Monday, February 04, 2008

Instructional Design: If, When and But

Response to LCB's Big Question for February 2008

Learning can happen under any of these conditions:
1. Where someone else (the education board, teacher, parent, government, organization or market) decides what you should learn and expects certain defined learning/behavioral outcomes from you.
2. Where others decide what you should learn (at a minimum), but they leave it to you to decide how much you need to learn and how you should learn
3. Where you decide what you should learn and the means through which you learn

Instructional design can certainly help in the first instance and to a lesser extent in the second; however, it has no role to play in the third instance. There’s another angle to this: you as a learner in the second or third instance can decide to opt for an instructional unit that gets created as an output of the first instance (let’s a say, an online game on leadership development).

The purpose of ID

Instructional design, as I understand it, is about drawing out a plan for a learning event or program. This plan is supposed to be based on certain instructional principles that have been proven (under certain conditions) to provide maximum retention and retrieval of the content presented in the program/event for the learners. The plan, supposedly, works under these assumptions:

1. A set of measurable learning/performance outcomes have to be defined before you set about designing instruction
2. The way you measure the mastery of these outcomes will also be defined in advance
3. A set of ‘objective’ criteria can be defined to assess mastery (If critical thinking and creativity are to be measured, what objective criteria can we use?!)

Despite being strongly skeptical about the objectivity of such a plan, I believe that you can reasonably bring about certain desired learning/performance results by using strategies based on "empirically proven" ID guidelines. Examples include teaching children to add, training employees in an organization to follow a strictly defined process, and teaching hypertensive people to perform yoga in a certain way.

Programmed instruction or planned learning events (based on researched ID) have been shown to be effective in achieving defined outcomes (mainly retention and retrieval), especially for those who are learning something for the first time. If the instruction is mediated by an instructor or facilitator, the plan can be customized based on learner responses—in such cases, ID becomes live and iterative.

Thoughts on open ID

What I mean by open ID are schools of thought (constructivism, connectivism, etc.) that are opposed to the behaviorist/prescriptive school. However, constructivist ID is a descriptive theory and is more of an ideological stance than a prescriptive instructional design framework.

On the other hand, simulations, games and goal-based scenarios are strategies that can be used in prescriptive ID as well as in an open ID environment. The moment you want to direct learning to a defined outcome, you have already come in the way of learner discovery (because you want the learner to discover what you want him/her to discover—the freedom that you are granting him/her is the process through which this discovery happens). When you contrast this with a pure research environment, you will see that the outcomes of a learner’s research could be very different from what s/he set out to discover.

So, does that mean open ID could support a research environment or an environment where you learn without pre-defined outcomes as opposed to outcome driven learning? Perhaps.

ID for informal learning?!

Informal learning can certainly do without external ID—the learner becomes the designer and manager of his or her own learning environment and content:
· S/he has some broad idea of what s/he is looking for
· S/he chooses existing stuff or stumbles up on things or people at different levels of expertise by accident
· S/he expands/limits the scope of what she originally set out to find
· S/he arranges and rearranges the sequence in which s/he accesses content
· She decides the method of practice (if she needs practice)
· S/he goes on…

Probably, you need a new breed of learning professionals to support and optimize these environments. They could be IDs, but what they do in this context will be very different from what they were doing before. I’m not sure how many of the existing instructional designers will favor working the way Reuben Tozman has described next generation IDs in his December 2007 article in eLearning Guild. He says that future IDs need to stay away from content development and prepare themselves for helping learners (in pulling learning) access the materials they are looking for by classifying and describing content based on instructional design principles.

As always, the future is uncertain

Instructional design will find its relevance as long as formal learning or outcome driven learning survives (and as long as there are stakeholders who invest in creating training and education). However, in the e-learning space, it’s time for us to start reskilling because conventional e-learning has severe limitations and might not survive for long (while the audiences are getting savvier, e-learning has not really kept pace). The newer platforms (Web 2.0, 3.0, etc.) can certainly do without ID (motivated learners will figure out what to learn and they will learn in ways that we can’t even think of). And if immersive learning (simulations, games, etc.) is to take the “paid e-learning” centre stage, we won’t go far with generic ID skills alone—we need to develop specialized skills (such as systems thinking, mathematical modeling, and game/play design) to tackle the future.

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