Today I engaged in a conversation with Sean Michael Morris (@slamteacher) and others in the #moocmooc stream that has prompted me to ponder the difference between instructional design and learning environment design. And thinking about that has me bouncing between my constructivist heart that tells me I can never really be sure people “meet objectives” and my business/academic heart that tells me it’s part of my job to ensure they take away some specific knowledge base or skill.

Since 140 characters can be a tough place to hash out such heady ideas (pardon the pun), I thought I’d use this space to think out loud and offer food for thought to the #moocmooc community.

If you tuned in yesterday, you may have noticed that I reacted against the idea that instructional design necessarily takes agency away from learners. It can, of course (at least it can attempt to), but I think there are many outcomes of design that are quite learner-centered. (Please, God, I hope so!)

The question of the day

The conversation on #moocmooc seems to partially come down to whether we can or should define objectives (which is part of the instructional design process, no question) and if doing so strips the learners of freedom and by definition makes the learning instructor-centered. Yikes!

Many moons ago, when the conversation in L&D turned toward informal learning, many of us characterized informal learning as learning where the objectives are defined by the learners, and formal learning as learning where the objectives are defined by the designer. The latter is a foundation for instructional design – determining goals and objectives is one of the major decisions that we make in crafting a particular learning event. For learning to occur, the learners have to adopt those objectives as their own – I can require them to attend a course, but if they don’t choose to learn, I can’t make them learn regardless of the proven effectiveness of any technique.

There are many ways that instructional designers can involve the learners in crafting objectives. And there are even more ways that a facilitator can switch up a design to better meet emergent needs of learners if that makes sense. But in a corporate training environment, or in an academic curriculum, the designer-defined objectives are (or should be) what the learner needs to learn in that context. (I can hear #moocmooc colleagues yelling now!)

Here are my examples: I am preparing customer service representatives to assist our clients in troubleshooting problems – they need to know how our product works, techniques for engaging effectively with clients, procedures for obtaining help for a client, etc. Or I am preparing student nurses to become RNs – they need to know anatomy and physiology, disease states, as well as specific nursing tasks like CPR, blood drawing, etc. In both instances, as the designer, I define the objectives of the courses. The learners accept these objectives as their own because they want to be able to do the jobs (and in the case of the nurses, pass the licensing exam).

I imagine that these learners could manage their own learning – there are now many resources and strategies they could access that would allow them to learn the knowledge and skill needed, but they go to training or go to school because they assume that those designers/teachers have determined the knowledge and skills needed and can help them to learn it efficiently.

Good design vs bad design

There are, of course, lots of ways to “design” a course – and some of the techniques that are used require students to be passive note-takers rather than actively engaging in activities that help them to grasp knowledge and skills and construct meaning in ways that will be useful to them later on. In shorthand, we talk about the difference between sage-on-the-stage teaching and guide-on-the-side teaching. The guide-on-the-side crafts activities to put the learners in the center of the process rather than trying to pour knowledge into their heads (make them the object). We can, I think, legitimately talk about “good” instructional design (learner-centered, active, engaging) and “bad” instructional design (passive, constrictive, poorly organized, out of step with learners).

Instructional design results in a series of activities meant to instruct – enabling a teacher to guide a learner to achieve specific knowledge and skill milestones. Instructional design is incredibly useful in corporate training situations and in crafting academic degree programs because it can result in students obtaining the advertised knowledge and skills they need for their purposes (assuming they aren’t forced into a job or course of study completely against their will).

In the courses that I teach, the subject is conceptual, emergent, and contested. I teach instructional design, adult learning theory, consulting skills, teaching techniques, etc. – and these are topics that really lend themselves to constructivist approaches to teaching. I offer choices of readings, discussions (with learners providing prompts), counterpoints (students should know about the critiques of the theories and approaches), projects, group work, etc. that I hope provide great fodder for learning. I often position myself and engage as a co-learner. At the same time, I have collaborated with program faculty in defining the graduate outcomes and learning objectives for these courses – and while these objectives are usually pretty broad, I suppose it can be said that we constrain the learners by doing so.

I have colleagues, however, whose teaching context requires them to ensure students acquire specific knowledge or skill, often to pass a test or demonstrate a set of skills. Courses may be foundation for later courses and peers are counting on students achieving specific milestones. Giving students more freedom in how they engage with the material would not do them any favors in this context. That’s where I get stuck… I suppose instructional design can and does guide and constrain learning, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Enter learning environments by design

In recent years, there has been a recognition that the digital age is especially fertile ground for those who want to learn – resources and networks of like-minded people are far more accessible than they ever have been before. People can direct their own learning – they can build personal learning environments that are far more rich than anything an instructional designer can build.

That is not, however, as easy as it sounds. Many people still welcome guidance in learning.

For that, I have conceptualized something I call a learning environment – a curated set of resources and activities for learning around a particular knowledge base or skill. I don’t define objectives per se (although I do need to understand in general what the learner’s objectives might be) and I don’t require a particular path through the materials. I just help narrow the scope of all possible related materials to select ones that should be helpful. (You can find more info here – not meant to be a shameless plug for my book; the page has lots of free links that give you more information about what I’m thinking.)

I see a learning environment as more of a long-term, living and breathing approach to supporting others’ learning. For me, it’s a nice compromise between instruction and abandoning people to the vagaries of the internet. It’s more just-in-time, more learner-centered than formal training or teaching.

You can use a learning environment approach to help people achieve certifiable skills or graduate competencies, but I suspect many learners would actually want a more structured approach.

And then there’s #moocmooc

#moocmooc seems to be the result of something of a hybrid of these approaches. The organizers curated materials, offered activities, and set out something of a schedule, but we co-learners are engaging as we like and taking away whatever meets our particular needs. I can share how I think of instructional design and Sean Michael Morris can share his, and hopefully through the exchange of ideas we each come away with a richer understanding that helps us to think about how we approach our work. For my personal professional development, these kinds of MOOC activities are quite powerful learning experiences because they connect me to new resources and to people who like thinking out loud together, at least for a short time.

The only problem is… I actually had other stuff I was supposed to do tonight. 🙂 This was more fun.