Let’s be honest. Not everyone who is creating training or learning materials or experiences has actual training in instructional design (ID).
Sometimes, by virtue of subject matter expertise, people find themselves placed in a position to develop training without the benefit of understanding instructional design. These are instructional designers “by assignment” rather than by training. So for those in such a position, how do we help them to at least understand how instructional designers design?
What do instructional designers actually do when designing competency-based learning environments? A study by Paul Kirschner, Chad Carr, and Jeroen van Merrienboer looked for an answer.
Some definitions, according to this study:
Competencies: abilities that enable learners to recognize and define new problems in their domain of study and future work as well as solve problems.
Instructional design: the ideas, plans, and rules of what has to be done or could be done in order to develop instruction of knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes—the explanations and assignments to promote learning and reach a learning outcome that is described in advance.
Kirschner, Paul, Carr, Chad, and van Merrienboer, Jeroen. 2002. How Expert Designers Design. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 15(4), 86-104.
In their review of the literature, the authors shared their findings about how designers actually design. They found some common themes. Instructional designers (1) design in an iterative, solution-oriented, and context-sensitive fashion; (2) are selective in their choice of ID model prescriptions; (3) stress the importance of communication, especially with stakeholders; (4) greatly differ in expert performance; and (5) are influenced by their theoretical background (frame of reference).
The three investigators designed a two-part study focused on (1) determining the priorities of expert designers and (2) identifying their actual approach to design. Participants were expert instructional designers—nine from an academic environment and six from a corporate or consulting environment.
From a list of 16 design principles, participants were to determine their top three, the ones that they considered the “most important to the success of a design project,” and then the top three that “need the most improvement.”
Experiment #1 results
Table 1 shows the aggregated results of the important design principles and those needing most improvement from Experiment #1 (in order of importance). While there are commonalities in the choice of principles involved in good design, the prioritization within each environment differs.
The investigators assigned the subjects to a specific task: to create a preliminary design for a post-graduate program in environmental consulting for a consulting firm. Designers were supplied with a task description, high-level generic competencies, and the goal of the consulting firm regarding their need for training, along with competency elements and performance criteria. In teams of two, participants had 90 minutes to complete the preliminary design.
Experiment #2 results
Even though the identification of design principles for successful projects was overlapping between the groups, their actual approaches to design were different. While the academic group focused more on task analysis, the corporate group focused more on the client and gaining buy-in through a showcase of successful projects.
Initial design approaches of the academic teams:
- Team A1 conducted a detailed task analysis, mapping problem-solving approaches used by experts plus generation of learning tasks.
- Team A2 made an inventory of tasks normally carried out by expert environmental consultants (the inventory is also known as a task analysis).
- Team A3 produced a project plan for client approval consisting of problem description, audience analysis, gap analysis (knowledge and skills), project constraints, and sequencing of learning tasks.
Initial design approaches of the corporate teams:
- Team C1 conducted a general needs assessment (hypothesis generation plus validating through focus groups and observation) followed by gaining client buy-in for work yet to be performed (showing successful projects and presenting “what works”).
- Team C2 identified best practices within organizational policy to create an objective or competency map, followed by a target audience analysis.
Implications for eLearning design
The contexts of academic and corporate designers are different—the cultures are different, and the organizational goals and objectives are different. While prioritization of design principles for successful projects in academic versus corporate setting may differ, the actual principles are quite consistent across both. If you are just starting out with your eLearning design, include these among the principles that you follow:
- Start your design with consideration of the learner needs rather than a focus on the content of the specific domain.
- Prototype early in the design process (it’s an iterative process).
- Establish and maintain good communication with stakeholders and clients to ensure buy-in.