The five secrets of instructional design

by | Mar 26, 2010 | Articles

If you’re in the business of creating e-learning materials, then you’ll know how easy it is to get distracted from your primary goal by the contradictory pressures exerted upon you by your various stakeholders: make it as cheap as possible, as short as possible, as quickly as possible, while also as comprehensive as possible, as media-rich and engaging as possible.

Clive Shepherd’s 5 Secrets of Great Instructional Design

As a designer of learning interventions for the workplace, your raison-d’ être is quite simple – the improvement of employee performance on-the-job; not winning awards, nor allowing management to tick all the boxes while going through the motions of delivering effective training. I have five secrets I’d like to share with you that might help you to keep focused amidst all this noise. You may even find you can get away with achieving more for very much less.

Secret 1: Don’t forget the learning

This may seem a little unnecessary, perhaps even patronising; after all, learning is your profession. However, as we’ve already discussed, the voice of the learning professional does not always rise strongly enough above those of the subject experts, technical specialists, creatives and project managers. The path to effective learning is neither obvious nor intuitive; if it was, we wouldn’t end up with so many interventions that comprise no more than a knowledge dump followed by a quiz. It pays to keep the core learning principles in mind and to keep it simple. Perhaps the best summary I’ve seen arose from the creation a few years ago of the 60-minute masters (1), a curriculum for the briefest possible course for wannabe designers, created by some of the world’s best. Here are the essential points that they came up with:

  • Set a realistic goal
  • Consider the content from the learner’s point of view
  • Hook learners in emotionally
  • Present your material clearly, simply and in a logical order
  • lluminate your material with imagery
  • Use audio appropriately
  • Put your material into context with examples, cases and stories
  • Engage users with challenging interactions
  • End with a call to action
Secret 2: Don’t over-engineer

Not all learning interventions are equal. Some are business critical, address the needs of large populations and have a shelf life of many years; others are aimed at smaller, more specialist audiences and may be required to meet a short-term business requirement; still more are confined to the very particular needs of individuals and small groups of employees, where information is required on-demand. These three types of interventions can be shown diagrammatically in the form of a pyramid (with thanks to Nick Shackleton-Jones):

pic1

High-end interventions demand the highest budgets and the attention of skilled professionals. They are the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbusters. The attention to detail and lengthy development schedules can be justified by the large numbers that will benefit from the end results. These are the exception, not the rule. Most needs cannot possibly justify this much effort and time.

Plan B is the rapid intervention, where the emphasis is on developing content that is good enough to do the job and no more. Plan C requires the help of more experiences or knowledgeable employees who help their peers by contributing the simplest of resources, often just text. So don’t over-engineer – match your production values to the requirement.

Secret 3: Employ willing helpers

The phrase ‘the long tail’ was first coined by Chris Anderson(2) in 2004 to describe the niche strategy of businesses, such as Amazon.com, which sell a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities. Whereas high-street bookshops are forced, by lack of shelf space, to concentrate on the most popular books, shown on the left of the chart below, retailers selling online can afford to service the minority interests shown below tailing off to the right. Interestingly, for a retailer such as Amazon, the volume of sales for minority titles exceeds that of the most popular; yet before the advent of online retailing these needs would have been very hard to service.

pic2

The concept of the long tail can be applied as well to training needs as it can to sales of retail products; just substitute ‘training needs’ for ‘titles on sale’ and ‘target population’ for ‘copies sold’. However hard we try, as trainers we cannot hope to respond to the long tail through formal, top-down efforts. We can begin to address the middle reaches of the tail if we are prepared to delegate some of our responsibility for top-down interventions to generalist trainers and subject experts. In e-learning terms that means rapid development processes making use of rapid development tools.

pic3

At the far reaches of the tail, we have to rely on bottom-up approaches to meet the needs of small numbers. In a way this has always been the case – in the absence of any other help, an employee has never had any option but to ask for help from co-workers and supervisors, or at very least just to copy what they do. But l&d professionals can help the process along in a number of ways. First and foremost, they can ensure that employees are aware of their responsibilities as teachers as well as learners, and are cognisant of the most effective ways to pass on knowledge and skills. And where employees have access to the appropriate technology, they can make available tools that smooth the way for bottom-up learning; tools like forums, wikis and sites that enable employees to connect with experts and others with similar interests.

