In Why you need to set limits, Cathy Moore explains why it is sometimes necessary for the content developer to say ‘no’. Only so much is achievable with one piece of content – if you try and please everyone, you end up pleasing nobody.
I couldn’t agree more. While your learning objectives define the end point for a learning intervention, your target population can be seen as the start point. If your target population is relatively homogeneous, the route from start to end will be clear to see. However, if you have a diverse target population, with very different characteristics, then you are going to need to plan some very different journeys. There’s no guarantee that the same content (or any other ingredient in your intervention) is going to do the job on each one of those paths.
So what is it about a particular target audience that could make a big difference to the route you take? What are the characteristics that really matter?
- Demographics (age, gender, ethnicity, etc.): Sure these might matter in some circumstances, but you’ve got to be careful not to let your prejudices get in the way. There are more important factors.
- Preferences: There are more than six billion people in the world and each one’s brain is wired differently. What there are not are clear-cut categories of preferences that will help us to design content. See learning styles don’t exist, then keep looking.
- Prior knowledge / skill: Now, here we have something important. Those with a fair amount of past experience with a topic or skill are going to find it much easier to extend and enhance what they have. They have all sorts of well-honed mental models in place which help them to come to terms easily with new ideas. Novices need structure and support, because they are easily overwhelmed. Experienced people don’t need all this and might find the whole process patronising and frustrating.
- Degree of independence: Psychologists use the term ‘metacognitive skills’ to describe the attributes of independent learners who seem to be better than most at working out what they don’t know, what they need to know and how to bridge the gap. Like experts, they don’t need as much support and structure.
- Interest / motivation: This is a big one, because if some of your audience is going to take some convincing that your content is important to them, then you’re going to have to take whatever measures are necessary to sort this out. If you go through this process with well-motivated learners, you’ll slow them down and frustrate them.
Obviously there will be times when you can organise your material in such a way that you can accommodate more than one user type. What you have to recognise is when the client is asking too much and it simply isn’t possible. As Cathy says, you need to set limits.