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Tim Cliffe - Blog

Identifying Content Development Structures for Large Courseware

01 Target Audience

Image of a globe with land as a brain, on a digital background.


(01.1) Anyone involved in the definition and development of large course structures.

02 Executive Summary

(02.1) Producing large courses, be they presented in a traditional format, or on-line, presents challenges in structuring learning content.


(02.2) This article uses a scenario, with two possible solutions, as a vehicle for discussion. Although the scenario is fictitious, the issues, method, and solution are based on personal experience gained whilst working on three unrelated projects.

03 Structure of This Article

  • (04) Introduction
  • (05) The Scenario
  • (06) Option 1 - Divide Project into FW and RW
  • (07) Option 2 - Conduct a Knowledge Structure Analyse (KSA)
  • (08) The Solution
  • (09) A Simplified Example
  • (10) Identifying The Solution
  • (11) Supportive Development Software

04 Introduction

(04.1) Large commercial courses are often concerned with inter-related activities within a large organisation, or a single, complex, activity.


(04.2) For example:
  • The military - Many overlapping knowledge functions are executed in diverse settings, such as Fixed-wing (FW) pilots and Rotary-wing (RW), helicopter, pilots operating in an air force, a navy, or an army;
  • Transportation - There are various vehicle types, such as cars and lorries, each having specific requirements, but also with many areas of commonality.
(04.3) In fact, the above examples give a clue to meeting the challenges, presented by large courses, of managing large amounts of knowledge, as efficiently as possible.


(04.4) I will use the military example, as a basis for the scenario, as I have knowledge of FW and RW pilot and crew training subject matter,


Select The Scenario to begin.



Image of a Becchcraft Texan T6 and Juno Helicopter.

(05.1) You are at the beginning of a large project to develop FW and RW pilot and crew training.


(05.2) The customer delivers FW pilot and crew training separately to RW pilot and crew training.


(05.3) Your team has been presented with:
  • The complete FW and RW pilot and crew training syllabi;
  • A complete reference of FW and RW pilot and crew training documentation;
  • Details of the FW and RW training schools and staff;
  • Details of FW and RW Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).
(05.4) Both FW and RW pilot and crew undergo broad-based Ground School Training, on the appropriate aircraft type, including basic principles of aviation. Pilots and crew then progress through Basic and Advanced Flying Training on specific aircraft.


(05.5) The procurement of the courseware coincides with the introduction of aircraft new to the pilot and crew training activity. Various (currently unknown) specifications of the aircraft concerned are likely to change during the period of courseware development.


What is your next step? Select Option 1 or Option 2, to continue the scenario.


06.1 Introduction

(06.1.1) It is clear from the outset, the customer delivers FW and RW training independently and has two separate:
  • Training schools;
  • Groups of school staff;
  • Groups of SMEs;
  • Syllabi;
  • Cohorts of trainees.
(06.1.2) Obviously, the project should be split into two production streams:
  1. FW course production;
  2. RW course production.
(06.1.3) This approach faithfully reflects the customer's staffing structure, facilities structure, and activities.


(06.1.4) FW lessons will start production ahead of RW. This will provide an opportunity for FW lesson development to act as a testing ground for procedures and policies prior to RW lesson production.


(06.1.5) The approach and rationale are presented to the customer, who signs-off that stage of the programme, and the FW and RW Teams begin the task of planning production.

06.2 As Time Goes On

Image of Fixed-wing and Rotary=wing aircraft and content structure.


(06.2.1) The lessons for FW Ground School Training are nearing completion and the lessons for FW Basic Flying Training are underway. Basic Flying Training is where trainee pilots and crew progress from the classroom to the basic flying training aircraft.


(06.2.2) Dozens of lessons are now ready for the next stage of review, together with hundreds of media assets: graphics; animations; and 3D simulations.


(06.2.3) In the meantime, RW lessons have begun production.

