Friday, October 24, 2008

Instructional Design in a Connected World

In reading discussions and listening to George Siemens and Stephen Downes speak in our class, Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, I have heard and read a lot of narrow and overly simplistic definitions of instructional design. Much of what has been said characterizes instructional design as mechanistic, linear, and formulaic. To an extent, there is some truth to this because instructional design has many problems to solve - one of them, for instance, might be that factory workers may need to know how to operate a specific piece of equipment or billing coders in hospitals may need to know some legal procedures. In cases like these, the important thing is that the information is being given clearly, in sequence, and in a way that will ensure that everyone is on the same page. An added bonus would be if you had a good instructional designer who could also include in that training:
  • problem-solving skills,
  • practice sessions that helped users remember the sequence of procudures,
  • interactivity with other learners,
  • attention to multi-modal learning (e.g. visual or aural learners)
  • and a community of professionals where learning would continue
But I am ahead of myself and the above list is not typical of a lot of instructional design.

The other problem that instructional designers have to solve is the unifority of curriculum. I know that the "throw the kids in a bucket of clay and watch them sculpt the Pieta" crowd flinches when they hear this. But the problem goes something like this: if English 101 is a requirement to succeed in Philosophy 110, how do ensure that students are getting the same level of education in all English 101 classes? Now lets say you have a teacher who follows her instincts, doesn't believe in standards and thinks that the students will learn more about writing if they keep a journal, read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence" and just "be here now." In an ideal world, a teacher like that would get on fine, even without tenure, but we do not live in that world yet. Creating that world is not the work of instructional designers. For me to say, "I do not agree with the current standards so everything I design is fundamentally flawed" means that I should be doing something else. It would be as if someone were to hire an engineer to build a bridge and that engineer said "we really should be flying over this river, not driving." I do not particularly like multiple choice tests, for instance, but my job as an instructional designer is to help instructors design the most effective multiple choice tests. I have found that by scaffolding the questions using Bloom's Taxonomy to be a demonstrably effective way to create those tests. Not every theorist likes Bloom, but not every theorist out there is tasked with making a multiple choice test work! And I can't wait around for the Rousseauist utopia to come before I work on the test.

Good instructional designers keep up on the latest learning theories, teaching methods, and instructional technology. We do this not to tell a teacher how to teach, but to help instructors solve problems. Most teachers do some things really well. There are other things that teachers may not like to do, like deliver the same lecture in their history course semester after semester. This teacher would benefit by having someone who could show him how to record lectures and put them online, reserving the classroom for the discussions that he enjoys moderating and participating in. Or an institution wants their employees to be more productive at their work and have the fore-sight to see that it might be a training issue. People often do not do the work you want them to do if you have not told them (or don't know) what that work really is! An instructional designer can look at a job, interview the management and workers, and by bringing everyone together, discover what they need to know and how to build training for that.

Teachers and administrator often do not have the time to keep up on the latest developments in instructional design and technology. Why should they? They have enough cut out for themselves in teaching and staying current in their field, they cannot be expected to wade through all of the commercial hype and rapid changes in technology from day-to-day. An instructional designer is a contact person into the meta-disciplines around instruction. This is not telling anyone how to teach but being a resource of information, tools, and techniques that can increase the interactivity, communication (both in breadth and depth), and community of a course.

In my own day to day work, I wear many hats: counselor, teacher, researcher, education historian, data analyst, administrator, artist, etc. I use a wide variety of methods and tools that are carefully matched to the problems being solved. There are times when I have to think like a Cognitivist ("What would be the most efficient way for students to memorize this information?"), or a Constructivist ("Where in this course can we increase opportunities for students to communicate and share with one another?") or a Connectivist ("How can we create a network that will allow the students to learn now and continue their professional growth?"). Teachers do a lot of things really well, but they don't always know why some of the things they do in the classroom work. An instructional designer can map out the successes to help instructors reproduce it in other areas of their teaching. That mapping out process can then be turned around to help create an institutional course development process: one that does not tell someone how to teach, but how to manage all of the processes that can (or even should) go into a face-to-face or online course.

Instructional designers also create networks: they can connect with other instructional designers, bring new teachers together with experienced teachers, they link instructors to learning opportunities, and help connect students with more experienced students or graduates who are working their professions. Each one of the problems above require communication skills and network building. The work of the instructional designer will always be relevant because ultimately their job is making connections and managing change.


  1. Some great points here. I changed the name of my course for faculty from Technology Enhanced Instruction (TEI) to Technology Supported Learning (TSL).

    The emphasis on using technology to support learning and learners (including faculty) can not be over stated. Unfortunately, this title doesn't have the same appeal to faculty and our enrollment has dropped since the name was changed!

    There is sooo much work to be done...

  2. Great post Geoffrey. Throughout CCK08, I am discovering how much I appreciate the comments of people who take the time to think out their positions in careful, practical, pragmatic nuts and bolts ways. I think that you have done just this.

    That having been said, one of my own hard truths is reflected in your comment:

    For me to say, "I do not agree with the current standards so everything I design is fundamentally flawed" means that I should be doing something else.'

    I cannot help but continue to question my own commitment to ID, though applying its principles is a big part of my daily work. I just know that this does not have a great deal to do with how I know that I learn best. As George has suggested,

    "when we do adopt the view he suggests toward the end of his post, we are not really talking about instructional design the way most people understand it."

    But your revised definition lends hope to what ID can and may be.