The key question in instructional design

Here are a few guidelines which may help with designing online learning experiences. As I mentioned elsewhere, they do not differ that much from the principles for designing off-line, traditional learning events. However, while learners are generally used to traditional methods of instruction, therefore tend to accept them regardless of whether they find them effective for them individually or not, they are less willing to engage with technology-based experiences if they do not see as resulting in successful learning. 

What makes learning events successful? To me, the key question in instructional design is WHY. Why should we bother learners with this activity? “Because they need it” is not a sufficient answer from pedagogical point of view.

So, for a successful online learning experience: 

  • Decide that you want the learners to achieve. Imagine an ideal learner who has just completed the activity. Verbalise the difference between the start and the end point in his/her learning journey. Start with the end in mind. 
  • Let the purpose define the technology not the technology guide the purpose. Never start with “oh, there’s this new fab technology, and now students will be videorecording their reflective commentaries and sharing with others, how exciting is that!”. Well, it is not. Not in the slightest. If you can achieve something using another, more basic technology, do it. Don’t go for the glitter just because it is new or fashionable: think what it is about the specific technology that makes it at least useful if not indispensable for the purpose of the experience. 
  • Do not expect spontaneous participation. There needs to be an objective and direct, immediate significance. Both need to be clearly visible for the participants. As I wrote in another post, where there is no immediate relevance, there is no motivation to undertake the task. Forcefully creating participation is not effective either.   
  • This means that apart from contributing to an overall purpose of extending knowledge, developing skills and/or deepening understanding, the experience needs to be interesting and worthwhile in itself, meaning that participants need to see both how it will change them at the end before they even start participating, and they how relevant this change is to their overall learning process. In other words, think big, but do not lose sight of smaller personal successes and rewards.   
  • Communicate the purpose of the experience to participants and provide clear indicators of success: tell participants explicitly how the experience will change them. Telling people why they need to do things is at least as important as, if not more important than, telling them what they need to do. 
  • And finally, make it personal: participants need to see not just that the experience is beneficial but how it is beneficial for them as individuals on a learning journey.  

What motivates online students

What motivates learners? What actually works? How to achieve worthwhile learning? These questions have challenged online educators and instructional designers for ever. And it would be a huge mistake to think that a new technology is sufficient for raising students’ interest and involving them with the content and activities. The technology itself is never enough, just as much as the presence of a flipchart and a marker in a traditional classroom does not immediately turn students into the most motivated and efficient of learners.

Existing literature on learning technologies mentions a number of strategies that can increase learner motivation. What most of them have in common is that, on conceptual level, they often boil down to transferring the strategies that have been found to be efficient in conventional classrooms into online learning scenarios.

For example, research shows that such effective strategies typically involve:

  • creating a supportive but at the same time challenging learning environment, 
  • providing choice and flexibility, 
  • establishing short-term goals, 
  • offering immediate feedback, 
  • stimulating student curiosity, 
  • creating personal and concrete content that students can relate to, 
  • using relevant, authentic and goal-driven learning tasks as well as 
  • creating opportunities for interaction, collaboration and personal growth.
In other words, what online educators need to do when designing online learning components is to put themselves in their intended students’ shoes and verify to what extent the event being designed can be described as (1) relevant and purposeful (2) stimulating and challenging.  
Relevance refers here to the necessity that learners see the purpose of the specific event, that they develop the feeling that without the event their learning process would be significantly impoverished. Therefore it is not enough to create a discussion forum in our VLE-based modules and cross our fingers that learners will start and participate in conversations. Without a clear purpose, learners will see the requirement to post on a forum as yet another burden on their time, which causes frustration and lack of interest. However, if learners become aware of a knowledge gap between them and their peers and that their peers may help them extend their own knowledge or help solve specific problems, there appears an authentic need to communicate and exchange ideas, based on curiosity and genuine interest. 
This is further linked to the idea of challenge and stimulation underlying learning design. Learners need to see that something about their knowledge and/or skills changes as a result of participating in the event, that through participation they slowly but surely move upwards. Therefore the event should be neither too easy (and, as educators, we sometimes tend to underestimate our students since it is often the weakest that protest most loudly against more challenging content), nor too difficult: Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development quite obviously jumps to mind. 
It may therefore be a useful exercise to analyse our existing online learning components, whether in blended learning or fully distance learning modes, and write down, on a piece of paper, where the relevance of and the stimulation in our learning activity come from. We must remember here that the more ‘immediate’ this relevance is, the more motivating the event will be for our learners. So, if our notes only include generalities and banalities like ‘extending knowledge’ or ‘practising skills’, without reference to any immediate benefits for learners, there is a strong case for rethinking the whole usefulness and design of the activity.      

What does it take to become an instructional designer?

What does it take to become an instructional designer? This is what other people have to say.

