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The Next Generation of Instructional Designer

by Reuben Tozman

December 10, 2007


by Reuben Tozman

December 10, 2007

"It is time for us as instructional designers to take a look at our role in the constantly evolving world of technology-driven solutions. We should take pride in the unique skills that we possess, and use them in the most effective way possible."

The time has come for instructional designers to update their working models and design practices to better suit a new learning environment. While the environment in which instructional designers operate has evolved, the approach that instructional designers apply to their jobs has remained virtually the same.

Nobody would argue that the theory and science that comprise the current instructional design process are no longer relevant. Instructional designers are still a key component to solving workplace performance issues. Our understanding of learning theories, communication theory, psychology, and so on, is still applicable to our jobs. However, our work environment, our education, our tools, and our learners have all changed. Yet we instructional designers still try to operate, and do our jobs, in the same way that we did them ten years ago.

At conference after conference we hear about the change in learner demographics and how today’s learner has a different mind and a different disposition, and is a completely different learner than in the past. We hear about the massive collaborative efforts between individuals and social networks that have organically come about through the proliferation of technology. Our industry focuses entirely on changing the learning environment to accommodate a new breed of learners. And yet, I’m not entirely sure we’ve addressed the ways in which instructional design needs to change, other than perhaps to question whether we need it at all.

As a side note, I would even argue that our practice has gone a little soft. Today we hear many instructional designers talking about rapid e-Learning, just-in-time, mobile learning, Podcasting, and so on. In all the discussions about using Podcasting, where is the discussion of its effectiveness, and where it has been most or least effective? It would seem that we, as instructional designers, get caught up in the hype, and jump on the opportunity to use new tools without questioning the results we are looking for. The fallout from our declining scientific inquiry, and our readiness to adopt without question, will only lead to further questions at industry conferences about whether we really need instructional designers.

What’s changed?

The big change is, of course, the emergence of technology-based instruction as a viable conduit for knowledge sharing. Viability in this case refers to tried and tested practices that have spawned reliable data about acceptance, validity, and effectiveness. Early in our instructional design education we learned to remain platform-agnostic. To design the ideal learning situation we needed, first, to ignore any thoughts about the delivery platform, and instead focus on learners, content, and environment. But in today’s technology-based world, we tell instructional designers to forgo this process, and create a technology-dependent product upfront. Business leaders, learning leaders, and management rarely have time for lengthy research of technology or approaches, and will make an executive decision to implement an approach, which makes its way down the corporate chain to the instructional designer. The instructional designer in turn rarely has the time to investigate the approach, and instead quickly turns to adapting and learning a new tool set.

Within technology itself there have been many changes as well. The World Wide Web has become more than just a content delivery platform. It has become a searchable content repository, and a wide-scale social networking platform. To ignore how people are using the Web now, versus ten years ago, would be a colossal mistake. People have aptly named the new generation Web, “Web 2.0” to distinguish its Web-like characteristics from what it was. In response to the updated name, the online learning community has also renamed what it does “e-Learning 2.0.” Thought leaders, and even newcomers, are pushing us towards e-Learning 2.0. What is the change? Can we understand e-Learning 2.0 without understanding Web 2.0? Let’s start with the basics of "e-" everything.

Technology as a paradox

This push towards "e-" everything has unfolded as a paradox for designers in more than one way. One of the most interesting is that the more instructional designers push towards becoming familiar with, and gaining mastery of, what we refer to as “technology,” the less they actually learn about it. The reason for this is simply the mistaken belief that technology is equal to a tool or set of tools. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a definition of the term technology: "The practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area," and "a capability given by the practical application of knowledge" In other words, technology does not equal tools. Using wikis and Weblogs does not mean you have an understanding of e-Learning 2.0 technologies.

Let's look at specific examples of how this paradox comes into play.

How many instructional designers know about the shift in the way that people are now building artificial intelligence (AI): from one central brain to a distributed network of brains? How many instructional designers know what Adobe Captivate or Adobe Acrobat Connect are? My guess (and this is, of course, an assumption based on personal observation) is that most instructional designers know very little about the technology that supports AI (even though a classic definition of interactivity would include this), but they know a lot about Captivate and Connect (two Adobe products that are very popular in the e-Learning world). Too many designers who work in the technology space, and who have these tools, also have the assignment to create the ever-elusive, engaging, interactive e-Learning the world clamors for. The more a designer becomes familiar with one specific tool or toolset, the less likely it is that they will learn about the technology or technologies on which the end product runs, or how the tool itself was built.

