Rapid Roadblocks: Too-little Content

When you want to develop an elearning course relatively rapidly, having plenty of reliable, semi-stable content helps. In most cases, the SME (subject matter expert) usually has too much content. Over at the Rapid Elearning Blog, Tom Kuhlman recently wrote some excellent tips for getting rid of some of the content when your SME has too much of it.  It does seem that on most all instructional design projects, SMEs and clients usually give you a lot more content than is needed for your course. Thinning out the content takes time and reduces the rapid meter. But this is a heck of a lot better than the opposite case: not having enough content. Have you ever had that happen?

That is exactly the case with my current not-so-rapid e-learning project. When I first started, all I had for content was a single PPT slide deck and an unresponsive SME. The PPT had some good key ideas in it, but they were not hashed out in any sort of detail. A lot of the slides didn’t make much sense or seemed incomplete outside the instructor-led course that it supported. Unfortunately, there were no slide-notes, handouts, white papers, instructor guides from previous courses or anything else. And the SME was not responding to specific content questions.

So what’s an ID to do when there is too-little content?

Make it up! As an instructional designer, one of the value adds that I bring to the table is the ability to research and benchmark externally and synthesize the results into internally revel ant content for my course. If the SME isn’t responding to requests for content, I can research and literally make up content myself, send that to the SME, and hope to get a response that way. Indeed, I’ve found that this approach usually works. It’s easier for many SMEs/clients to respond to someone else’s content-creation attempt than it is for them to create original content themselves. Don’t let the lack of content stop you.

Researching, benchmarking, and writing content outside your realm of expertise takes a LOT of time and drastically cuts into the rapid meter. And that’s OK…so long as it’s OK to stretch out the time-frame. The key is to figure this out up front during the content analysis phase (assuming there is one!). If there are content challenges (too much, too little, bad content, NO content, etc) then you need to note it as a significant risk and include additional time in your project plan.

Have you encountered similar problems with too-little content on any of your training projects? How did you handle it? I would love to hear any tips and tricks you have.


4 Responses to Rapid Roadblocks: Too-little Content

  1. Ray Jimenez says:


    I love your story .. having not enough content.

    In my experience, whether there is enough content or too much content, it is helpful to ask the questions so we can discern when is content enough, or it is too much.
    More than the quantity, I think it is the quality issue.

    The three questions:

    1. What content should the learner learn to enable the learner to achieve the critical tasks of the job? The 80/20 rule?

    2. What content assists learners to avoid errors that can stop the learners from performing the job?

    3. What content are so difficult to learn that unless the learners learn them properly, their performance suffer?

    Adding Value
    Avoiding Errors
    Difficult to Learn

    This type of content is needed for “working proficiency.”

    All other content are either secondary in value or can be learned along the way, are needed for full proficiency.

    These questions help me focus my content in what I call 3-Minute e-Learning.



  2. Kevin Shadix says:

    Hi Ray — I like the three questions you listed. You’re right — whether there is too little or too much, we need to be asking questions like these in order to create a course with the right content, and the right treatment of the content. In the context of “rapid” e-learning, if we don’t account for this level of content analysis in our timelines, I think we set ourselves up for disappointment or failure. It’s easy to tell the client, “We use rapid tools…..it will only take 4 weeks. ” In the name of trying to be rapid, it is easy to forget these steps. That’s the part I’m struggling with — how to develop rapidly, but still handle the content issues adequately.

  3. Cathy Moore says:

    I like to say that my fiction-writing experience comes in handy when I do corporate elearning, because I often have to make stuff up. Google becomes my SME, and I also just guess and hope for feedback from a real SME. As you’ve found, some SMEs don’t create content well but are happy to correct your guesses.

    One thing I’ve done is to ask for all content before I begin even a high-level design. Then, in the outline, I point out content gaps by asking specific questions in bright yellow highlighting. This gives the SME a structure to follow–they go through the outline and answer my questions or provide PowerPoints that supposedly answer the question.

    If the SME is unresponsive, all that bright yellow protects me and helps me gauge how much longer than usual it will take to write the course. The same bright yellow then shows up in the course script, pointing out the parts that I’ve researched or just guessed at. And when I can’t even begin to guess, I just write, “What do you want to say here?” or “Then what happens?”

    Sometimes the course I’ve been asked to write not only has little content, it’s just common sense. This makes me wonder why they “need” a course at all. If a non-expert can basically make up the content on the spot, why is the course necessary? Too often people assume that a course is the answer to every problem–and too often they haven’t really identified the problem.

  4. Kevin Shadix says:

    I’ve tried the approach of asking for all content before attempting a high-level design, too, usually with good results. Sometimes the yellow highlighted stuff then gets fed into a project risk document of some sort that is communicate clearly to the client. Either way, calling out missing content becomes a cover-your-rear safety measure. It helps with project management, too: the more uncertainties with the content (not to mention goals, specs, stakeholder buy-in, etc), the less accurate any timeline estimate can be.

    I like the suggestion to actually add the highlighting and related questions to the course script. I haven’t tried that before, but it’s a great idea and one that might work well in this situation. I’m doing a rapid development/successive approximation approach, so can probably even show the highlighted questions and content on actual semi-functioning screens. That way I can sort of continue with development, even with uncertain content.

    Thanks for the tip!

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