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How to reduce complexity with eBooks

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Performance-focused learning deals with what employees need to do, not what they need to know. These types of learning experiences are built around a series of problems that the learner needs to address, instead of merely being content with a test at the end. One of the greatest sources of confusion in workplace learning is the focus on ‘content’; there are too many mediocre learning experiences out there that are little more than information dumps, with the learner somehow meant to magically retain the information and turn it into new skills and behaviours.

But what happens to the ‘knowledge’ in performance-focused learning? In a perfect world it’s well written and clearly organised in a knowledge base or on an intranet. But in many of the organisations with whom we work, these documents are more suitable as a reference for an experienced person and are often confusing for a novice.

Moving the content to eBooks

The approach we’ve taken in a few projects recently is to develop an eBook to go along with a learning experience. We refer to them as handbooks. They provide the content and information that a learner needs to reference in order to solve problems. Cathy Moore talks about using job aids as a solution for removing the information from a learning experience, instead making it easier to access that information just in time while on the job.

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These eBooks are written in plain English and include video and graphics. They link back to actual workplace documents. They are designed for novices in training and typically aren’t used extensively in the long term.

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One of the key things about them is they are written by a technical writer, not an instructional designer. This means that the instructional designers can focus on designing learning activities instead of trying to be information designers as well. It’s also useful for the eBook to be developed before the learning experience is designed, which helps to keep everyone on the same page. In a highly-technical field, for example, it’s important to get the subject matter in good shape and crystal clear before attempting to build a learning experience around it.

A workplace information hierarchy

workplace information hierarchy

With this approach an information hierarchy is formed. An organisation's policies are the base, the handbook becomes the next layer, while the learning experience can focus on providing opportunities for the learner to practise, not on the content itself. Over time as the learner develops more expertise they stop using the handbook and the actual workplace reference material becomes their main source of guidance.

How to make a handbook

There are three technical approaches to how these types of handbooks can be developed.

  1. ePub.
    The ePub format is used by iBooks on the iOS platform. There are lots of readers and it can be used offline, so it’s an extremely useful way to provide mobile-ready content. ePub files can be authored in Adobe InDesign or iBooks Author.

  2. HTML.
    eBooks can be made in HTML. The great thing about this way is that sections or pages can be directly linked from the learning experience.  

  3. PDF.
    PDF is perhaps the easiest and most common way to build an eBook but it doesn’t offer the ability to directly link to pages.


We use Glasshouse, Sprout Labs’ cloud-based authoring tool, which uses HTML content, and this means we can make direct links between the learning experience and the handbooks. We also have a feature where the handbooks can be exported as ePub.  A similar approach could be taken with using the Book activity in Totara/Moodle.   

How eBooks are enabling learner choice

This separation of content from activities enables the learner to choose how they navigate the experience. Some learners prefer an activity-based approach, some prefer a knowledge-based approach. Many of the learners Sprout Labs designs learning for are university trained and are used to being given extensive readings. A handbook caters for their needs very well; being able to access all the content before tackling the activities is comforting for many.

Uses for eBooks

Induction programs

A common component of an induction program is a printed manual that typically contains a high level of detail not required for a learning experience. Putting the induction online is often seen as a way to get rid of this material. Another approach is to move the detail into an eBook, and make the learning experience an interactive one.

Performance supports

Most organisations have guides and reference materials that can be used as performance supports. Packaging these as an eBook means they can be searched, accessible offline and available when an employee needs them.

What other ways do you think eBooks could be used in digital learning programs?