Bridging the Gap Between Educational Content Developers and Content Development Tools (Playing with the LEGOs)

Bridging the Gap Between Educational Content Developers and Content Development Tools (Playing with the LEGOs)
Zachary Fruhling June 20, 2018

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At its best, there is a playful hands-on aspect to the creative design process. Well-known creative and innovative product design studios (say, the design studios at Apple or LEGO) are known both for their creativity and for their designers’ hands-on exposure to the raw materials from which a product will be designed and eventually manufactured. This close connection between the designers/creators and the tools and materials from which products are made allows those product creators to maximize their creativity by exploring the possibilities (and sometimes pushing the boundaries!) of their raw materials while also remaining within the realm of their practical limitations.

Too often in higher-education content development and instructional design, content authors, content creators, and instructional designers are far-removed from the tools and materials from which the final product (say, an online course) will eventually be made. Course writers are often handed a limited toolset in the form of a Microsoft Word document or (if they’re lucky!) a Google Docs course design document, but without any interactive digital elements or content types, without the ability to create something directly using the interactive tools available in the content delivery platform or Learning Management System (LMS) in which the course will eventually be built. In other words, they don’t get to play with the LEGOs! And yet it somehow comes as a shock when the end-result of this limited-toolset course design process lacks any genuine interactivity and doesn’t take advantage of the online learning tools available in even the most basic of Learning Management Systems.

It is useful to think of the various tools and features available in a content delivery platform or Learning Management System as a big pile of LEGOs, which can be selected and stacked and rearranged in any number of different creative ways, in a playful fashion, with the goal of creating the most engaging and most effective learning experience. The Blackboard Learning Management System, for example, has a fairly large set of tools (i.e., a big pile of LEGOs) available for course creators to use as they see fit:

Tools in Blackboard (Not Exhaustive)

Content Types



  • Audio
  • Files
  • Flickr Photo
  • Image
  • Learning Module
  • Lesson Plan
  • Slideshare Presentation
  • Video
  • Web Link
  • YouTube Video
  • Assignment
  • Self and Peer Assessment
  • Survey
  • Test/Quiz:
    • Multiple Choice
    • True/False
    • Either/Or
    • Jumbled Sentence
    • Matching
    • Multiple Answer
    • Ordering
    • Opinion/Likert Scale
  • Achievements
  • Blog
  • Chat
  • Discussion
  • Groups
  • Journal
  • Virtual Classroom
  • Wiki

Although a Learning Management System like Blackboard offers a fairly large toolset to use in creating an online course, there is an equally large chasm for course writers between using these tools directly in the native environment and “authoring” a course in a separate environment with a more limited toolset, such as what is possible to write—or even to describe—in a Microsoft Word document. Asking a course writer to create an engaging and interactive online course inside a word processor file is akin to taking away the pile of possible LEGO pieces from the LEGO design team! While this is possible to some degree, the playful creativity involved in designing, refining, and building a product directly is lost in the process.

Without question, it is possible to create pedagogically engaging educational content that is not interactive in the contemporary sense. After all, there have been engaging teachers and pedagogically effective educational materials produced since the days of Plato’s Academy. The best course writers and the most inspired instructors can create an engaging learning experience even with an extremely limited toolset. But part of the possibility and promise of online education is the opportunity to create an even richer and more engaging learning experience by making use of the many interactive tools and content types that were not available to the great educators and educational content developers of ages past.

Bringing educational content creators as close to the content creation tools as possible allows them to become familiar with the sphere of possible learning experiences they can create for their courses. Rather than writing a non-interactive page of text as an introduction to a topic, course writers could create an instructional video, an interactive simulation or experiment, an infographic, a formative assessment, or a multimedia presentation. Rather than having students write yet another 3–5 page paper, course writers could have students create a blog, a wiki, an online presentation, and any number of other educational output types that are possible in the 21st-century online learning environment. But the design and construction of these various educational content types goes well beyond traditional “course authoring” in the narrow sense into the realm of “learning design” in the broader sense.

Part of the challenge of having direct access to a broader content development toolset is that, quite simply, you can’t make people be careful from a design standpoint. Content creators with a more robust content creation tool set must take a greater degree of ownership over the quality of their work. After all, if you give the average person a giant pile of LEGOs, of all shapes and sizes and colors, and ask that person to build you a spaceship, the result may look a bit more amateurish than the LEGO spaceship sets that were professionally designed by the LEGO design team. The reason for this is that part of the design process for an aesthetically pleasing and professional-quality LEGO set is to carefully select and restrict the pieces used in the final design to those that fit well together, are easy to assemble in steps, and have a unified visual theme, which varies from set to set or from LEGO series to series.

The same is true of an online course. Regardless of which content authoring tools and features are used to create an online course, the end-result still needs to meet various criteria of logical coherence and flow, sound pedagogical progress, aesthetic and visual unity, and so on. This leads to a general principle about content development tools: The larger a toolset a content creator has to work with, the more careful that content creator must be in order to create a professional-quality finished product. This is because a larger toolset generally carries fewer guardrails in terms of the possible combinations and uses of those tools. A larger toolset gives content creators additional creative power while necessitating extra quality control care, whereas a more limited toolset has more guardrails while limiting the sphere of what is possible to create. Various content authoring tools, content delivery systems, and Learning Management Systems can be placed along this spectrum:

Spectrum of Content Development Tools: (Smaller Toolset, More Guardrails, Fewer Possibilities) versus (Larger Toolset, Fewer Guardrails, More Possibilities)

If you want to empower your course writers, content creators, or instructional designers to create maximally engaging and interactive learning experiences in their online courses, allowing them direct access to a larger content development toolset to empower their playful creativity is an important step in achieving that goal. The trade-off, however, is in terms of quality control; either content creators themselves must be careful to produce quality work from the very beginning, or there must be a robust quality control and/or editorial review process in place to ensure a professional-quality finished product, whether from a pedagogical standpoint or from a user-experience standpoint.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at

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