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.