Overcoming Digital Debt in Your Curriculum

Has it ever happened that you’ve sat through a grueling two-hour lecture or plowed your way through a 50-page textbook chapter only to discover that you could condense everything you’ve learned into just a page or two of well-written notes? I have.

Let me tell you a story about a college friend from a music composition class. One day, this friend decided to skip class and later asked to borrow my notes. Of course, I didn’t hesitate to help her out. The next day, she returned them with a compliment on my note-taking skills. We both took the class quiz later that week and to my delight, we both scored A’s.

However, here’s where it got interesting. She confessed that she hadn’t touched the assigned reading. Instead, she derived her entire understanding from my snappy notetaking. At first, this left me feeling somewhat conflicted, but it got me thinking.

My friend had digested the same amount of information from a page and a half of well-scraped-together notes that I learned from a 1-hour lecture and a 50-page chapter of the textbook. This made me realize just how much ‘digital debt’ is embedded in resources like textbooks, lectures, and videos.

Digital Debt in eLearning

‘Digital debt’ is a term originally used to describe the accumulation of unnecessary data, redundant emails, and excess notifications that we struggle to manage in our electronic workspace. However, this concept unveils a broader perspective when applied to the domain of eLearning content.

In the world of eLearning, I think of digital debt as the extensive volume of superfluous content that learners often slog through, much of which leads to little or no added value to the learning process. Much like monetary debt, this ‘content debt’ needs repayment in the form of our time and energy, and can severely impact learning outcomes. In other words, the unnecessary content to which a learner does not really “owe” attention causes a “debt”, so they are unable to “pay” attention to the important content.

The Economy of eLearning

“I’m Too Poor to Pay Attention.” I’m sure you’ve heard this funny adage before. In the world of eLearning, it might be funnier if it wasn’t so often true. Look at it this way:

The world of eLearning can be seen as an economy, where ‘attention’ is the precious currency that learners must spend. This ‘cognitive currency’ is what learners invest in the educational content they need to focus on.

Now imagine extraneous digital content as a significant debt that learners need not have taken on and to which they don’t really ‘owe’ their cognitive resources. As learners struggle with the weight of this redundant information, their cognitive resources become drained. They are thus left grappling with an ‘attention deficit’ that impairs their capacity to effectively pay attention to the essential areas of knowledge that they genuinely ‘owe’ their focus to.

However, just as excessive financial debt can deplete monetary resources, unnecessary or excess digital content, or ‘digital debt’, can exhaust learners’ cognitive resources, leading to a content-imposed ‘attention deficit.’

This experience implies a powerful idea in the realm of eLearning content creation:

Efficiency boosts engagement

By transforming overly complicated or excessive material into concise, straightforward, and easily digestible content, we can focus on understanding and application, not just memorization. Such efficient learning not only enhances engagement but also improves comprehension and retention. Learners can delve deeper into the topic, stoking their curiosity and promoting a love for learning, rather than burning their energy in managing the ‘debt’ of unnecessary content.

So then, like prudent financial management principles that advocate a balance of income and spending, eLearning development also calls for a thoughtful approach to content creation and delivery. By focusing on relevance and quality while reducing quantity, educators can help manage the course’s cognitive load. This leads to a conservation of learners’ cognitive resources, prevents attention deficits, and thereby enhances the overall learning outcome. With this, learners can utilize their ‘attention currency’ more efficiently.

Suggested Solutions

So, what tools do we as developers have at our disposal to reduce this “digital debt?”

1. Well Organized Curricula

A structured and organized curriculum provides a clear roadmap of the coursework, trimming away unnecessary content. It provides a logical sequence for learning and is essential for learners’ ability to connect and synthesize information.

2. Scaffolding

Scaffolding is a strategy that involves breaking down complex concepts into smaller, manageable chunks. It also includes providing support or guidance to ease the learning process. This support gradually decreases as the learner gains confidence and mastery, keeping the cognitive load appropriate.

3. Microlearning

Microlearning breaks down learning into short, focused nuggets of information. It is excellent at providing just the right amount of knowledge needed to achieve specific objectives, making it relatively easy for learners to digest and remember.

4. Appropriate Delivery Methods

Selecting the most suitable medium to deliver content can also aid in reducing digital debt. Different topics may be best suited to different delivery methods. The choice should depend on factors like the complexity of the topic, the learners’ preferences, and the structure of the course.

For instance, a complex concept might be better understood when demonstrated through a video or a simulation, whereas an in-depth discussion on a topic might be best suited for a podcast or a webinar. Interactive components like quizzes or games can be utilized to break up the monotony and keep learners engaged.

Remember, the goal is not just to deliver information, but to ensure understanding and retention. The right delivery method can help to achieve this while respecting learners’ cognitive resources.

5. Critical Content Review

We can’t be lazy in our quality assurance process. Meticulous review of the course material with a critical eye to eliminate any excessive, redundant, or non-essential information. This review not only helps cut down the volume but also refines the content quality by ensuring every part of the content serves a clear purpose in the learning process.

6. Iterative Methodologies

These methodologies involve a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process. In the context of eLearning, an iterative approach can involve launching an initial version of the course, gathering feedback from learners or educators, and then refining the content based on the feedback. Repeating these steps can lead to continual improvement and ensure the content stays relevant, useful, and free from unnecessary information. Examples include Agile and Scrum methodologies.

7. Differentiated Entry Points

After an evaluation or self-assessment, learners can be directed to different entry points in the course that match their current level of understanding. This strategy is useful in addressing the diverse learning needs and distinct starting points of each learner. For instance, some learners may have pre-existing knowledge about the subject matter and may not need in-depth information, while others might be starting from scratch.

Offering distinct learning paths and allowing learners to self-direct their learning trajectory can reduce digital debt by eliminating the unnecessary ingestion of content that a learner may already be familiar with. Moreover, it provides learners with the exact learning resources they need at their particular stage of learning, thus making their learning journey more efficient and effective.

8. Optional "Deep Dives"

These are in-depth explorations of a specific topic, provided as optional resources for learners who express interest or need further understanding. By making this deep, complex material optional, eLearning developers can reduce the core content to its essentials, ensuring that everyone gets a thorough understanding of the basics without being overwhelmed by advanced material.

Deep dives provide a valuable opportunity for learners who desire a greater challenge, have a particular interest in a topic, or need additional clarity. They can range from advanced tutorials, comprehensive case studies, detailed articles, or extensive research reports. Offering deep dives helps keep the main content streamlined for all learners, while still offering opportunities for those who are willing and ready to delve deeper, thereby actively mitigating the buildup of digital debt.


In a nutshell, applying the concept of digital debt to eLearning suggests the need for a shift in our approach towards content creation. If the term “digital debt” is not something you think you can hold on to, remember age-old principles like the ‘KISS’ (Keep It Short and Simple) and the ‘less is more’ approach.

Whatever you choose to call it, they could be key to reducing extraneous content and fostering effective and engaging learning experiences. By doing so, we can mitigate the burden of digital debt, thereby creating a more efficient and engaging learning environment that fosters curiosity, innovation, and enlightenment.

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