My Preconceptions are Being Challenged -- It's a Good Thing


I usually don't write much about what I do for a living. In previous years, I considered such public discussion taboo. My previous job didn't have an Internet media policy, and no recommended code of conduct. My current job, however, is more enlightened. 

Today was the first day at the Curriculum Lead summit at work. For obvious reasons, I can't discuss the specifics of what happened, but there was something that gave me a great deal to think about. When working as a IT Trainer and Consultant with my previous company, it often seemed I was the only one with a passion for what IT education can be. I formulated and tried out design choices, education styles, and writing styles. Eventually, I settled into my characteristic wordy, detailed, graphic-rich style.

I based much of my work on a few fundemental ideas:

  • Some students are visual learners. They need screenshots.
  • Some students are word learners. They need instructions.
  • Some students are intimidated. They need encouragement.
  • The instructor delivers value in the classroom.
  • The course manual delivers a longer value outside the classroom.

Historically, I've tried to "write the instructor out of the equation" in my classes. The idea is that while the instructor can be very knowledgeable and very skilled, most people will not retain what you teach them once they leave the classroom. The course manual then, is the real source of continuing value in the class. I feel a certain kind of pride when I've found my course books on the desks of clients, dogeared and annotated. 

You can call it the "thick book" approach. Two of my classes nearly are 1000 pages each -- huge, thick tomes that would cause injury if hurled at a coworker. Maintaining material of this size, however, is no easy task. A major update to one of the these courses could take many, many weeks. I tend to work very, very fast, so the scale of the task didn't intimidate me as it did others.

Today, however, someone challenged those conceptions.

The fast-talking man from India presented his curriculum analysis with impressive energy. After the introductions and details were out of the way, he told us a story. Once upon a time his class was as long as my classes -- longer, in fact. I can certainly see why, as the product he's writing about is a complex piece of development and runtime software. I've read the manuals for it. With the length of the material, he was achieving a majority of passed certifications. 

Then the story took a turn. As an experiment, he put the huge, thick tome aside and gave the students a very carefully and engagingly written short manual only a tenth of the length. Amazingly, the precentage of students that passed the certification did not changeI was blown away. So short a manual, achieving such good results? Could that even work? Apparently, it did, resoundingly well too. The advantages of this approach are obvious. The shorter length means shorter development times and less turn over time when new versions are brought to market. Much discussion ensued about the "happy medium" in course material.

This has me reevaluating my fundamental theories. Many of them were formed in a very different environment that I am now. While the instructors at my previous job were highly skilled, we often had to wear a great many hats. This often resulted in quality problems when an instructor was assigned to a class where they are not a product expert. This colored my early perceptions of how course material should be written. The courseware was what I could control, what I could bake in quality from the beginning. Today, however, the instructors at my current job often specialize in the product in which they teach. Rarely are instructors switched out because a customer issue cropped up elsewhere. This is the difference between working in a small company, and now a large one.