Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

11 August 2015

Content engineering

Clark @ 8:09 AM

We’ve heard about learning engineering and while the focus is on experience design, the pragmatics include designing content to create the context, resources, and motivation for the activity.  And it’s time we step beyond just hardwiring this content together, and start treating it as professionals.

Look at business websites these days. You can customize the content you’re searching for with filters.  The content reacts to the device you’re on and displays appropriately.  There can even be content that is specific to your particular trace of action through the site and previous visits.  Just look at Amazon or Netflix recommendations!

This doesn’t happen by hardwired sites anymore.  If you look at the conferences around content, you’ll find that they’re talking industrial strength solutions.  They use content management systems, carefully articulated with tight definitions and associated tags, and rules that pull together those content elements by definition into the resulting site.  This is content engineering, and it’s a direction we need to go.

What’s involved is tighter templates around content roles, metadata describing the content, and management of the content. You write into the system, describe it, and pull it out by description, not by hard link. This allows flexibility and rules that can pull differentially by different contexts: different people, different role, different need, and different device. We also separate out what it says from how it looks, using tags to support rendering appropriately on different devices rather than hard-coding the appearance as well as the content and the assembly.

This is additional work, but the reasons are several.  First, being tighter around content definitions provides a greater opportunity to be scientific about the role the content plays. We’re too lax in our content, so that beyond a good objective, we don’t specify what makes a good example, etc.   Second, by using a system to maintain that content, we can get more rigorous in content management.  I regularly ask audiences whether they have outdated legacy content hanging around, and pretty much everyone agrees. This isn’t effective content governance, and content should have regular cycles of review and expiry dates.

By this tighter process, we not only provide better content design, delivery, and management, but we set the stage for the future.  Personalization and customization, contextualization, are hampered when you have to hand-configure every option you will support. It’s much easier to write a new set of rules and then your content can serve new purposes, new business models, and more.

If you want to know more about this, I hope to see you at my session on content at DevLearn!


  1. Clark,
    Thank you for this post. I believe the mLearnCon 2014 keynote Karen McGrane expressed this as well with the message that only companies that SEPARATE content from delivery method will survive.

    Robust, or possibly even “anti-fragile” (I just finished reading Taleb’s book), instructional systems need to handle changes in content, changes in the way content is presented, and changes to adapt to the individual student. You include content templates and metadata to facilitate this and I completely agree that they are fundamental to the way we need to manage learning objects (content).

    Does your concept of content engineering include feedback loops? Without a solid evaluation metric in place, flexibility of pulling various content could lead to inefficiencies rather than learning improvements (I am talking here about a single dynamic training system over time). I would like to see an emphasis on ongoing training system evaluation along with the rigorous content management.

    Enjoy DevLearn!

    Comment by Anne Knowles — 7 September 2015 @ 5:28 PM

  2. Anne, thanks for the feedback. Yes, I do believe in feedback loops, the content management part of this includes establishing evaluation cycles and responsibility. You need content strategy, engineering, and management to work in concert. We definitely do need to move away from the ‘if we build it, it is good’ mentality.

    Comment by Clark — 9 September 2015 @ 9:04 AM

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