Not all learning content needs to be created. Content curation gives organisations a powerful way to improve and deepen employee learning. I talked to learning specialist and extraordinaire Steph Clarke about the curation process, how to integrate curated content into a learning programme, and the future of learning curation.
This article is a summary of our interview with Steph in the Playing the Culture Game podcast, a fortnightly interview series where we dive deep into the people & culture space.
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Why curation versus creation?
Steph: In my work, there are two conversations I’m currently having with clients around how to rethink curriculums and learning, particularly after the last couple of years.
The first conversation is with organisations that don’t really have anything in the way of learning. There’ll be some poor HR person who realises they haven’t done anything in the last 12 months and just wants to do something. And the second is with people who’ve pulled out their 2019 curriculum and realised it’s not working anymore — especially given the different ways of working that have sprung up.
Curation helps in both cases. In one sense, it’s a really important part of “future of work”-style learning or whatever buzzword you want to use. But it’s also about delivering good learning fast.
“A lot of the time, organisations are very busy trying to create everything from scratch. There’s actually so much good stuff out there that can be packaged up and delivered in a meaningful way in order to create really good, really high-quality programmes. But that stuff gets forgotten.”
So often, people default to creating learning content themselves. Part of the reason is that it’s the way things have always been done. There’s also this thing with learning teams and professionals who think, “If I didn’t create it, what’s my value?” But to be honest, content created from scratch is probably not going to be as good as what’s already available. It’s also going to take longer to deliver and be more costly.
“I think we need to rethink the role of learning professionals. We need to value curation as one of their key core skills and see it as an important part of what they do, rather than seeing it as a lesser version of what they have historically done, which is creation and learning design.”
Getting started with learning curation
How can people get started with curating learning content?
Steph: First of all, you can start at home, by looking at yourself. What are you learning, what are you consuming, and what are you listening to? How are you cataloguing and curating that? Because at the risk of being provocative, I’d say that if you’re not learning and looking outside your field as a learning professional, maybe you need to do something different, as you’re missing out on some of the best things you can bring to your organisation.
So a good place to start is with some of the big stuff, like big podcasts or TED talks. Maybe look at the Brene Brown or Esther Perel ones, as well as some good work-related ones depending on your topic. Think about how you can use that content as a supplement to something you’ve already created, maybe as pre-reading or post-reading.
After that, start to think about how you can build these things into your content more deeply. And then ask yourself: what would happen if you created a whole curriculum from the things you’ve found?
I’m not saying that curated content is going to replace everything else you’re doing, but a curated curriculum like this is something people can dip in and out of at different times. It’s more immersive. It’s something people can talk about.
Can you give us some examples of curated content in action?
Steph: One thing I do is give people curated content to read or listen to before a session. Then the first part of the session becomes a discussion of that content.
You want to teach the ability to think critically. In one recent session, I gave three pieces of content, and one of them wasn’t really wrong or awful, but it had a different slant to it and wasn’t super helpful. Then when we came back together, we discussed that and started talking about what made certain content pieces good and others not so good.
“Giving people something to talk about rather than saying, ‘Here’s all the things you should do’ is really useful.”
Another easy thing to do is start a book club. Recently someone told me about an organisation that had a book club for podcasts: people would listen to a podcast and then the group would get together and discuss what they’d learned or taken away. That’s good for building critical thinking skills too.
Skills and best practices for learning curators
What are some good curation skills?
Steph: Let’s say you’re someone who’s already listening to useful things, reading a few decent newsletters, and following a few interesting people on social media. The first thing to look at is how you’re cataloguing all of that.
“Curation isn’t about finding something and just sticking it into a programme: it’s about finding stuff, assessing it, cataloguing it, and then deciding where and when to use it.”
In other words, if you’re already taking content in, you need to build the discipline and the muscle to collate it. There are many different ways you can do it — with Trello, Notion, Asana or whatever — but what’s important is that you have your content catalogued in your system so you can pull it up easily when you next have to design or deliver something.
Cataloguing and reviewing like this is a critical skill and the bit that’s missing in many people’s workflows.
What’s your workflow for cataloguing content?
