Nuts and Bolts: The 10-Minute Instructional Design Degree

Many people working in training and instructional design came to it through side doors, such as topic expertise or Web design. Is this a problem – or just a fact of life? Either way, what can you do about it?

There are heated debates about whether everyone working in the field should have formal training, as well as discussions of the pros and cons of academic instructional design programs. I’ve seen great designers who had no background at all in the field; I’ve seen terrible designers with every certificate under the sun. But here’s the thing: regardless of what side of the fence you’re on, whether all designers should have formal training is not the same as whether they will. The HR office with a resident training specialist, charged with “putting New Hire Orientation online,” isn’t going to wait for the specialist to finish a two-year Master’s program. I get that. So I recommend:

  1. Design assessments first. Too often we create assessments and tests as an afterthought, in a scramble after the training program is essentially otherwise complete. The result? Usually, it’s a pile of badly written multiple-choice questions. When approaching a project, ask: “What is it you want people to do back on the job?” Then, “What does successful performance look like?” “How will you measure that?” Design that assessment first. Then design the instruction that leads to that goal.
  1. Don’t let the “objectives” obscure the point. I watched the launch of an expansive new employee timekeeping system. The “eLearning team” developed a vast array of lovely modules. They based these on “learning objectives” that had been wordsmithed and vetted and approved six levels up. Those objectives? “Employee will: assign charge object numbers to hours; distinguish types of overtime, holiday, and callback pay rates; generate leave requests; calculate vacation quota.” Sounds great, right? Except that the day the system went live, no one could actually complete a time sheet. Turns out the objectives didn’t really address that. Nor did the module content. Nor did the assessments (see item 1 above). Oops.
  1. No tool will take your content-heavy slides and turn them into an engaging, interactive eLearning experience. You cannot put a Volkswagen into a carwash and have it come out a Lexus. Good eLearning is about design, not software. So invest time and money in talking with performers and learning about the content, and in good books and other training (see “Want More?” below), not in buying and learning to use more products that will not live up to promises. Also – instructional design and visual design are different things. Visual design is just as important (and it isn’t about making things “pretty”), and it needs to be done before the development phase begins.
  1. Design is finished when there’s nothing left to take out. It’s a problem that has bedeviled learning practitioners since the first trainer put stick to dirt: The HR department wants you to include the whole policy. The legal department wants a disclaimer. The owners want to include the company history. The subject matter experts want to include every possible extenuating circumstance. Along the way others say, “Be sure to include…” or, “Don’t you think we should mention…?” And the program grows … and grows … and grows. Revisit your assessment (remember that? You designed it before anything else). Will this information in any way affect successful performance? If not, can you add a link to the policy and an e-mail introduction with a disclaimer? Can you cut the verbiage (here’s a trick: what if you had to pay $5 per word? I bet you could cut it then.)? Or, if there’s really that much content, should you break it into pieces?
  1. There is no such thing as fidelity. This has always been a problem for those in the classroom training business and it didn’t disappear when eLearning came along. Years ago I designed a set of stand-alone tutorials for new supervisors, kind of an “emergency kit” to help them during their first 90 days on the job, often before they went to formal training. Modules covered things like quick overviews of the company hiring process, basics of the performance review system, supervising former peers, that kind of thing. I designed it to be exactly what it said it was – a set of stand-alone modules, more performance support than “training,” easily available independent of each other, to provide just-in-time, just-for-me help as an incumbent encountered new situations. Within weeks I found out that classroom instructors were assigning these modules as pre-work to other training, and workers were e-mailing me, panicked about needing a completion form for a “course” that didn’t even exist. The once-useful program quickly stopped being a “toolkit” and started being one more mandatory training requirement, assigned for completion during the first week of work, apart from any real need for use. Sigh. Another time, I was being held prisoner in a compliance course when the instructor announced she’d found this “great eLearning program” and proceeded to project a stand-alone tutorial on the wall, played the audio through speakers, and did all the clicking and interactions and simulations herself while everyone watched. Sigh again. Here’s the deal: just because it’s online doesn’t mean you can control it. Build it with this in mind.
  1.  Beware of Clicky-Clicky-Bling-Bling (CCBB) design. I mentioned this in an earlier column – and thanks to Cammy Bean for coining the term. Zooming and spinning words, irrelevant animations, and neon “next” buttons do not heighten engagement. They confuse and distract learners. An example? Kevin Thorn’s fabulously CCBB eLearning Christmas card at: http://www.learnnuggets.com/nuggethead/NH_christmasCard.html
  1. Learn to say “No.” Or at least learn to say, “You know, I don’t think that will solve the performance problem. Can we talk about some ways to get you a better solution?” Designing a solution that doesn’t solve the problem, or that makes it worse, doesn’t do anything to help the organization, the field, or your department’s reputation – or your own. “Instructional designer” is a job title. “Performance consultant” is a mindset. 
  1. Instruction does not cause learning. Etienne Wenger: “Instruction does not cause learning; it creates a context in which learning takes place, as do other contexts. Learning and teaching are not inherently linked. Much learning takes place without teaching, and indeed much teaching takes place without learning.” In other words, knowledge acquisition doesn’t cause behavior change. People learn through experience, through making mistakes, through trying things out, through talking things through with others. Don’t just deliver facts and “content,” but provide meaningful exercises and activities that can help to “cause” learning. Provide performance support tools. Insinuate the learning into the social spaces in which the workers operate. Help the instruction become part of that context in which the learner can learn. 

What would you add to the “10 Minute ID Degree” program?

Want more? Here are some great resources for basics of instructional design:

Cathy Moore’s blog http://blog.cathy-moore.com/

The Rapid eLearning Blog http://www.articulate.com/rapid-elearning/

Clark, R. & Mayer, R. (2011) e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. 3rd Edition. San Francisco: Pfeiffer. 

Schank, R. (2005). Lessons in Learning, eLearning, and Training. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

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