06.3 This Content Looks Familiar

(06.3.1) After a while, some of the FW Instructional Designers are noticing the content in Basic Flying Training lessons is similar, sometimes identical, to content found in the Ground School lessons. They are also noticing some of the media they are specifying, for the Basic Flying Training lessons, are variations of media produced for Ground School lessons.


(06.3.2) Management and the customer review the situation. It is decided, where lesson content is very similar or identical, content will be copied to new lessons, and existing media modified, as required. This will significantly improve production rates and save time and effort.


(06.3.3) In the meantime, the RW Team have identified similar patterns and, following consultation, adopt the practices of the FW Team.


(06.3.4) Time and production, for FW and RW Teams, moves on.


(06.3.5) It becomes increasingly clear, to both FW and RW Teams, as production progresses through the various levels of pilot and crew training, a significant percentage of content is either duplicated, or is the same information modified for different audiences.

06.4 Media Re-use

(06.4.1) As production progresses, the Media Team are noticing a significant increase in the re-use or modification of existing media assets.


(06.4.2) Although all media assets have unique identifiers and are associated with the original lesson, for which they were specified, there is no programmatical system for recording and tracking re-used media, or modified re-used media.

06.5 Lesson Review and Amendment

(06.5.1) In the meantime, lesson and media asset production continues.


(06.5.2) Lessons, previously produced, are making their way through the various stages of review, by the customer. As a result, amendments need to be made to lesson text and media content.


(06.5.3) The implications of lesson review, not only for the lessons concerned, but for other completed and in-production lessons, where text and media content has been duplicated, are becoming significant.


(06.5.4) Lessons with duplicated, or similar, content are now having to be re-visited to ensure consistency, and to avoid future review issues. The task is complicated by the organic evolution of measures to address previously identified concerns. The absence of programmatical systems, to support the tracking of such matters, is causing additional complications. The resulting diversion of effort and resources is impacting on project milestones.


(06.5.5) To further complicate matters, the specifications of aircraft, new to the pilot training activity, have changed, as indicated in The Scenario. This results in the need to identify all (what are now) out-of-date instances and up-date all affected lessons produced so far. Further, unconfirmed, changes to aircraft specification are in the pipe-line.


(06.5.6) Management discuss the mounting problems presented by the need to categorise and track both unique and duplicated content. The retrospective implementation of a new programmatical system, to manage the identification of unique and duplicated content, is fraught with difficulty:
  • Staff and time required to develop the solution;
  • Time required to identify unique and duplicated/modified assets, and the lessons to which they belong;
  • Time required to identify lessons with unique/duplicated textual content;
  • Time required to align assets and lessons with the requirements of the new system, e.g., metadata structures, adding metadata to assets and lesson content;
  • Impact of the activity on the day-to-day requirements of the project.
(06.5.7) Modifications, to an existing system, are implemented. However, time, further impact on project milestones, and unforeseen and increasing costs prevent development of a comprehensive solution to identified issues.


(06.5.8) The project moves toward completion, with management and staff having to cope with the legacy of the project's development structure.


07.1 Introduction

(07.1.1) A Knowledge Structure Analyse (KSA) is planned and conducted. The process takes several months to complete.


Image of a database structure.
A Knowledge Structure Analyse is crucial to identifying relationships between disparate elements of content in large courseware.

