Taking traditional training materials online is akin to substituting baking soda for baking powder. It can be done, but it’s not a straight one-to-one translation. Adjustments must be made.

Content conversion must consider the learners. If they aren’t in the classroom, are they sitting at desks, working the shop floor, or streaming training on their phones in the park? It must consider the training format. What happens when a daylong training session becomes multiple shorter blocks of eLearning? Content must be tailored to suit the configuration of the class.

Planning to take conventional content into the digital arena? Here are five best practices to ensure you can bring your most important content with you and deliver it in meaningful ways when you leap the eLearning divide.

1. Take the format seriously

Conventional learning offers one pedagogic format, the classroom. Students learn together in the conference room or auditorium, and they share similar resources: writing surface, notebook, caffeine.

eLearning can take place anywhere. That means you must tailor content to suit the context, said Malcolm Poulin, senior director of product strategy for ANCILE Solutions. “It’s about the work environment. In an insurance company, 90 percent of the people are sitting at their desks with a PC, but 10 percent of them are salespeople in the field, in their cars, with a phone or an iPad, and you also have to match their capability. So, the technology you use has to be able to publish into formats that are consumable to match people’s work,” he said.

For that mobile salesperson, the content you build either has to consume minimal bandwidth or else be accessible offline. “So, they may need something in documentation format, a printable PDF, or an online PDF that can be consumed in a small view,” he said. Interactive HTML may work well for the deskbound learner, but keep in mind that others may not be able to tap the full experience.

2. Break it down

Often in the move to online learning, content goes from being a daylong seminar to being a series of digital installments. You’ll need to think about how to break it down.

“All of a sudden I don’t get you for eight hours of concentrated time. Maybe I get you for two hours online at most, so there are more sessions with more time in between them,” said Chris King, principle consultant at CRK Learning.

To deliver meaningful materials in this new environment, it helps to start high and drill down. “First you ask: What is the learning goal for the session? Now, what content do you have that will support that learning goal, and can you do that in two hours or less? If you can’t, then you start making serious choices,” he said. Ask yourself: “What is truly important for me to check people’s knowledge on, versus where can I give them handouts or some other way to do asynchronous learning?”

His litmus test is a simple one-to-seven scale in response to this query: “What is the impact on the learning if somebody fails to do this right?”—ranging from no biggie to utter disaster. “You rate all your content on that scale. Anything that rates a five or above, that is stuff you absolutely have to put in the online session. The rest can be safely left to asynchronous learning,” he said.

3. Get personal

Online content can suffer from a lack of personalization. An instructor at a remote location becomes a disembodied voice, a ghost cursor moves across a presentation by an unseen hand. To convert from a traditional classroom to an e-experience, the instructor must find a way to make a human connection.

“Video does this well. It conveys a sense of personality, a sense of the presence of the instructor. With a video component, you get not just audio but visual cues,” said Diana Howles, owner and president of multimedia learning consultancy Howles Associates.

She recommends instructors produce at least one pre-recorded video component for every week of a multi-part course—for example, a new-hire orientation that might stretch for several weeks or months and may include both face-to-face and online components. “This is how you get the personal side. It’s how you establish that instructor’s presence” in the online segments, she said.

4. Keep it simple

Materials that seem orderly and manageable in a binder can morph into a sprawling mess when published haphazardly online. A golden rule of content conversion: Simplify.

Look at it this way. The online experience tends to be self-navigated. While there are certain instructor-curated touch points, much course material must be discovered and ingested by students through their own efforts. It’s up to the instructor, therefore, to offer ease of access.

“If you go to a learning management system and you open a screen, and everything is in front of your face, most people close that screen,” Poulin said. The key to success is to build vertically, down into the presentation, rather than horizontally, across the surface.

“You layer it so people are only presented with what they want, and then if they want more they can go to the next layer,” Poulin said. “You see what you need in a streamlined fashion, and if you need more, you click down. It is based on what the user needs, not based on what the designer thinks they are going to need.”

5. Fit the platform

“Online” or “eLearning” are broad terms that can be fulfilled with an incredibly diverse range of technologies, with materials delivered in any number of possible formats, from PowerPoint to Word, from interactive HTML to streaming video to static PDF. Determining the right format comes with a correlative task: finding the right platform.

“You have to look at the framework of the technology architecture,” King said.

Adobe Connect and GoTo Learning and WebEx all present “different opportunities and different tools,” he said. Adobe Connect manages shared video more easily than does WebEx, for example, “but with WebEx it is much easier to do your presentation by sharing a screen out of PowerPoint, where Adobe Connect does not do that as easily.”

The point here is not to recommend any one platform over another, but merely to note that in making decisions about format, one may also need to scrutinize platform choices. The two can push against each other, or they can be complementary if adequate care is used in the selection process.

All these various considerations can help shape the conversion of traditional content into digital format, and from the physical classroom to the virtual. Underlying all these, though, is a single point of emphasis that some experts say should be the driving force behind all these other choices.

“Any time you take a traditional classroom curriculum and convert it into online format, we always start by looking at objectives,” Howles said. “What do you hope to accomplish? What is the learning objective? That is what ultimately drives the design.”