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Five Questions for Massood Zarrabian

By Lisa Gualtieri / June 2009

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Lisa Gualtieri: In our recent phone interview, you spoke about the importance of content. What defines quality content and who can best create quality content?

Massood Zarrabian: In my opinion, it starts by focusing on the learner/user who is the customer and the consumer of the content. The attributes as I see them are as follow:

  1. It must be content that matters to them. It is knowledge and education they require, and content helps them be more successful in their jobs.
  2. It must be modular (that is, learning tools delivered in a variety of sizes and formats to meet one's need), so the user/consumer is able to gain nuggets of know-how through technology-enabled learning when it is convenient for them. They can take lots of modules when they have longer periods of time available, or a 5-10 minute module when that is all the time they have. For some parts of an organization, for example, sales, this is critical. Imagine an account executive going to a customer and at the last minute discovers something about the customer that he or she feels they must be more knowledgeable about before the meeting. Now imagine they can access a 10-minute learning module online, or download it to their laptop, or even use their Blackberry to access that information. The impact is obvious.
  3. The modules must be flexible. By this I mean the module must be personalized to the learner's needs. The training modules need to behave differently based on the user/consumer's role, and be prescriptive to allow an individual who already knows 50 percent of the material to move along at their own pace.
  4. Of course, it needs to be easy to find, easy to navigate, engaging, and the system must be responsive.

LG: You said the "world of education is heterogeneous." Can you explain more about what you mean by that?

MZ: We have always been focused on the Global 5000, government, and defense. In this part of the market, education (or learning) is not homogenous as many people think, but rather there is a variety of information and training required. To simplify it, let me just categorize the education requirements into two categories:

  • Information/know-how involving experts outside an organization. A great example is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The experts that can best educate customers on this subject are in auditing firms and law firms. We all depend on them to educate us. All public companies receive the same level of education, but none earns a sustainable competitive advantage from it. Other examples include sales methodology training, Java programming training, and so on.
  • Information/know-how about an organization's products, processes, and services. The key advantage of this category is the experts are based within the organization. Learning about an organization's products or services often involves learning about revenue and profit, which obviously offers competitive advantage. When the know-how is about internal processes, then the impact can mean efficiency gains, which improves productivity, reduces cost, which should help profits and competitiveness.
So I wasn't speaking about education itself, but the content required for it.

LG: Do you believe that learning is fundamentally social or individual?

MZ: Again I will speak about the markets we serve, and share what we hear from our customers. Their answer is "both." Within our market, learning is a continuum, not an event. Products change, processes change, markets change, the competitive landscape changes, so everything is evolving. Training and development organizations must be agile enough to evolve with the rest of their business or organization. For our customers, effectively meeting learning requirements isn't about creating learning courses as much as it's creating learning content that can be consumed in different ways.

LG: You said that one of the biggest challenges with e-learning is how a company defines it and where it is housed within an organization. Based on your experience, what do you recommend a company do for training to be successful?

MZ: Strategically, separate the issue of product, services, and process training (which is about an organization's ability to execute their strategy and extends beyond employees to customers and partners) from leadership, compliance, and other training, which is only employee-oriented. To some degree they can share technologies, but the priorities, the benefits, and the ROI are completely different. My experience is that when the two get mixed up, decisions get delayed, wrong choices are made, and the end result is disappointment.

LG: Finally, what is your advice for someone who wants to create exciting and high-quality online courses?

MZ: Focus on the needs of your user and business. Quality is judged by the consumer of the training, and when they are happy, everybody realizes the impact gained from the training.


  • Wed, 30 Apr 2008
    Post by John Pearson

    Greetings, You mentioned; the MIT model and institutions such as Johns Hopkins and Utah State, do you have a comprehensive list of online learning offerings? And, are any of these accredited (by a CHEA Regional Accrediting Organization). Thanks.

  • Tue, 20 Feb 2007
    Post by Ken Korman

    Thanks, Doug, for pointing out the oversight. We have added links to both OCW and OpenLearn.

  • Fri, 16 Feb 2007
    Post by Doug Smith

    Useful insights -- but it''s a bit frustrating that there are no links to the related destinations. Unless I can''t find them, I wonder why the lack of a path to the sites in question?

  • Thu, 15 Feb 2007
    Post by Lisa Neal

    Excellent insights, Stephen. What do you believe are the implications for online certificate and degree granting programs? And where do teachers fit in to this model?