07.2 Summary of Findings

(07.2.1) The KSA highlighted a number of important issues for the planning of the project:
  • The method of delivery, by the customer, and the use of the resource by trainees has no bearing on the management of the content by the project;
  • Content within the FW syllabus is duplicated at various levels of progression and across various target audiences, such, as Ground School Training, Basic Flying Training, Advanced Flying Training, and Rear Crew;
  • Content within the RW syllabus is duplicated at various levels of progression and across various target audiences, such, as Ground School Training, Basic Flying Training, Advanced Flying Training, and Rear Crew;
  • Content across the FW and RW syllabi is found to be common;
  • Common content, across and within the two syllabi, must be identified and structured to ensure consistency and accuracy across the courseware;
  • Aircraft specifications are likely to change. Supporting systems must record the necessary categorisation metadata for all content elements (not only duplicated content), and ensure content elements are identifiable, should content need to be up-dated in the future.
  • The Rapid Development Tool (RDT) only provides the ability to duplicate content at the page/screen level, however, changing the master page/screen will change all copy page/screens, and vice-versa. The tracking system, referenced above, must be able to effectively manage the need to duplicate pages/screens;
  • When an original media request is made, the system must be able to correlate the original media request with any future re-use and/or amendment of the original media and to which lesson the re-use/amended media belongs. The system must allow such instances to be identifiable;
  • Technical Authoring and Instructional Design Standards must be devised to support the re-use of content, where necessary, with the minimum, ideally with no, editing.
  • Effective means of communication must exist between the project, schools' staff and SMEs to ensure a common and co-ordinated approach;
  • There must be an efficient means of identifying when any future up-dates, to aircraft and procedures, occur, to ensure amendments are identified and implemented as quickly as possible, to reduce the legacy overhead. The communication of future up-dates, from the information source, must support and expedite the identification of all affected courseware content.
(07.2.2) The KSA has provided a framework for addressing the identified future needs of the project.


Select sections 08 and 09, in turn, to continue. If you have not already done so, you may wish to access Option 1, before continuing.


08.1 Introduction

(08.1.1) The Development Proposal described at Option 1 appears perfectly reasonable, as it reflects the behaviour of the customer and their trainees. However, the proposal failed on five main points, the proposal:
  1. Assumed, in effect, a direct causal relationship between how courseware is deployed, and used, and how the development of courseware content should be structured and managed;
  2. Failed to identify existing relationships between various elements of the two syllabi;
  3. Ensured the inability to effectively identify intra- and inter-commonality of the syllabi, by splitting production into two streams, from the outset;
  4. Failed to consider and address the consequences to the project of changing aircraft specifications;
  5. Failed to address the need to maintain the courseware, after initial deployment.

08.2 Two Teams - More than Twice the Problem

(08.2.1) Remember, Option 1 proposed the project be split into two development streams, FW and RW. The issues encountered, following the implementation of Option 1, will be experienced by both teams.


(08.2.2) Not only that, but, as time progressed and the Instructional Designers, Media Team, and Project Managers became more familiar with the broader courseware content, it was realised, content across both teams had been and was being duplicated, with the exception of one team using FW aircraft for illustration, and the other team using helicopters.


(08.2.3) There are many aspects of flying that are the same, regardless of aircraft type, such as:
  • Principles of Flight - Why aircraft can fly;
  • Principles of Navigation;
  • Weather Systems;
  • Flight Planning;
  • Basic Aircraft Instrumentation.

08.3 Courseware Maintenance

(08.3.1) Looking to the future, the courseware will require maintenance, to keep it up-to-date. The legacy of the issues created by Option 1, will be detrimental to the maintenance activity, including the overall cost of the programme.

08.4 Content Deployment vs. Content Structure and Management

(08.4.1) It is certainly true, courseware deployment and courseware content management can be structured in the same way, and is quite common. However, this is coincidental and not proof of an innate relationship between the two.


(08.4.2) How an organisation chooses to structure and manage its courseware development is not known to the user. Often, on a day-to-day basis, this is also not known to the customer. A valid content management structure is firstly based on an understanding of the content, not on where and when the customer will use the content.

08.5 Content Relationships and Commonality

(08.5.1) The fundamental failure of the Development Proposal of Option 1 was not identifying the principle objective of the courseware.


(08.5.2) In essence, the Development Proposal identified two objectives:
  1. Teach people about FW aircraft;
  2. Teach people about RW aircraft.
(08.5.3) This resulted in the splitting of production into two streams, from the outset. The consequences of which are described at Option 1.


(08.5.4) What the Development Proposal should have identified is one objective... Teach people to fly.


