Jul 5, 2022 • 10M

The Minimal Viable Content Framework

A simple method proven to improve learner outcomes, reduce costs & save time by reframing how you think about content

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Connecting the science of learning with the art of learning design
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Transcript & images: Hey folks! Welcome to this the second episode of my Learning Science podcast - it’s great to have you here.

For the new subscribers who have joined us since last week - welcome! I’m Phil and I’ve been researching & experimenting with online & hybrid learning for over 20 years now, as an academic as an instructional designer and, more recently, as a Chief Learning Officer, VP Learning Product & founder in the world of ed tech. 

Today, I’m going to be talking about a concept that I call Minimal Viable Content - a simple but highly effective approach to designing content which has enabled me to significantly improve learner outcomes while increasing my design velocity and reducing my design costs.

Sound good? Let’s dive in!


Content Addiction

A question I get asked often is: what is the #1 problem with online learning experiences?

My answer: we almost always deliver too much content.

80% of the average online learning experience is dedicated to content delivery

Earlier this year I ran rapid review of online courses delivered across K12, HE & corporate L&D globally. I found that, on average, online courses have an 80/10/10 break down:

  • 80% content - videos, audio, images, texts etc

  • 10% activity - multiple choice questions, drag-and-drop etc

  • 10% feedback - automated or responsive feedback on activities

This is pretty bad news for everyone:

  • Learners: are passive, experience cognitive overload and either drop out or (if the experience is mandatory) complete it through mindless box-ticking. In the process, they learn little, if anything, about what they hoped to learn.

  • Learning Designers: spend on average 60% of their time creating, reviewing & editing content. They have limited time for much else, including learning science.

  • Organisations: spend a tonne of money creating content - most often video content - for little Return on Investment.

Why are we so content-happy?

If content doesn’t correlate to learning, why do we spend so much of our time, energy & resource on content creation? I think there are three main reasons:

First, habit: at school & university, content-heavy “sage on the stage” approaches to teaching are king. Online, we reproduce this knowledge transfer pedagogy primarily because it’s what we know (and it worked for us, right?).

Second, technology: as a result of #1, we have built online learning technologies to deliver knowledge transfer pedagogy.

Overwhelmingly, online learning platforms - from Blackboard, Moodle & Canvas to EdX, Udemy & Masterclass - are built to deliver digitised content + knowledge checks.

The proliferation & popularity of content authoring tools like Captivate, Storyline & Rise confirms and continues to compound our content-centric approach to online learning.

Third, training: as a combined result of #1 & #2, most of the training & support we receive as learning designers is about how to use content authoring & content-first technologies. As learning designers, content creation is what we do.

We continue to replicate the knowledge-transfer model online

Introducing: the Minimal Viable Content Framework

Over the last few years, I have run an interesting rubber-band thought exercise during every learning design process I have run.

I call it the Minimal Viable Content framework and it has three steps:

Step 1 Diverge: what would amazing content look like for this learning experience?

This typically results in a brainstormed collection of really exciting but mostly out-of-budget, often high-tech ideas: things like interactive video content, virtual & augmented realities & gamification.

Real-life example: Problem solving skills - “We could create a Roblox-style simulated gaming environment where students solve problems to progress through various levels.”

The Content Mindset: the more expensive & complex, the better

Step 2 Converge: what would this learning experience look like if we didn’t create any content at all?

What if we weren’t able to create or curate any content, and instead could only set problems for learners to get to a solution under their own steam?

This typically results in a sea of confused faces followed by a series of lightbulb moments.

Real-life example: Problem solving skills - “We could ask learners to solve a defined problem using whatever resources they have access to and prefer, e.g. Google, YouTube etc.

This would help us test how well they frame & explore problems, as well as how well they solve them. It would also make the experience more personalised and adaptive.”

Creative Constraints: entering the no new content zone

Step 3 Decide: what is the Minimal Viable Content required for this learning experience to hit its outcomes?

Typically this shifts from defaulting to “a series of short video lectures covering X topics” to short prompt content (text, video, audio) to:

  • Set up problems or challenges

  • Provide scaffolding for problem solving

  • Provide feedback once the problem is solved


The Impact of the Minimal Viable Content Approach

Typically, using the MVC exercise results in a shift from 80/10/10 to 10/80/10 designs, i.e.

  • 10% content - videos, audio, images, texts etc (often curated, rather than created)

  • 80% activity - solving problems out in the world (not just in-platform)

  • 10% feedback - automated or responsive feedback on outputs from activities

In practice, this means the creation of learning experiences which are optimised for real skills & knowledge development. Compared with content-centric approaches, courses designed using the Minimal Viable Content Framework are more likely to:

  • be active & participatory

  • engage learners

  • deliver a personalised & adaptive learning experience

  • effectively manage learners’ cognitive load

Minimal Viable Content = increased knowledge & skills development through more active, immersive learning

This is good news for:

  • Learners: who are active, engaged & learn through doing

  • Learning Designers: who spend on average 30% of their time creating, reviewing & editing (or curating) content. This means they have more time to dedicate to other aspects of their job, including how to optimise their designs for impact.

  • Organisations: who spend less money creating content and get a better Return on Investment.

I’d love to hear and learn from you! How might adopting a Minimal Viable Content mindset impact your design process & course designs?

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Want to learn more about the science of great learning design? Apply to join the 3-week Learning Science Bootcamp and work through an end-to-end design process with me and a cohort of people like you.

The next cohort kicks off July 11th & applications are open now - come and join me!

Learn More & Apply Now

Happy designing! 👋