moment in time. Understanding user experiences requires all these variations.

Advancing the field of learning analytics so it can become more useful means instructional designers need to shift their focus away from the traditional, binary analytics common in learning (such as passed/failed, complete/incomplete) and refocus their attention on analytic streams. Thus, instead of recording a score on a test, if an instructional designer wants to know if a design has made an impact, he or she could measure how often content gets shared, where the user goes after seeing the content, and what conversations about the content people are having. All these measurable activities give the instructional designer a better sense of whether the design has been effective for the user.

The purpose of looking at streams of data and the power of contemporary Web analytics contribute to the cross-pollination of evidence that can suggest behavior changes in a target content consumer group. In other words, our goal is to discern how content is affecting our users. So the data received from our learning management systems today are not by default bad; they are simply too incomplete to suggest whether an organization has done something right or wrong. Adding additional analytic streams, coming from various angles of a business, serve to potentially connect what auditors want to see and the business’ performance.

Excerpt from Chapter 5: Key Skills for Instructional Designers for Learning-on-Demand from “Learning on Demand” by Reuben Tozman (ASTD, October 2012).

Reuben Tozman is the founder and chief learning officer of edCetra Training. He obtained his Master’s degree in educational technology from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec in 1998 and has worked in the field of technology-based training since. An instructional designer, Tozman managed production teams and product development and founded edCetra Training in 2002. He has been a member of standards committees such as DITA for Learning and is the author of “Learning on Demand: How the Evolution of Technology Is Shaping the Future of Learning.” For more information, visit

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