There’s a lot of debate about instructional design and whether or not you need a formal education to create effective elearning. We looked at that in a previous post (which includes some good discussion in the comments section).
Today I want to explore some elements of instructional design and why it’s important when building an elearning course.
I’ve been in the training industry for over twenty years. And sometimes we act as if people would just sit around in a vegetative state and not know what to do until we built a course. But the reality is whether or not we build courses, people still learn what they need to learn.
That’s because learning happens. It doesn’t happen because you decide to build a course. It just happens. We learn all the time. We are continually learning as we take in information, explore and solve problems, and interact with people. It’s just how we’re wired.
It’s as if Mitch and Murray sent Blake into our heads to remind us to “A-B-L…Always Be Learning.” There’s never a point where we turn off the ability to learn. Our brains just keep on working, whether we plan it or not (unless of course you’re at an Emo Phillips show).
Good instructional design can make learning happen faster and more efficiently than what might happen more organically. Instructional design is the process of assessing the learning needs and then applying the appropriate learning strategy to meet them.
I’ve always seen instructional design as an intrusive process. It’s a manufactured attempt to make learning more efficient and effective as it intrudes on our natural learning process. Ideally, this intrusion is beneficial and helps us learn better.
In a simple sense, there are three core components to instructional design:
- Understand how people learn
- Construct learning activities based on how people learn
- Measure the effectiveness of the learning activities
Understanding How People Learn
You don’t need to be an expert on every theory, but you should be familiar with the main ideas so that you understand how people learn. Because this understanding is the foundation of how you design the elearning course to meet the instructional needs.
There are plenty of good instructional design books from which to learn. We started a list in the user community. I also think that Don Clark does a nice job collecting instructional design resources, if you want to do it on the cheap. And of course, it makes sense to improve your craft with continued education and practice.
In either case, it’s important to learn more about how we learn so that you can develop the right instructional methodology for the courses you design.
Do you have some good book recommendations? Add them the to the comments list.
Construct Learning Activities
Armed with an understanding of how people learn, you’re able to construct effective and efficient learning activities. Unfortunately, much of what we call elearning today falls flat; mainly because we take a very narrow approach to instructional design.
First, we treat the event of elearning as the total learning process. But the reality is that the elearning course is just part of the learning process. Instructional design considerations can be broader than just the immediate elearning course. I discussed this a bit in this post on effective elearning. Ideally, the instructional design considers the big picture including ongoing performance support outside of the elearning course.
The other issue with many elearning courses is that they are typically limited to presenting information with a quick assessment to determine recall. This is instructional design at the simplest level.
Considering how people learn, there is a lot more we can do in the design of our courses. An obvious step is to switch from info-centric design to one that is more focused on the learner. With the learner in mind, we can create more meaningful activities that have a real impact and tap into the learner’s motivations.
Measure the Effectiveness of the Learning Activities
How do you know that what you’re doing is improving their learning? Are they able to demonstrate the level of understanding you desire? Are you using the most effective approach? Ultimately, you want to ensure that the theory-inspired activities produce the results you desire.
For example, it takes a person two weeks to learn a task without any training. You design a program that lets them learn it in one week. You want to show that the learning intervention proved valuable both from a learning perspective and from an economic perspective. You may have compressed the learning time, but at the same time introduced a negative impact on production while the person was away from their job.
I’ve worked on projects where our approach was instructionally sound, but the process didn’t work best for our learners. So we had to modify what we were doing to make the course work better for the people who actually had to go through it.
They also need to be timely and make sense based on your resources and technology. The strategy you use with two weeks’ notice is going to be different than one if you have ninety days to plan.
Another time, I worked in a production environment where a machine operator had to do task X three times a day. This was a critical task in the production process, so only the most proficient were allowed to do it. When they trained new operators, they didn’t even let them do task X until about the third week because they didn’t want them messing things up.
As we were designing the training, I recommended that they learn task X right away. This let them practice it as much as possible (part of how people learn). Within a few days they were proficient at the task. The old way required that they wait three weeks to even start. However with the new approach, by the third week they would have already had at least 30 repetitions on the task. In addition, they took away some of the dread they inserted into the process by not letting them learn it initially.
By compressing some of the daily activities and increasing their opportunities for practice we were able to decrease the time it took to train new operators from 90 days to less than three weeks.
This is a good example of how the instructional design process helped the business meet its learning goals and business objectives. We created an artificial environment that provided more opportunities for practice in a shorter period of time.
If this is all new to you, I’ve included a few ideas to help you get going:
- Grab an instructional design book. Find a book that interests you. Read it and then plan on applying what you read to your next course.
- Start small. Build mini modules on simple topics, like how to make toast. Play around with some ideas. Keep it simple so it’s not overwhelming and it’s easy to modify.
- Solicit feedback. Create a portfolio page or blog where you can host your modules. Jump into the user community and ask for feedback. Write simple blog posts on what you tried and how it worked for you.
- Be proactive. Unfortunately many times we’re stuck doing projects the way the client wants them because we’re invited into the process too late. Figure out how to get in on the process early. This gives you a place at the table to share ideas on better instructional design.
- Don’t worry about being perfect. I look at some of the courses I did early in my career and they’re not very good. That’s OK. Over time, I got better. So will you.
If you want to build effective elearning, you have to learn more about how we learn and then how to combine this understanding with the courses you create. What are you doing today to make your elearning courses instructionally sound?