On being an instructional designer

September 18, 2012

The one question I am asked the most as an instructional designer: “How do you do that? How can you know about that?”

The question is asked in varying tones, from an undeserved derision (who are you to teach these people?) to undeserved praise (who are you to teach these people?).

The simple fact is, instructional design is not about knowing the details of the content being developed (or, to the layperson – the subject you are teaching), but knowing how to develop the content (or how to communicate the information to the people who need to know it). Dealing with content is the skill. What does that mean? It means many things to many people. I like to go back to first principles. In short: you have a problem. 

Someone (or some population) need to know X. They do not know it now. Your job is not just to tell them “X”. Your job is to ensure that when they need to use this information, X (they may be on the phone, they may be in a hospital, they may be flying a plane), X is there, in their head and ready to be used.

So, how do you get X inside their head? I can’t tell you here, because you’ve already formed an idea. An idea about who this learner is and what X is. If I don’t know who they are or what X is, I cannot possibly suggest how you get it inside their head. I can’t even pack its bags for the journey. All I know is you have to communicate it to them (not their boss, not the experts I talk about later, but to that person).

In most cases, I am dealing with technology. This is a function of the environment. People call on an instructional designer when they want something delivered via technology. If they wanted something delivered in a classroom, they would have called a trainer. This does not mean they are right, it is merely a function of how the roles of “trainer” (traditional, instructor-led training and coaching) and instructional design (new-media, technology assisted training) are viewed. I believe the 2 will converge at some point.  This will offer better results, as trainers and instructional designers will be in a position to better exploit both the instructor-led and technology assisted methods of communicating that are currently somewhat “shut off” from them (because they are currently called upon to provide either instructor led sessions or technology assisted communication).

Then, dealing with people. I work (as all instructional designers do) with Subject Matter Experts, who often have more important things to do with their time. I am blessed in my current job (I know from experience!), in that the SMEs I work with now are willing to help, but are busy (I have worked with those who are not busy, and not willing to help). Dealing with getting the most from the small slice of their schedule is the skill. 

You also need to be able to explain to the Subject Matter Expert, and to whoever manages the person you are communicating with, that this communication is not for them. It is for the audience. This may seem obvious, but in my experience can be the most difficult communication to get across. Managers want to see content in one shape, SMEs want to see it in another. However, to do your job properly, the only people who matter are the audience. The content needs to be in a shape that allows them to consume it in the most efficient way that ensures it remains durable.

Once you’ve cut through who you are talking to, how best to communicate with them and explained to their boss and the subject matter expert what it is you intend to do, it is time to deal with the information. This is the bit I like.

You consider what people need to know, why they need to know it and how they will use this information. This allows you (in discussion with their manager and the SME) to determine learning objectives. These determine what it is someone should be able to after you have finished talking with them.

With the objectives, you have an end point. Progress! 

So, next you need to know your starting point. Again, the SME should give you an idea of where people are starting from (what they should already know/what they can do). So, armed with this information, you start to create a “story” that begins where the audience currently is, and leads them to where they need to be (i.e. achieving their learning objectives).

Ah, but sometimes, management and coordination is the skill. Many instructional designers will work with programmers and designers to make this story compelling and engaging. This is usually achieved using interaction, quizzes and assessment. If you aren’t using a Rapid eLearning Tool (this is a subject for another day, but in short means you’re doing it all yourself), you have to request this content and keep an eye on its delivery to make sure everything comes together at the right time. Yes, you probably have a project manager who organises all this, but you still need a mechanism to determine what you need, how you get it and when you’ll get it back.

At the end of the road, it is always good to look over the journey. So you create a final assessment (the intermediate quizzes and assessment help people to gauge their learning as they go, so they can go back over anything that the quiz has shown they didn’t understand).  

This final quiz will serve 2 purposes. The first is testing – to prove to the person you are talking to (and whoever else needs to know) that they now know X, and can hopefully use it. A second purpose is to “activate” the information within their mind. In short: they may well know the information you have communicated to them. But it is latent – sitting in their brain, perhaps having a cocktail and enjoying the view. By quizzing them on this information, you force it to get up and head upstairs to the consciousness, so the brain knows where to find it. This helps to develop and protect their understanding of the information. Which is good, because if they need to know X while they are flying a plane, you want X arriving promptly, not delayed at the gate or snoozing on a lilo, while the brain frantically calls its name over some kind of synapse intercom.

The next skill is one you learned as a child. It is the “spot the difference” skill. What was planned, what was built and how do they compare? Are there differences? Do these differences need fixing? If not, perhaps you need to alter your plan to reflect any changes that were required in the course of the project. Because when you come back in a year or so, you may not be able to remember that last Tuesday Jo Murphy came in and said the TX3720 was going to launch with a specialist module. While the specialist module isn’t the “main event”, it still needs to be mentioned.

After you’re happy, the content needs to go to the SME to make sure it is correct. If it is not correct, terrible things may happen. And many instructional designers feel an SME review is a terrible thing, happening. But this final review ensures that even though you are not an expert, that at least what you are communicating is correct.

After all that, it’s probably time for a pint. 


2 Responses to “On being an instructional designer”

  1. GKelly said

    Very interesting and informative Brendan. As both a Trainer and Instructional Designer I have to take issue, however, with your following points:
    “You [the ID] consider what people need to know, why they need to know it and how they will use this information. This allows you (in discussion with their manager and the SME) to determine learning objectives. These determine what it is someone should be able to [do] after you have finished talking with them.
    With the objectives, you have an end point. Progress!
    So, next you need to know your starting point. Again, the SME should give you an idea of where people are starting from (what they should already know/what they can do).”

    In my view, there is no difference in pedagogy between face-to-face, blended and on-line teaching and learning. The tools and methodologies differ, that’s all. Technology should be part of all modern teaching and learning approaches, simply because it makes for more effective learning.I would expect the SME/Trainer to determine the learning objectives based on (a) the identified needs of the learner and (b) the required depth and breadth of knowledge of the material required for particular accreditation levels.

    The ID, who is not also the trainer, provides a support service to the trainer by presenting the material in the best easy-to-follow format that will facilitate self-directed fluid learning. The Trainer’s role is then to facilitate critical thinking through interaction with the learners, preferably in a community of practice environment.

  2. Brendan Strong said

    Hi GKelly,
    Thanks for reading and commenting! It is interesting you mention the issue of pedagogy, that’s the second time this week I’ve been corrected for implying there is a different pedagogy for face to face and online learning.

    I think perhaps I am using too strong a word, but as I see it, one tries to make online (or blended, or face to face) learning as effective as possible. As such, I would see the approach one takes as being more than just different methodologies; as one must determine the optimal way to communicate the learning content within each sphere. A sub-pedagogy, if you will (I do hope you will!).

    However, in spirit, I agree with your point anyway. I would see the use of online, blended and face-to-face as a continuum, rather than alternatives. I think they should all work together to provide the best learning outcome for learners.

    As to a trainer and instructional designer being separate entities, I am not so sure. I work primarily as an instructional designer right now, but in the past have developed and delivered both face to face training, online support and purely online-based eLearning. I think perhaps for me the roles are blurred in this sense – the person developing the online content is attempting something similar to the person developing face to face training. There is a needs analysis, determination of objectives, learning plan, &c. One should attempt to match the objectives to the format being used, and ideally all forms should be used to best effect – but at bottom, they are all designed, developed and delivered to communicate some message as effectively as possible.

    Thanks again for commenting, I love it when a blog post turns into more of a conversation. Feels much less like I’m just shouting at the ocean!

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