Designing a CLE: It Takes a Village

designing a cleDesigning a CLE can be a lonely process, but it doesn’t have to be. Ideally, it shouldn’t be.

I was recently singing my own praises about a learning solution I developed at work. My friend listened, paused and then asked a seemingly innocuous question: “You wrote all the content?”

“Yep. Well, not all of it. Some of it. A bit. There were some other people who contributed… Anyway, see the game this weekend?” I asked, deftly pivoting away from the topic.

The next day, I reflected on all who had contributed to the project. Content experts, narrators, interviewees, developers and testers, to name a few. Then there were the colleagues I asked about a concept, a design direction or a turn of phrase. When I compared the finished project with where I’d started, I realized that the majority of the changes weren’t mine. What’s more, the project was all the stronger for it.

Collaboration is easier said than done

The fact is, while all good course designers strive to collaborate, we can be very controlling of our vision. Whether it’s a simple presentation or a full-blown conference, we often decide on a direction and invest significant time driving down that path before anyone else becomes involved.

There are several reasons for this. Learning experiences often have a narrative structure and course designers have specifics we want to say. Moreover, we may be passionate about the topic or determine there’s little time for feedback.

On the flip side, what if we do ask for feedback? People are reluctant to criticize work that seems close to completion. In addition, if course designers receive negative feedback on a project we’ve invested in, we may tell ourselves it’s too difficult to make changes. Learning projects are especially susceptible to this sunk-cost fallacy.

Questions to ask yourself

At this point, you may be thinking, “Dan, I’ve been designing and presenting CLEs for years. No one has ever told me I need to make changes.” This isn’t the forum to explore why that could be – you may just be awesome at presentations. However, here are some questions ask yourself when designing a CLE.

  • What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?
  • Will the audience like this course?
  • Does the audience care about the topic as much as I do?
  • Why isn’t the audience already doing the things I’m asking them to do?
  • How will I know if the audience learns anything?

Yet, the most important question is one we often overlook:

  • How do I know my answers to these questions are correct?

Understanding the learner’s perspective

We can never truly gauge how someone is going to react to a course. What we can do, however, is focus on the learner’s experience. We do so by bringing in outside perspectives, asking the right questions and testing to check our assumptions. This is key to understanding the learner and making the content accessible and valuable.

Sam Glover, founder of, explains his learner-centered approach:

“I spend most of the time [facilitating], while the audience works on something I’ve given them to do. When you are planning a CLE about practical skills or the practice of law, I think you should be focused on 30, 60, 90 days after your presentation. What is the change you would expect to see in the lawyers you are talking to? And how can you make sure they leave your presentation with a roadmap about how they are going to get to that change?”

At this point, I’d be remiss to not mention design thinking. Design thinking as a problem-solving approach has been around for decades, but has become more mainstream in the last few years. The principles behind design thinking can be applied in almost any context:

  1. Empathy – understand the learners and the problem they need solved
  2. Ideation – explore several ideas, solicit feedback early and build on them
  3. Experimentation – test the ideas to see if the results are as expected

Each of these principles is best achieved by collaborating with others early and often. By checking in with colleagues, sample audience members or other professional connections, you’ll likely be exposed to insights you hadn’t thought of. These perspectives can inform your process by confirming your assumptions, adjusting your direction or even changing your focus altogether.

When asking for feedback, remember this: for an audience of 50, you only need to sample eight people to get within a 10% margin of error for the whole group. That’s a pretty well-informed learning project!

Final thoughts and suggestions

The key to successfully designing a CLE is to ask for feedback early and often, and with an open mindset to criticism. None of us get it 100% right the first time. However, by embracing the mindset of a project facilitator rather than a content creator, you move the object of criticism from yourself (“I did this, so I’m wrong”) to the project (“It still needs tweaking, who can help me with that?”).

So, how can you bring others in quickly and effectively to check your assumptions? Let’s go back to the list of questions for earlier in the article.

*Top tip* – If you ask someone what they think, you may get a guarded answer. But, if you ask someone about the perceptions of others, you’ll often uncover more: “Well, I personally don’t think this, but I’ve heard…”

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Good luck and remember – designing a CLE takes a village.

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