Written by:

Holly Macdonald


January 13, 2016

There are times when it seems that when training is suggested, it always means “a course”. In North America, a course means a single instance of programmed instruction (an e-learning module, a 2 day workshop). It may have different connotations elsewhere (in the UK, it can mean a series of related workshops/events). But many training needs are put in a “course” format unnecessarily. The reality is that an instructional designer has many tools in his/her toolbox and the trick is to determine which one is the best fit for the need.

Here are some times where a course makes sense:

Multiple steps in a process

Say you have to train people on a process that has multiple steps and there’s some context or reasoning behind why it needs to be done in a certain way. A course would be a good fit here, as it’s probably too many things for someone to remember the right order and all the details that would go into it. Actually in this situation a course PLUS a “Quick Refresher Card” would be an ideal combination. This is common in corporate settings, but could also apply to many other types of training: citizen science, software training, medical procedures, flight training, etc.

How to do something that has many possible options

Your target audience can follow a path down many side-shoots and you want them to understand and react to the consequences of many of them. Unless you are training animals, there are many elements of modern work that aren’t black and white, and you need to ensure your target audience knows enough of the consequences without learning them the hard way. While we think that business is automated through technology, the reality is there are many small decision points in most jobs all day long. How to respond to a customer. What to do when your estimating is out of whack on production work. What advertising campaign to choose for your new product. Which strategy to pursue to maximize earnings. How to diagnose or triage something. Again – doesn’t need to be corporate, it could apply to creative work, volunteer committees, leisure activities, etc.

Lots to learn and a definite order exists

In some organizations, employees are dealing with hundreds of products or services (or combinations) and need to be able to market, sell, support, make or otherwise learn about them in a way that makes the most sense. Let’s say you have one product line where you put things in a room, like furniture and a service where you build the room as well. One employee services the clients who will often use both products and services. They need to learn about the furniture and then they need to learn about the room. Then they’d need to learn about what things to do to make sure the room and furniture go together effortlessly. If you focus on the room specifications first, then the employee may spend hours trying to get up to speed on the furniture. If they learn about the furniture first, they may have a better understanding of how to select furniture for the room. Emergency management comes to mind as well. You can’t just wing that.

There’s a right way

While it would be nice if we could assume that everyone could learn socially, there are a couple of not so great realities in that method: first, the co-worker/peer might not know what they are doing, so you end up having an untrained person training another one. Secondly, in some (many?) organizations, there’s a lot of boring stuff that you have to learn. And you are not really going to seek out others to learn it. Mostly you just want to get it over with, so a lot of shortcuts and just plain ignoring it happens. Third, the company is counting on focused execution of strategy and/or brand messaging and actually needs you to learn the right way, not just any old way. So, a course here is best. It meets the needs of the audience and organization.

Consequences are significant

Might be life or death. Might be significant harm or cost. Your audience really needs to learn this stuff. And not just learn it in the “I can google it if I get stuck” way. This is the type of stuff that a course was made for. It could be a hands-on, extremely experiential course, but it’s a classic situation that needs a training course. Don’t be afraid to prescribe a course. Just make sure if you do, that you create a damn good one.

Otherwise, you/your instructional designer will look through the entire toolbox to see if there’s a better fit for the need:

  • Need to fix something, once (say a household appliance part) – well, unless you are planning to get into household repair, a good video or asking an expert would be best.
  • Need to remember the steps for something not terribly hard, but consequences of mixing up the steps is significant (say giving your car battery a jump start) – a good illustrated job aid would do the trick.
  • Building habits over time, for example learning about nutrition – a “drip” campaign (subscription course) could be ideal

The reality is that most situations might need a more integrated approach and a good instructional designer will put together the best combination of instructional tools to help address the training need.