The Vignetted Training blog provides an interesting compilation of job descriptions in the area of e-learning instructional design, from a Project Champion and Leader via Creative Writers and Programme Designers to various more technical and programming-oriented roles. Experiencing e-Learning has got at least six articles on the topic, all of them worth perusing.

What seems important is the ability to combine effectively the knowledge of adult learning methodologies and familiarity with available learning technologies to create learning environments that actually facilitate learning, assessment and feedback. This is the reason why instructional design requires training and experience: it is not about introducing the latest e-learning tech fads but rather about carefully designing learning events to match learning objectives and learner needs and characteristics.

Ideal features of web/e-learning instructional designers are discussed in this article on The eLearning Coach blog (an expanded version is available here). In this context, it is very interesting to note that people working in instructional design come from a variety of professional backgrounds and very often do not have a degree in the field.

I tend to agree that while a degree may be of considerable help since it would normally provide strong background in cognitive science, teaching/learning methodologies and use of related technologies, what an instructional designer needs to have in the first place is a passion for learning. She needs to be motivated to make use of available resources to stay abreast of various new developments in the field and constantly develop her knowledge and skills.

The full list of traits and competencies of an e-learning instructional designer, as posted on The eLearning Coach, is as follows:

The successful instructional designer should:

  1. Conceptually and intuitively understand how people learn.
  2. Know how to connect with an audience on an emotional level.
  3. Be capable of imagining oneself as the learner/audience member.
  4. Be obsessed with learning everything.
  5. Brainstorm creative treatments and innovative instructional strategies.
  6. Visualize instructional graphics, the user interface, interactions and the finished product.
  7. Write effective copy, instructional text, audio scripts and video scripts.
  8. Meld minds with Subject Matter Experts and team members.
  9. Know the capabilities of eLearning development tools and software.
  10. Understand related fields—usability and experience design, information design, communications and new technologies.



So, how many boxes are we prepared to tick?

Let’s get organised

It did not take me long to realise, after starting my training in instructional design and e-learning technologies, that the amount of research, websites, texts and case studies in the field can be quite overwhelming. I struggled to find a way to organise the immense amount of interesting information I was coming across, and I tended to worry that I was missing out on quite a lot simply because I was not able to categorise and organise the data and information properly and then kept forgetting about interesting websites or articles. Simple bookmarking did not do the trick, as I tended to work on various devices and in various places, and besides I also needed a way of quickly noting down my thoughts on what I read or did.

And then I came across this website on 30 Recommended Apps for Online Students. Apart from some obvious picks like Dropbox (how was life possible before Dropbox??), Google, Wikipedia and Dictionary.com, and equally obvious though perhaps less known ones like Wolfram Alpha, there was one that seemed to tick all the boxes.

Evernote. Does everything what it says on the tin. You simply download and install the app on all your devices and all content you put in there syncs beautifully across all of them. You can also share your content with others – great for collaborative learning and projects.

Evernote also allows you to organise your content in folders, called ‘notebooks’, to which you add files, called ‘notes’. The notes can be anything from a typed note (something like a Notepad file) through images and audio/video files to websites or ‘cuttings’ of them. The ‘cutting’ functionality is absolutely fantastic: it requires installing an add-on, called ‘Web Clipper’, in all your browsers, and you can copy not just links (like in the normal bookmarking feature) but entire webpages or, even better, specific articles or highlighted parts of them. In this case, you do not have to worry about the page disappearing from the internet: its content is securely saved in your Evernote notepad.

I am still playing around with the app, but so far I am very satisfied with the free product. There is an option of upgrading to a premium version, but I cannot see the value of it at the moment.

I can see many uses of software like Evernote for learners. It can prove great for research purposes, and the sync function is indispensable for today’s learners who use various devices and study in various locations.

More info on the app can be found here.

So let’s get the party started

I have started this blog to share my experiences of and opinions on various aspects of e-learning instructional design and technologies. As explained in the “About” section, I am interested in the application of e-learning technologies in adult education and training, both in university and business contexts. In this space, I will comment on interesting developments in these areas and try to evaluate them based on my and others’ experiences.

I have developed an interest in instructional design with the focus on e-learning and online technologies as part of my professional development as an HE lecturer. I am a HEA Fellow and hold a PG Diploma in Learning and Teaching in HE, the SEDA certificate in Supporting Learning Technology and the SEDA certificate in Embedding Learning Technologies. I am involved with learning technologies as part of my everyday work and in this blog I would like to contribute to sharing and advancing effective professional practice by promoting discussion on and research in e-learning technologies and opportunities. 
What I see as the main role of learning technologies in today’s adult education and training can be summarised as the enhancement of learner’s experience by allowing greater flexibility and widening opportunities. This blog is intended to serve as my small contribution to the development of learning communities focused on research in and promotion of online technologies in adult education. 
Unless stated otherwise, all opinions expressed here are mine and can only be treated as such. Whenever quoted, any opinions or information provided here should be properly referenced to their original source.    
Wishing you enjoyable reading!