Catherine's Learning Journal

Celebrating the art of instructional design

In the coming weeks, I’m participating as I can in the latest iteration of #moocmooc which is focused on instructional design. The topic is near to my heart… I engage in instructional design for a living: as a faculty developer, adjunct faculty member, and workshop facilitator – and, in a totally meta twist, the subject of my courses and workshops is instructional design and related topics.

Imagine my surprise when opening contributions to the #moocmooc conversation came down hard on instructional design, characterizing it as controlling, oppressive, behaviorist, and other bad words (see the early tweet stream and posts written by Sean Michael Morris (here and here), and Matthew Kruger-Ross). What they are describing strikes me as BAD instructional design. Initial materials positioned instructional design as being founded on Gagne and Bloom and Skinner – which may be true, but we’ve come quite a long way since those folks took a swing at describing what instructional design is all about.

I am all for critiquing instructional design and calling out the drawbacks of a number of fairly popular approaches. But before I go down that path, I want to articulate for #moocmooc consideration what GOOD instructional design looks like in my view.

The Art of Design

After many years wrestling with process models of instructional design that say not one word about learning approaches and teaching techniques, I’ve come to describe instructional design as an art much more than a process. I define instructional design as a series of decisions that need to be balanced and integrated in such a way as to achieve the goals and objectives set out. Those decisions include:

Intended Learners – Who are you designing for?

Objectives – What are you trying to achieve?

Key Content – What knowledge base, skills, procedures or frameworks will be offered as content?

Delivery Modes – How will the learners engage with the course (e.g. classroom, e-learning, MOOC, online learning, blend)?

Instructional Activities – How do you plan to have learners engage with the material, the instructor, and each other in order to learn?

Evaluation Strategy – How will learners (and the instructor) know that they are achieving their learning goals?

Sequence and Timing – What is the organization of the modules and activities of the learning event?

Visual and Interface Design – What are the key visual and interaction design elements of the materials (both aesthetic and learning-oriented)?

These decisions are made in a much broader context of influencing factors that include what the designer believes about how people learn, the materials and tools available, costs to design and develop (time and money), logistical considerations, and more.

I’ll attach my handout on The Art of Design for more details, but that’s the core of how I think about instructional design. I welcome this opportunity to enrich this view through these #moocmooc conversations.

The Process of Design

Process models are another subject altogether. I have been too often deluded into thinking that we can describe a step-by-step process of instructional design. In my experience, and in the experience of many of the designers I have worked with and taught, it’s nearly impossible to describe a set of steps that works in every situation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single project that is actually “by the book” in terms of the process designers engage to get from need to delivery.

We need an overarching idea about process that is very flexible, and I think we have to have a number of process models from which to draw practices if we are to be able to craft a process for a given project. In academic environments, I like Understanding by Design and Idea-Based Learning along with Dee Fink’s work on Designing Significant Learning Experiences. For corporate environments, I think Michael Allen is on to something with his description of successive approximation (SAM). And when I’m really in a constructivist mood, I like some of the elements of Jerry Willis’ Constructivist Instructional Design (which sounds like a contradiction in terms).

Having multiple models and flexible approaches makes inexperienced instructional designers crazy, and it makes business leaders and administrators who have no experience in design question whether ID is a profession at all.

But consider this. In other artistic fields of endeavor, there is little talk about the process of design. When architects, and furniture designers, and landscapers, and engineers talk about design, they are not talking about process. To them, design is characterized by utility, ergonomics, sustainability, and beauty. Each field has identified characteristics of “good” design, but these can be emergent. And they have practices for getting to design, but I doubt their processes are anywhere near as prescriptive as Gagne, or Dick, Carey & Carey, or the ADDIE model.

Reactions to #moocmooc Initial Contributions

Regardless of our points of difference, the initial posts in #moocmooc gave me a lot to think about.

The core of instructional design as currently practiced
I’m not a fan of the pieces offered as core readings. I think Gagne is oversimplified and overly prescriptive and Skinner is too behaviorist in approach.

Bloom’s Taxonomy
I have mixed feelings about Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is often badly misconstrued in my experience, which is a problem in itself. On the one hand, the taxonomy can be very helpful to designers in thinking about what they want to achieve and in ensuring that the activities they design get to the kind of learning they are trying to facilitate. On the other hand, designers can get too hung up on “levels” and can inappropriately (in my view) use those levels to guide the sequence of instruction and constrain the activities that are offered to learners.

Audrey Waters on Ed Tech
Audrey Waters eloquently argues that education is not about content delivery that is focused on knowledge acquisition. I completely agree that if we conceptualize instruction as simply passing on “content” then we are being incredibly short-sighted about the possibilities of education and training. To me “content” is only part of design. Powerful activities and interactions that are enabled by effective instructional design facilitate acquisition of content, development of skills, acquiring of tacit knowledge, and growth of the individuals involved.

Audrey Waters’ perspective is always thought-provoking for me, and the full extent of the article on the reading list brings up important questions of the nature of the tools we use to support learning, especially in an academic environment. While I am not completely convinced that “a domain of one’s own” is an important approach, I do agree wholeheartedly that we need to better take advantage of the full features and benefits of a networked world to effectively educate students at all levels. Learning “content” isn’t near as important as learning to learn in this rich and fraught networked world.

Interaction Design
I don’t think I have seen the interaction equivalency model laid out in detail. There is a lot of useful nuance in this way of considering design decisions. I have nearly always seen the model presented as a guide for ensuring there are all three kinds of interactions, when in fact Anderson argues that you really need only one good kind of interaction to have effective learning. Love it! I think this model works well with Garrison, Vaughn and others’ description of the elements of an effective community of inquiry.

A provocative opening quote

Learning is a subversive act, and so must teaching be — not out of compulsion, but from logical necessity. If learners are to move from what-we-know into what we do not yet know, then teaching must also deal in what we do not yet know. Instructional design bears a special burden: to initiate but not to conclude. Learning objectives, markers of mastery, principles of alignment, etc., these do not tempt subversive acts, but rather aim to control an experience of learning that’s not only tame, it’s probably not even learning.

~ Sean Michael Morris

Wow. The results of instructional design are “probably not even learning”? I agree that formal learning activities can only “initiate but not conclude” the learning process, but I don’t see the act of designing a learning experience as necessarily controlling. While I understand the perspective that instructional design can be manipulative, I think that our job as designers and learning facilitators IS to guide learners to materials and activities that support their learning.

There are many ways to design learning experiences that are quite open and emergent. And there are times when we must design learning experiences that develop specific knowledge bases and skills – that is at least part of what education and training is intended to do. In some cases, we must define specific learning goals – the learners are not at a point where they know what they need (for example, think of new hires, aspiring professionals, first year students). Education and training is also supposed to (in my view) be humanistic and liberating and constructivist.

There are times when education and training is more akin to brainwashing and initiation rites, and that, I agree, can be very dangerous. But that’s not ALL instructional design. And that’s not the fault of the process or the art – it’s the result of the moral and ethical failings of designers applying sound principles to bad ends.

I would also contend that the structure of #moocmooc – the choice of readings, the suggested activities, the communication modes adopted – is itself a product of instructional design.

There is much more to come, I am sure… I look forward to seeing more contributions to noodle and taking the time to examine my own beliefs and practices related to instructional design. I believe that instructional design is a much needed skill – especially in a fast-paced, emergent, diverse world. If we expand our conceptualization of what instructional design is and continue to build our frameworks and skills around effective design, we can make a difference.


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