Some may argue that instructional designers have no business knowing what such things as PHP or XML are, and that tools like Captivate or Connect help instructional designers do their job. To a degree, I would concur that designers don’t necessarily need to know what PHP or XML are. My counter argument to this is that as an instructional designer, my job is to design a properly structured program to deliver the most effective learning experience possible.

If I am working in the “technology world,” I need to make sure that people can access my program. I may have designed a wonderful Connect session, but if I need to deliver that session to be compliant with the Ontario Disabilities Act (the ODA), the session is useless. The ODA at the moment does not allow delivery of content through Flash®. In addition, my role as an instructional designer ties intimately to my project team, who are, at the end of the day, responsible for implementing my work and for working in the technology world. What effect does the use of a certain tool have on a development team? What are the consequences of having adapted a specific tool to a project lifecycle? How does the adoption of an authoring tool affect the development team’s ability to adapt and evolve with the project?

If someone still makes the argument that this responsibility ultimately falls outside the scope of work for an instructional designer, then would that argument also suggest architects that ought not to know anything about building materials? Understanding of building materials helps an architect be more creative, and enjoy the advantages of one material versus another in a design. Instructional designers would benefit from an analogous understanding of their building materials.

Prior to the emergence of e-Learning, instructional designers worked within a print industry paradigm, where they simply provided copy that was handed off to audio, video, graphics, and printing people. The emergence of "easy-to-use" authoring tools, however, has tempted us to believe that the instructional designer can do it all! But, paradoxically, it is worth noting here that as instructional designers become adept at using a specific tool, their value as designers will drop. This is because an instructional designer is supposed to avoid having to stuff material into a predefined box. Asking an instructional designer to build everything using a single tool or toolset offsets the value a designer may bring to the table. Understanding the true value of the instructional designer will help us to understand how we can successfully evolve our profession.

E-Learning 2.0

I think it’s also worth discussing here the way in which the widespread adoption of "e-Learning 2.0" further illustrates my point of mistaken identities, and the paradox of moving to "e-" everything. To understand what e-Learning 2.0 is, I would argue that one would have to understand the fundamentals of Web 2.0. Wikipedia lists the following Web 2.0 technologies:

  • Rich Internet techniques, often Ajax-based
  • Semantically valid XHTML and HTML markup
  • Microformats extending pages with additional semantics
  • Folksonomies (in the form of tags or tagclouds for example)
  • Cascading Style Sheets to aid in the separation of presentation and content
  • REST and/or XML- and/or JSON-based APIs
  • Syndication, aggregation, and notification of data in RSS or Atom feeds
  • Mashups, merging content from different sources, client- and server-side
  • Weblog publishing tools
  • Wiki or forum software, etc., to support user-generated content

Common definitions of Web 2.0 include the use of wikis, Weblogs, and so on, and also talk about how the Internet is moving away from being an application to being a platform to run applications. What does this all mean? If we take a critical eye to the technologies of Web 2.0 we can notice a trend. Most of the applications listed here are also technologies that support providing semantic meaning to documents and applications. The value these technologies bring to an ordinary document or application is the transition to a searchable and retrievable piece of information within an ever-growing constellation of information. It is retrievable by computers, and by humans. Is there value in a wiki, without a user being able to find it? How does the use of a wiki change if it's pushed out to users, or pulled in by users?

Now let's turn our attention to e-Learning 2.0 and ask ourselves the same question. How does the use of a wiki change if its pushed out to users, or pulled in by users? Does this even matter? My argument here is that it does matter. Organically grown Web forums have a completely different dynamic when they are user-generated. For them to be user-generated, they have to be found and used at the volition of the learner. What then are the impacts of a user-generated wiki that has been searched and retrieved at will, versus a discussion forum hosted by a company, and that is an integral part of a training program? These are all questions that instructional designers should be asking themselves prior to adoption of e-Learning 2.0. They are also questions which are generally not asked.

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