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Introduction to Instructional Design

Bob Little 

June 5, 2015

Among the L&D professional’s basic skills is an ability to design learning materials, but doing so for remote delivery to a diverse audience, online, can be tricky. Accounting for all possible individual learner preferences has to be built in at the design stage – and this, according to Jan Seabrook, one of the U.K.’s leading instructional designers, requires time. Jan says, “The pay-off is that online learning materials offer advantages such as consistency of content and reduced learning time.”

Over the years, instructional design (ID) has been emphasized to varying degrees, but it’s in danger of being ignored altogether today in the face of template-driven, rapid-authoring of learning objects, simulations, unstructured learning, peer groups, and so on. There is also more of a focus on logging and measuring learning, all on top of the usual pressures of time and costs. Yet ID provides a structure, a discipline for those engaged in it, and a framework for the basis for a learning solution. Moreover, it is based on principles that offer a benchmarking and checking mechanism to keep any project on track.

Robert Gagné (more of whom later in this series of posts) argues that there are different kinds of knowledge and skills, and that each of them requires unique conditions for it to be learned. ID’s job is to identify these conditions. Its architecture can comprise media-, message-, strategy-, and model-driven designs for learning programs.

Yet, in the world of corporate learning, ID has to overcome a range of practical problems, including:

  • It’s rare for the instructional designer to lead the learning development team.
  • Projects have a habit of developing once they’ve begun and this can bring conflicting demands, with instructional designers being asked to cater for extra categories of learners – which alters the whole design.
  • The rest of the project group and the client are unlikely to understand the particular nuances, skills and rationale of the designer’s art.
  • Program design has tended to move from the instructional designer to subject matter experts, who’re not necessarily skilled in, or sympathetic to, ID techniques. Nor are they adept at remembering what it’s like to know very little about the subject in which they’re now expert!

Best ID practice:

  • Is based on identified learning needs.
  • Is related to organizational needs.
  • Is based on clearly defined objectives.
  • Structures and sequences content effectively.
  • Chooses the appropriate delivery media.
  • Provides feedback and assessment.

Of course, learning should take priority over technology. Merely having the technology to develop learning materials – via rapid-authoring tools – and deliver them online, globally, doesn’t guarantee their effectiveness. The content of an effective learning program should match the user’s immediate learning needs but, Jan comments, “this implies a proper user analysis yet, often, that’s taken for granted, with the manager/client describing who needs the learning.

“By reducing time to [just] the delivery of online learning, working with smaller budgets, and a possible assumption that ‘anyone can put learning online,’ the role of ID may be seen as unnecessary. However, its role is to allow learners to become proficient performers, in the most efficient and effective way, at whatever the project set out to achieve. An effective instructional designer can also provide useful reference materials, improve work processes, and provide other helpful advice for the business that become apparent during the ID process for the project.”

New York-based ID specialist Frank Troha says, “In life-or-death situations, there are proven processes – or protocols. They’re followed because they tend to produce the desired result. I wish I could say the same for corporate training.

“Doctors agree on the process to be followed to remove an appendix. But do workers in the L&D field agree on the process to be followed to design effective instruction? In my 30-plus years of designing corporate training, I’ve met many L&D colleagues who’ve been far more enamored with the latest technologies than with mastering an effective protocol or process for the design of instructional experiences. Yet it’s the mastery of an ID model that provides the basis or framework which informs the proper selection and utilization of the most appropriate technologies.”

Frank’s ID model comprises a series of major questions, asked in sequence. They are:

  1. What’s the purpose of the training?
  2. What’s indicated the need for it?
  3. Who’s the audience?
  4. What do they need to come away with as a result of completing the training?
  5. Given that we want them to come away with those things, what exactly do we need to address in the training?
  6. What’s the best way to get those elements of course content across to the audience? (This is where the selection of appropriate learning technologies comes in.)
  7. How can we help make sure the learning “sticks” – what can we do before, during and after the training to ensure that it’s kept alive?
  8. How will we evaluate the effectiveness of the training, both while it’s being developed (or drafted) and after it’s been finalized and delivered to the audience?

The output of these questions is a “blueprint,” or ID document, that guides the development or creation of the training program and its materials.

“These eight steps are an ID model,” says Frank. “By contrast, consider what happens when a subject matter expert dives in and populates templates with learning content – compared with an instructional designer who uses an approach like the eight questions. Which individual is likely to produce the more effective training experience? I know the answer to that question – and it’s why I believe ID will never die.”

How do you make your L&D materials, who else is involved, and what have you learned from the process? Share your ideas in our comments section below.

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