Good managers have always known that they cannot accomplish great things if they try to do everything themselves – they empower others and then encourage their efforts. Trainers who try to control all aspects of the training process and deny others the tools to make their own contributions, will never satisfy the needs of the long tail, and risk being bypassed in the rush to get things done in a fast-changing work environment.

Secret 4: Don’t over-rely on self-study

In a survey conducted in 2009 (3) of more than 2000 employees from eight different European countries, an overwhelming majority (87%) reported that they most liked to learn at their own pace. This should not be that surprising; after all, self-paced learning is highly flexible (you control when, where and how often) and low-stress (you are not pressured to keep up with the pace set by an instructor). This and other surveys have also shown that employees like to learn in small chunks (a sensible preference, because this is much more brain-friendly) and on-demand, i.e. without having to wait for a scheduled intervention. So self-study is more than just a tonic for the finance director; it works for learners too.  

But, of course, nothing is that simple. First of all, self-study is limited in its application, because it doesn’t address all learning requirements – in some cases the desired results simply cannot be achieved without interaction with experts, coaches and peers. Above all, self-study does not meet all of the needs of learners. However much learners want flexibility and control, they also want support, collaboration and community. They want access to real human beings so they can ask questions, share experiences and perspectives, benchmark their skills, and both give and receive encouragement.

Self-study does have an increasingly valuable role to play in learning interventions, but it cannot be relied upon as a stand-alone option. Blended solutions, like the induction programme shown below, may be more complex to administer, but they are more powerful and more likely to work.

pic4

Secret 5: Don’t get fixated on instruction

Many hundreds of years ago, Samuel Johnson advised us that “Knowledge is of two kinds: we know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find information upon it.” His point is even more relevant . Robert E Kelley (4) asked the question “Do you believe that the retention of information in your head is important for you to do your job well?” In 1986, the answer was 75%; in 1997, 15-20%. His estimate for 2006 was 8-10%.

There is far too much to know and it is changing so quickly that it is almost impossible to keep up. When a person entered a career just fifty years ago, they would have expected to learn all aspects of their trade or profession in the first five years or so, and then to apply this for the rest of their lives. Today that prospect seems ludicrous.In a networked age, it is much more important to know where to look and who to ask than it is to hold vast amounts of knowledge in your head.

This idea has even spawned a completely new approach to learning called connectivism. Canadian George Siemens (5) perhaps the most influential figure in this new movement, explains how: “Instead of the individual having to evaluate and process every bit of information, she/he creates a personal network of trusted nodes: people and content, enhanced by technology. The act of knowledge is offloaded onto the network itself.”

This has proofound implications for the instructional designer because it implies that instruction is not always going to be the most appropriate solution. It will often be more effective to limit instruction to key concepts and core skills, and then provide reference materials that can accessed on a just-in-time basis, not through learning management systems but as everyday online information, supported by social networks operating within the firewall.

It will soon be time for instructional designers to look for a new name. The purposes of online content are now much more profound and the impact of the designer can be much greater, not operating from the elevated viewpoint of the ivory tower, but as a specialist in a world in which everyone is a teacher as well as a learner.  

Note from Editor

Clive Shepherd works with Towards Maturity as our Programme Director for our First and Next Steps workshops. This article came about from one of our workshops earlier this year (February 2010) when we were looking at different approaches to improving the take up and buy in of e-Learning in the workplace.  Towards Maturity benchmark research has shown that those organisations who are responding to these areas in instructional design are definitely reporting more benefit from their investment in learning technologies – however, our research has also shown that they still remain a secret to many which is why we wanted to bring this article to more readers.  If you are starting to make some of Clive’s secrets work for you- we would love to hear from you!

References:

1 –  The curriculum for the 60-minute masters can be found at http://www.learning15.net/wiki/index.php?title=The_60-minute_masters. A free implementation of the course can be found at http://www.learning15.net

2-  The long tail: how endless choice is creating unlimited demand by Chris Anderson (Random House, 2004).

3-  Rethinking learning, a survey conducted in June 2009 for SkillSoft by OnePoll.

4- How to be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed by Robert E Kelley (Times Books, 1999).

5- Knowing Knowledge by George Siemens (Lulu, 2006).

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