August 7, 2017

The world doesn't need a hero. All it needs is an instructional designer.

"Can SME be an instructional designer?", "Do you need an education, or can you just learn Storyline?" or "Who needs those instructional designers anyway?" Somehow, I see a lot of these questions recently, so here are my unsolicited two cents...

To answer these, I would look at the definition of instructional design. With some variations, it will say something like: "Instructional design is a systematic and systemic application of scientific knowledge to improve learning processes and outcomes". If you ever had a course on instructional design, you will most likely remember either this, or spending a lot of time discussing what is "systematic" and what is "systemic".

So, there are two questions to ask when choosing an instructional designer (or deciding to become one).  Does the candidate (or you) have scientific knowledge? Can they/you apply it in a way that

  • makes sense
  • takes into account many interconnected factors and 
  • leads to measurable results (i.e. more than the existence of a training program)? 

The obvious, but for some reason elusive, point is: you need to have both: a solid theoretical grounding and a knack for its application. It sounds bizarre, but in my experience, it is hard to be practical without a good knowledge of theory. Without it, it is hard to have a critical view of the reality. For example, would the "10 ways to make your e-learning better" actually make it better? And why? Education alone won't get you anywhere, but practice alone will get you someplace random.

As for the usefulness of instructional designers... It is tempting to create solutions, which replace either the knowledge, or the skill of its application. For example, I've often seen such interesting internal documents as "pedagogical styleguides". Their purpose is to document the standards of training development in a company. While it can be a nice idea from the point of view of process documentation, more often they do not make sense. Particularly when these standards deal with something that cannot actually be standardised. For example: "Company X uses exclusively constructivist approach" or "We're using only andragogical principles".

Apart from sounding funny to an informed reader, these standards are impractical. The pedagogical theories are not "right" or "wrong". They are concerned with different aspects of learning. One cannot "choose" one theory and abandon all the others. Similarly impractical are suggestions to "include a knowledge check every 10 slides". Or "not include more than 5 learning objectives". What is the point? What is the purpose?

In other words, professional instructional designers are not outdated, but extremely important. And no amount of guidelines or instructions to have a "20 questions quiz for each module" will replace them.

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