Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Can instruction be designed?

It is easier to understand design in the context of designing an object—a car, for instance. Even a piece of abstract painting is an object; there are visible patterns and colours against a canvas. The frame has a certain size, the colours have a certain depth, and each line has a certain length and width. In this sense, a designed object is a “closed object”; however, it doesn’t mean that a “closed object” has a “closed meaning.”

Is it possible for a non-object such as instruction to be designed in such a fashion? Probably, when it comes to self-paced instructional content, such as textbooks or self-paced web-based instructional material, design acquires this meaning (because textbooks and WBTs are also objects). However, when it comes to instruction outside of “pure content delivery”, instruction acquires the nature of a conversation. Now, is it possible to design a live conversation?

Instruction has been in conversation with learning since time immemorial, enriching learning, teaching and the content being learned. Where there is no conversation, there is no instruction and no learning. In this conversation, learning encounters teaching (and vice versa); it modifies the content of teaching by re-articulating it in its own terms.

(It is important to note that this dialog is also linked to the multiple dialogs and observations of everyday moments: TV shows, newspaper headlines, a surprise question posed by a child at home, and so on.)

When a conversation becomes prescriptive

Most instructional design theories, however, tend to take on a prescriptive format. Here a dialogue with instruction is secondary (because instruction precedes learning and acquires an authoritarian truth value). Probably, it’s also to do with the fact that the word “design” itself denotes a certain objectification of the thing being designed (in this case, instruction).

In Reclaiming Instructional Design, David Merrill, says:

"Instructional design is a technology for the development of learning experiences and environments which promote the acquisition of specific knowledge and skill by students.
Instructional design is a technology which incorporates known and verified learning strategies into instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing.

While instruction takes place in a larger organizational context, the technology of instructional design is concerned only with the development of learning experiences and environments, not with the broader concerns of systemic change, organizational behavior, performance support, and other human resource problems.

Instruction involves directing students to appropriate learning activities; guiding students to appropriate knowledge; helping students rehearse, encode, and process information; monitoring student performance; and providing feedback as to the appropriateness of the student's learning activities and practice performance. Instructional design is the technology of creating learning experiences and learning environments which promote these instructional activities."

What we see here is an attempt to define instructional design as an “objective science,” and proper instruction as an act performed by an instructor who believes in the absolute certainty and truth of the content and method of delivering instruction. Merrill, in fact, reaffirms this position: “Those persons who claim that knowledge is founded on collaboration rather than empirical science, or who claim that all truth is relative, are not instructional designers.”

So, how do you design instruction?

Taking Merrill’s argument forward, an instructional designer needs to believe that the instructional content (knowledge/skills/attitude) s/he is designing is true (because truth is not relative). Then, s/he is faced with the task of making the acquisition of knowledge efficient and effective. In First Principles of Instruction, Merrill says that to facilitate learning effectively, the instruction/environment needs to:

· Engage learners in solving real world problems
· Activate existing knowledge as a foundation for new knowledge
· Demonstrate new knowledge to the learner
· Provide opportunities to the learner to apply new knowledge
· Provide opportunities to the learner to integrate new knowledge into the learner’s world

These points probably hold true when designing self-paced instruction under certain well-defined assumptions. However, this whole premise becomes contestable when you try to define knowledge (Merrill seems to equate knowledge with something as definite as a physical object: "New knowledge is demonstrated"!!).

Sample the following definitions of knowledge on the Web:

Cognition: the psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

Knowledge is the awareness and understanding of facts, truths or information gained in the form of experience or learning (a posteriori), or through introspection (a priori). Knowledge is an appreciation of the possession of interconnected details which, in isolation, are of lesser value. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge

arrange, define, duplicate, label, list, memorize, name, order, recognize, relate, recall, repeat, reproduce state.

Organized or contextualised information which can be used to produce new meanings and generate new data.

... what the person knows.

Of course, there is the traditional conception of knowledge as "justified true belief" and the famous Gettier problem that puts a logical spin on it with counter examples.

That said, I do agree that there are some forms of knowledge, such as 2 + 2 = 4, that will remain conceptually true forever. At the same time, one should also remember that not all knowledge can be categorized in the 2 + 2 = 4 mould.

Now, where does that leave us? Obviously, it doesn’t leave us without choices. In fact, it expands our understanding of the non-definable nature of knowledge; it makes us aware that we are forced to draw our limits if we have to design instruction; it allows us to make our assumptions before designing and makes us aware that all of those assumptions may not hold true at all times. In the end, we know that we have to draw a line on sand if we have to make a beginning.
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