Contextualising training materials 12

It is rather frustrating when consultants who evaluate training materials on behalf of quality assurance bodies claim that the materials have not been contextualised when clearly they do not know how materials should be contextualised to begin with. Quality assurance bodies mostly rely on the expert advice of such evaluators so that they have no other choice but to refuse approval and accreditation of such materials. Sadly the so-called experts are often also private training providers who use their position as evaluators to keep other providers from obtaining accreditation. There is a clear conflict of interest here, but still it happens. In the process learning programme designers and developers have no choice but to review the materials, thereby wasting time and money while potential students are denied an opportunity to receive good quality education and training.

Evaluators would probably have been really happy if only learning programme designers and developers would discuss contextualisation under the heading “CONTEXTUALISATION” in their alignment reports. Problem is, contextualisation is not a separate process – the entire learning materials need to be contextualised. Contextualising training materials mean that the materials are developed in such a manner that it applies to a particular context, such as a community, a workplace, an industry, etc. Currently all three the major quality assurance bodies in South Africa, i.e. the CHE/HEQC, Umalusi and the QCTO favour generic standards so that it is most unlikely that the learning programme design will be contextualised. All three require curriculums that apply to as many workplaces as possible. This is acceptable in the case of higher education, but probably impractical in the case of occupational education and training as well as further education and training. For example, the QCTO will eventually realise that all welders cannot be trained according to the same curriculum – welding security gates is completely different from welding oil pipelines so that curriculums for training welders need to be contextualised to the skills needs of different workplaces.

One can often use generic standards as the basis for the development of training materials for different workplaces in the event of which contextualisation will be necessary.  The same standards can, for example, be tested in many different workplaces by asking different questions (theoretical or practical) testing the same knowledge or competencies but applying to each particular workplace. Especially assessment instruments used for RPL need to be contextualised as RPL is sensitive to the context in which the assessment takes place. People seek RPL for different reasons, which means that they will also utilise the credits and/or certificates that they receive through RPL for different purposes. Manuals, reflective exercises and learning event plans also need to be contextualised.

One would also contextualise learning materials to both the internal and the external environment in which the materials will be used. Learning materials need to be articulated to the learning institution that will offer the learning programme, and this is done by means of an internal environmental analysis. This would typically require that the materials be adapted to the learning institution’s policies and procedures, capacity, culture, size, strategic objective, etc. The materials are further contextualised by means of an external environmental analysis. To achieve this one would typically adapt the materials to legislation, technological developments, community needs, economic factors and perhaps even political trends. So, you will probably have noticed that articulation is a useful tool to use in contextualisation of training materials.

Yet another important factor for which contextualisation is necessary is the profile of the students. Training materials should take the learning needs and personal circumstances of students into account, even though entry requirements might reduce the need for renewed contextualisation for every group of students. Even so, it is always a good idea to contextualise at least learning event plans for different learning groups. 

In closing, evaluators of training materials must keep in mind that quality assurance procedures are also context-dependent. While it is important that all learning institutions must implement a common set of procedures, it is also necessary that there should be variation in the procedural content, reflecting the diversity of missions among learning institutions. This is important if the learning that we offer is to promote creativity and improve productivity.

Dr Hannes Nel, MD Mentornet   

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About Hannes Nel

CEO and owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd. Academic background: B. Mil.; BA Honnours; MBL; D. Com; D. Phil Published 10 books with two more in the pipeline.

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12 thoughts on “Contextualising training materials

  • Samantha Schwenk

    It would be nice to know that the evaluators are not only trying to sell there products or friends when they evaulate, but look at your product you are trying to sell in that context.  But sadly some seem to have very double standards and are eager to refer a company.  It s aso quiete amusing to see that they decline your verification, but they themself recommend the material bought to other collegues.  Standardisation needs to happen and quickly. Apart from the time wasted which would allow for more visits rather than spread around few providers. There should also be a black list for those material design companies who constantly give a bad name to designing.

    thanks for opening this debate.

  • marilynscholtz

    Thanks Hannes – an interesting and very topical discussion for many in programme development.  Contextualisation is also often what differentiates custom designed from off-the-shelf material.  It is amusing when contextualised material developed for one provider is deemed acceptable by an evaluator and that for another provider(using the same methodology, theoretical input and content but contextualised for different learners etc )is rejected.  Are evaluation criteria open for individual interpretation?

  • Paula Whitaker

    Great comments and thoughts, thank you for sharing.

    We have had a SETA has send us 3 different representatives for various “audits” on materials. Each one had a different focus… was a grammar guru, one was a contextualization king and the other taught us all about a unit standard (last month – 16 years into unit stds!!!!!)

    The intention of contextualization has to be considered carefully most importantly for the learner – too much context is just as harmful as too little. And contextualization is the single biggest expense for a provider when done correctly.

    May the debate continue!

  • Andrew Rose

    Interesting thoughts – thank you – and saved for some time in the future when I’m really given the budget to design an all-encompassing solution.

    The problems you relate with getting materials signed off and accepted so that “training rebates and levies” can be legitmately claimed confirms for me why I continually find myself advising clients to “not worry about SAQA certification”. On the one hand there is compromise in the instructional design because it provides a back door – because you know that it is not going to be evaluated by regional or national evaluators – so you focus on getting the fundamental learning communicated, and only creating formative assessments.

    On the other hand, it provides businesses with a “financially feasible solution” to solve real business problems. The clients I’ve had (requiring systems based training) continually look at the bottom line expenditure. They’re simply not prepared to think about the administrative costs involved in getting training courses approved. Solving the business problem is a “have-to-have”, getting accredditation for material is a “nice-to-have”.

    Accreddited training is a luxury for massive corporates or governmental departments who have available resources that they can allocate. It is a cost that smaller companies just can’t consider.

    Also, just another thought – when designing training that is going to be applied across borders, what is the point of excessive administrative costs in SA when there are people and businesses in other countries who actually just want to get up and running?

  • Corne Erasmus


    Hannes, thank you for the insightful article.  It emphasizes the critical role instructional design plays, and its impact on the overall quality of the learning intervention. Programme development should never be allowed to proceed without proper instructional design, which obviously includes target audience segmentation, profiling and research.


    Generic vocational and occupational learning programmes risk devaluing the significance and strategic role of L&D. Content development without instructional design increases the probability of invalid, inaccurate and compromised learning.  Not only is this unfair (unethical) to the clients (company and learner), but it also compromises the integrity of L&D and limits the effective transfer of learning.

  • hugo john

    Right on – an example of this is an optometrist who claims to have written learner material for a unit standard that involves understanding the requirements for rendering a security service in a Port environment and has managed to get the SETA to exclude all other registered and experienced security members from compiling/ training learners unless his manuals are used.

  • Lynette Barbara Myers

    My sentiments exactly! I have always wondered who “judges” material that is submitted for accreditation? They appear to be invisible but hold massive power over those of us trying to deliver practical, relevant training to our fellow South Africans.