(08.5.5) The project team is now focused on a review of both materials, at the same time, which identifies information:
  1. Common to FW and RW;
  2. Common between FW lessons;
  3. Common between RW lessons.
(08.5.6) This, in turn, leads to a rationalisation of the content of both syllabi and discussions that identify essential systems and practices to support the project.


(08.5.7) These discussions will draw together (not isolate, as at Option 1) the management, instructional designers, media team, and SMEs to identify relationships between content, resulting in effective co-operation in the production of FW and RW courseware.
Further, as The Scenario identifies, the aircraft new to the training activity are not in a design-frozen condition, therefore, the specification of systems and components, and consequently various procedures, are likely to change, and will need to be tracked and managed.

08.6 Conclusion

(08.6.1) The importance of conducting a KSA is clear. Doing so ensures all interested parties are brought together from the very start, and the project benefits from the contributed knowledge and experience of all involved.


09.1 Introduction

(09.1.1) The Solution identified a number of subjects common to both FW and RW training. One such subject was Aircraft Instrumentation.


(09.1.2) For the purposes of this example, content across the two syllabi, for Ground School Training - Basic Aircraft Instrumentation, was essentially identical.


(09.1.3) Further, the content progression of the subject, through the courseware, was found to be similar for both FW and RW.

09.2 KSA for Aircraft Instrumentation

Image of text 'For Example:'.


(09.2.1) The content for FW and RW was identified as:
  • Ground School Training:
    • Basic Aircraft Instrumentation;
  • Basic Flying Training:
    • Review of Basic Aircraft Instrumentation;
    • Aircraft specific Instrumentation;
  • Advanced Flying Training:
    • Review of Basic Aircraft Instrumentation;
    • Aircraft specific Instrumentation.
(09.2.2) With appropriate Technical Authoring and Instructional Design standards in place, lessons could be developed as follows:
  • Basic Aircraft Instrumentation - Each section including a summative page/screen, authored with re-use in mind;
  • Basic Flying Training - Comprising the summative pages/screens from Basic Aircraft Instrumentation together with aircraft specific content;
  • Advanced Flying Training - Comprising the summative pages/screens from Basic Aircraft Instrumentation together with aircraft specific content.

09.3 The Reward

(09.3.1) In the above example, the total number of lessons, for FW and RW, is six. With the exception of 'aircraft specific' elements and FW and RW aircraft graphical media, the remainder of the content can be the same.


(09.3.2) With the issues identified at Option 1 in mind, the benefits for productivity, content accuracy and consistency, media production and organisation, review, and courseware maintenance are significant.


(09.3.3) These benefits will cascade throughout the courseware with incremental effect for learners, the customer, the organisation, and employees.


(09.3.4) The KSA has more than paid its way.


(09.3.5) The methodology used to identify the solution is described in the next section.


Select sections 10 and 11, in turn, to conclude the article.


10.1 Introduction

(10.1.1) It's all very well writing a scenario where the outcome is known, but how is the best approach identified? How can any large project, in the real world, be tackled?


(10.1.2) This section will explain the principles behind the methodology.

10.2 The Methodology

Image of tables from a database.


(10.2.1) The methodology used, to identify how to best structure content, is well known in the field of database design. This section cannot teach database design, table structures, and data normalisation, in depth. However, there are simple principles that can be used to manage the content of large courses, or for that matter any large data structure.

10.3 There is Only One Car in the World

(10.3.1) Identifying the best way to structure large amounts of information is understanding why the statement "There is only one car in the world" is true. This understanding is the reason why Option 2 is the best solution, and why Option 1 should never be considered.


(10.3.2) For example, if you are given 100 photographs, each showing a single car, and you are asked to identify every vehicle type shown, you will say "car" 100 times.


