What’s in a name? (Ending the struggle with the ‘C’ word).

I think I am reaching peace with use of the ‘C’ word. On first entry to the broad landscape of Learning and Development, I baulked and bucked against the predominance of Courses. Regardless of need or moment, a course (or its grand partner, a Programme) appeared to be the single tool to crack all nuts.

There does seem to be a systematic problem in the industry that has so long relied on the “learning = training = course” equation. The reflex that reduces all needs to single format is a structurally and culturally powerful. For some, a training function exists to offer courses and if that is not the result of production then it is not a training function. Training does equal course. Other tools maybe fine and dandy but they are not training.

Few, if any of us, live or learn like that now (or ever did, I suspect). There is such a natural familiarity with so many other formats and tools that courses, outside of training and education, seem pretty rare. Not a mainstream consumer behaviour anyway. Nothing like the “how to…” video or Wikipedia article which have become the new learning staples. In such a pick’n’mix environment only offering Marathon bars seems mighty peculiar.

Whilst there is much heat in the debate about training and/or learning formats, I reckon it is clear that they are all useful and effective. It is equally clear that none of them are anywhere close to a panacea (some have very narrow uses in fact). Sorting out what to use when is the pressing challenge now.

Courses have a major advantage though. They are predictable. We all know what they are and how they work. We know what to expect from them and what they expect of us (as providers and consumers). In the corporate learning world this is particularly the case. A course is brewed and served in a glass that fits around it neatly. The weights and measures, pricing and menus are part of the fabric of the most organisations and we tend to be confident consumers. As punters we tend to know when we have had enough, need more or will give it a rest for a while. Our organisations can have a heavy hand in this exchange too ‘managing’ our learning and deciding when we have had enough or need to take our seats again.

Rather than find new names for these new items and torture learners with neologisms, maybe we should just call them courses? Many different kinds of courses for various appetites but courses nonetheless. Some of them would need to be very small, very brief and very light. They might merge and accumulate over time to become something that is more familiar. More like an old school course. But still courses.

So, a brief “How to…” film is a course, a podcast is a course, a webinar is a course and (of course) courses are courses. The sophisticated 21st century consumer can probably handle this. They seems pretty sharp to me.

If the sign above the bar says “Courses”, perhaps the clientèle will make the same wise choices they make in their leisure time?


  1. Perhaps the issue with ‘course’ is that it’s become overloaded with expectations, principally that completing it would bestow something more than learning: a certificate; an inalienable proof of competence or ability. And let’s not get into proof of compliance. It’s not a bad word in itself. Course has become devalued through over use and misuse.

    • Maybe that’s true. The struggle remains though to conjure good alternative. Any “learning object” could be tracked and reported if that’s the requirement from the organisation.

  2. I liked the rhetoric in your question but disagree with your conclusion. I expect more from a course than a how to, I’d expect to have either a theoretical or practical understanding of something. Something of strategic value that is applicable to a large instance of situations rather than the unique and specific and tactical case than a how to addresses. A podcast or a webinar can be associated with courses but not necessarily, in my mind they ring more like commercial propaganda than real valuable content.

    • Thanks for the comment. I can see your point about the additional value implied by the course name. I wonder what we should call the other formats then if they are specifically offered with a learning objective in mind?

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