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Using the CIA Method in Learning Projects

by Cheryl Powell

To create a successful learning project -whether for the classroom, the web, or for self-paced eLearning – you need to have a solid design. Careful planning and design are usually done in the Design Document and/or the Storyboarding phase of a project. During this phase, templates are created, the audience is defined, outlines are created and the layout and activities for the course are addressed.

The CIA method for designing learning projects includes three phases:

  1. The Content Phase – Disseminating, organizing and analyzing the existing content to make sure it is grammatically correct and formatted properly.
  2. The Imagery Phase — incorporating images/graphics that are professional, acceptable for the intended audience, up-to-date, high-resolution, and most importantly, relevant.
  3. The Appeal Phase — Ensuring the flow of the document is clear, and each page is visually appealing using the proper balance of text, graphics and white space.

The Content Phase

Within the content phase, all formats (Word docs, PowerPoints, PDF’s, Videos, Transcripts) of the source content should be combined, organized and broken down into small, easy-to-comprehend sections, or what I like to call bite-size learning chunks. Each section should be designed to be stand-alone and easy for various types of learners to access and learn about a particular topic.

The content design also specifies the layout of the section, and how the learner will interact with the content. For example:

Section 1: Customer Service Guidelines

  • Scenario of incorrect customer service call (# of minutes if eLearning course)
  • Analysis of what was done wrong (# of minutes if eLearning course)
  • Knowledge Check (# of minutes if e-Learning course)
  • Examples of how guidelines relate to the learner’s job role (# of minutes if eLearning course)
  • Scenario Activity (role play activity if classroom session)
  • Summary and Conclusion (# of minutes if eLearning course)

The content phase should also define the adult learning methodologies that will be used in the writing style and language for the course materials, screen content and/or audio script.

The Imagery Phase

Next, during the imagery phase, the type of imagery is defined. Is the audience young, old, mostly male, mostly female, of a specific culture (such as Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, etc..)? If a specific culture is associated with the course, what are their opinions about the workplace, family, advertising, etc, so that care can be taken not to offend their culture?

The Appeal Phase

Lastly, the appeal phase is completed. How does the course flow for the learner? Are there lines and lines of text on the screen (or page) with irrelevant images and no balance of white space? It is best to alter the screen or page layout with, at most, two options. For example: Four lines of text (maximum) on the left and one graphic on the right (if adding more than one graphic in e-Learning, be sure to fade one image out before fading a new image in), or four lines of text maximum on the right and one graphic on the left.

You also want to have live users test the course and integrate their feedback into the final course design. Don’t be afraid of pilot testing. It may seem ancient, but the technique can increase the quality of your course and learner retention rates by leaps and bounds.

Some questions you can ask yourself during this phase are:

  • Would the learner feel bombarded with a lot of content and concepts to recall before getting a break? (Such as an activity or knowledge check.)
  • Can learners stop at any time and return to the course where they left off?
  • Is there immediate and positive feedback for each activity or assessment within the course?
  • Where would the learner turn for help, with the course?
  • Are there portions of the course where the learner would benefit from a hard copy of the information presented? Perhaps consider downloadable PDF’s made available in a course Resource area or on the company’s intranet.

A Final Tip for Designing eLearning Projects

Present two or three slides of content and then interject an activity or assessment to make sure the learner is ‘digesting’ and retaining the material.

Using just a few of the techniques in this article, and adding the time to your project plan for implementing them, can save you major re-work and costs in the end.

About the Author

Cheryl Powell is an experienced Instructional Design & eLearning Specialist. You can connect with Cheryl through Writing Assistance, Inc. at or by email through

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