Steph: I start with Chrome. As I’m working, I’ll leave whatever I find useful in an open tab on my Chrome app. At this stage, I’m more focused on what just looks cool or interesting.
Then, later in the week, I’ll go back and look through all my open tabs, catalogue the content and add it to a Trello board. In Trello, each of my columns is a category, so for example, I have a column called feedback and all the cards in that column are a mixture of videos and articles related to that topic. This cataloguing stage is when the edit happens: I might filter things or cut them out when I realise that what I’ve flagged is actually not so good.
And finally, every so often I’ll go through my resources and filter out things that are either redundant or less relevant.
Obviously, at some point I go deeper into a topic when it happens to be something I’m working on. But with this system, I have a few things to set me off or send me down a couple of rabbit holes when I need it, which is a really good outcome of the workflow.
How do you decide what “makes the cut” when curating?
Steph: There are a few things I look for. One is new research with a scientific base. When you work with a lot of people in professional services, as I do, they’ll often ask for evidence. So collecting evidence is helpful, especially if it goes against things people have been told before.
Another thing is lateral applications: when an industry or company does something they aren’t necessarily known for or applies it in a different context. One example I saw earlier this year is the language learning platform Duolingo, who opened a taqueria where you could go and practise your Spanish. That’s so good: it turns e-learning into a real-life, social experience.
I also look for tech-type stuff — new ways of delivering content, ideas and programs that go beyond just getting people in a room or on Zoom. I think there are some huge gaps and opportunities there.
So it could be any of these, but also other small things.
Recently I’ve been looking at how people try to make compliance learning fun, and that’s led me to airline safety videos. Some companies do them really well, almost like Hollywood-style productions: Qantas tends to go for the heartstrings, whereas Southwest Airlines makes things super fun and engaging. They bring things to life. It’s not some awful experience of click through 29 times then get to the end, fall on the floor and say you’ve done it.
What’s your advice for stitching content together and delivering a curated learning experience?
Steph: That’s a really good question. It’s the bit at the end, the final part: first you do the collation, then the curation, and finally the contextualisation. And this is important: you can’t just spray stuff out.
People learn better when things are placed in context, and as a learning leader, you can add that. You get to say, “This is what I liked about this,” or “This is what’s relevant to this organisation or group at this time.”
“Whatever the context is, this final stage is where you add the value. If you’re feeling like you haven’t done enough as a learning person by curating content, this is where you get to add the magic and stitch things together.”
So add an experience element — the book club, the podcast listening club or the weekly channel. Say every Wednesday at lunchtime, you send something out for people to enjoy on your learning channel.
Good delivery is about building something in so it’s not just like a random spray out to your organisation or team. You show how something makes sense in the context of stuff that’s happening, or you add it in as pre or post-work with a more traditional learning model.
The future for learning curation
Is there still room for content creation in learning?
Steph: Absolutely. Creation from scratch is still really good for more of the internal tech-type stuff because it’s harder to find content at the same level. Or existing content could be branded by a competitor, which makes things awkward.
There again, some industries have bodies and associations that provide good content, so maybe you can leverage that and get more time to create something different, rather than just recreating something that someone else has done.
We also need to look at creation in the broader sense, in terms of creating a learning experience.
We need to think about creation from an experience perspective. Not just what can we measure, but what do we want people to feel as a result of this?
What’s next for curation in learning?
Steph: I think the question is around who will be doing the curation. At the moment, there still needs to be quite a bit of human interaction. But I wouldn’t suggest anyone pegs their career on being a learning curator, as I think in three to five years, we’ll get much better AI stuff to do it.
Take places like LinkedIn Learning or HBR. There’s so much on there, and so much of it isn’t great. There are other platforms too that don’t have great curation built into them.
“The next bit is the AI: you’ll be able to answer a couple of questions or put in some details and a platform will give you a curriculum based on your skills and maybe align it to your organisation or level.”
It’s probably still a couple of years off, but the technology is coming. If you think about what happens in the background of something like Netflix or Spotify, you can see that AI-based learning curation isn’t far away.
Another thing I see is being able to bring in multiple sources like YouTube stuff or podcasts, for example, or plugging into Spotify, so you get more than just what’s on one learning platform.