(10.3.3) If you are asked to identify the marques of car, in the photographs, you might say "Jaguar, Ford, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW". As all Jaguars, Fords, Volkswagens, Audis, and BMWs (in the photographs) are cars, this strongly suggests marque must be a sub-set of car. Let's check if that is true:
  • Are all cars Jaguars? - No
  • Are all Jaguars cars? - Yes
Jaguar is a sub-set of 'car'.


(10.3.4) If Jaguars are a sub-set of 'car', all marques are a sub-set of 'car', therefore, there is only one car in the world.


(10.3.5) This method can be continued. Each marque of car has various models, each model has various attributes, such as year of manufacture, colour, engine type, and so on.


(10.3.6) This approach can be related to the solution for the scenario:
  • Option 1 - Incorrectly identified two types of flying, FW and RW, and all the content as sub-sets of one or the other;
  • The Solution identifies FW and RW training as sub-sets of a, yet unidentified, 'Parent Set'. The KSA effectively identifies, what could be called, 'vehicles that fly' as the 'Parent Set'. The content of both syllabi then become sub-sets of 'vehicles that fly'.
Image of tables from a database.
The effective identification of content relationships significantly improves content accuracy and consistency, and reduces development, review and maintenance efforts.


(10.3.7) In this Simplified Example, Aircraft Instrumentation is correctly identified as a sub-set of 'vehicles that fly'. Consequently, FW Aircraft Instrumentation and RW Aircraft Instrumentation are identified as sub-sets of Aircraft Instrumentation. This identification ultimately avoids the issues encountered in Option 1.

10.4 Courseware Development Software

(10.4.1) I am certain readers of this article will have already identified the issue of courseware development software, and how it supports, or not, the methodology described. This will be the subject of the last section.


11.1 Introduction

Image of RDT software companies.


(11.1.1) Today, many large courses are developed as e-learning using Rapid Development Tools (RDT), to design and develop the courseware.


(11.1.2) For organisations that design and develop e-learning, the investment in a chosen RDT is often considerable. Consequently, simply choosing to adopt an additional, or alternative, RDT represents a substantial investment of time and money.


(11.1.3) Therefore, the design and functionality, of a chosen RDT, often dictates what can and cannot be achieved, with regard to courseware content management.

11.2 RDT Functionality

(11.2.1) Although many RDTs have similar ways of producing e-learning, their supportive functionalities vary considerably. It is only with use the full benefits and limitations of a particular RDT become evident.


(11.2.2) A large e-learning courseware could be said to comprise:
  1. Streams containing Topics
  2. Topics containing Lessons
  3. Lessons containing Chapters
  4. Chapters containing Individual Pages
  5. Individual Pages containing Text and Pictorial Media
  6. Individual Pictorial Media content
  7. Individual Textual content
(11.2.3) To achieve the degree of content management required by The Solution, it must be possible to duplicate and amend lesson content without affecting the master copy, and preserve the relationship between the master content and the duplicated content. Therefore, the RDT must support this capability to at least bullet-point 6 above (ideally to point 7). This will require all content be contained within a relational database, within the RDT.


(11.2.4) I am not aware of an off-the-shelf RDT that permits such a degree of structure, flexibility, and control.
Please inform me, via the Contact page, if you know otherwise.


(11.2.5) However, I am aware of RDTs that support such a capability up to and including bullet-point 5 above. This makes the achievement of The Solution possible, but will require additional means of managing content to track, for example, pages with identical textual content, but different media, as in the case of Basic Aircraft Instrumentation for FW and for RW. The KSA will identify any such need.

11.3 Conclusion

The conclusion is simple, conducting a Knowledge Structure Analysis can be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, however, the consequences of not doing so, especially with large courseware, will almost certainly be far more costly.

Use of this Article

Any part, or all, of this article may be linked-to or copied for non-commercial purposes. Any linked or copied content to include the following...


Identifying Content Development Structures for Large Courseware by Tim Cliffe © 1997-2020.


Where use will be for commercial purposes, seek authorisation, including details of proposed use, via the Contact page.


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