Let me start by saying that for many, many years, my title was some variation of "Instructional Designer." And so, its with some amount of hesitance that I say that the field of instructional design is, well, crap.
I'm not a traditional instructional designer, having a Master's degree in education instead of instructional design or instructional technology. I somehow backed my way into instructional design, working in a whole department of instructional designers in my first ID job. Some of those IDs are among the most brilliant people I have known and worked with, and it was an honor to have the opportunity to cut my ID chops in such talented company.
That said, I immediately noticed some problems with the field of instructional design and more importantly, in how instructional designers are "trained." So, although there are definitely instructional designers out there that are talented and know what they are doing, my experience is that they are few and far between. There are many, many other instructional designers who are a product of how instructional design is taught and marketed, and its killing the art of instructional design as a respected, professional expertise.
There are many reasons why instructional design has become a bit of a joke. Among them:
- Instructional design relies too much on process: there's nothing wrong with having guidelines for design. Let's be honest. There's one model, ADDIE, that pretty much sums it all up, and any other ID model that anyone comes up with is basically ADDIE rebranded. Looking for some examples? Here are just a few: Dick & Carey, ASSURE, MRK, Knirk & Gustafson. Not only does ID have a process for the overall stages of ID, but each step in the ADDIE model has specific process around it. Basically, ID as it is currently taught is just following the process, step by step. It's not rocket science. What IS rocket science (or at least a lot harder) is to figure out how to apply process with the endless number of variables that affect any learning need. This is where ID falls short. Instructional designers in too many instances are so tied to the models and the process that the variables and subtleties of good design are sacrificed.
- Instructional design doesn't follow process enough: Ok, so to immediately contradict myself, with all the process that instructional designers have developed to guide our practice, the irony is WE DON'T FOLLOW IT. Let's be honest, the first things that go in the ADDIE model are the A and the E, arguably the most important steps in the whole process. In most corporate settings, people other than IDs determine what the learning needs are of the organization and what should be done about it. They bring these projects to the instructional designers to design and develop, and like sheep, instructional designers comply. Where is the analytical step in that? Maybe the real learning need has been identified, and maybe the appropriate solution has been decided upon--but MAYBE NOT. We do ourselves a disservice any time we become corporate order-takers and passively accept the conclusions of others. And evaluation? Evaluation of learning effectiveness is not just an assessment at the end of an e-learning module, and any ID worth his or her salt knows that.
- Lack of ROI measurements as a rigorous part of our practice: I was lucky enough to work with a company recently that provided me with sales results after a huge training event that we could ALMOST draw a direct correlation between the training and the results. How often do we get any data on the effectiveness of our learning solutions? How often do we include that data collection as part of our process is the real question. Yes, measuring ROI is hard. It requires work, and analysis, and reflection on all of the factors that can contribute to learning outcomes. Let's be honest. If we're doing our jobs up front, we are identifying learning objectives that are measurable. Even better, we're identifying measurable performance objectives too. Did I mention that we should be doing this UP FRONT? Its a whole lot easier to measure improvement in something if you have a baseline measure, and set the expectation that the learning you are designing is intended to improve that baseline measure. Instructional designers will be taken a lot more seriously if we show our value. Which leads to...
- Lack of research to show learning effectiveness: Not only should we be examining the effectiveness of our projects, but we should be encouraging academia to be doing research to show which strategies are most effective for different types of learning needs. Its nice to toot our own horns, but its even nicer if unbiased third parties are showing how effective we are. We should be encouraging this type of research whenever possible. We should be opening up our process for rigorous review. If we are learning professionals, let's lead by being open to learn what's effective about what we're doing and what's not.
- Instructional design ignores context: This was the first observation I made when I started working as an ID, and I'm sorry to say my opinion hasn't changed. I had been teaching at a charter school in Philly before my first ID job, and I brought with me many of the skills and perspectives that teachers employ to develop engaging curriculum. I joke sometimes that I've designed learning for the toughest audience I can think of: inner city eighth graders. You won't find a more challenging and skeptical audience. You have to design to motivate and keep in mind both the learning environment in the classroom and the influencing factors outside of the classroom. This is no different than designing learning for adults. Call it education or instructional design...its all learning. So where do ID's fall short? To a certain extent, its following the "process" too closely. People are complex, learning is complex, motivation is complex--and no process is going to address all of these complexities. Good IDs know this and aren't afraid to go "off the reservation" when they need to. Most IDs don't.
- Perception is reality: This is really just my fancy way of saying that I truly believe people learn constructively, based of their previous experiences and previously held beliefs. All things that aren't really taken into consideration in much of the ID process. How people experience any learning event depends on what they bring to it. Too few IDs acknowledge that and try to build a common experience and frame of reference for the learning experience.
Ok, so what does this all mean? It means that designing effective, motivating learning is actually really hard. It means that instructional designers need to be really good critical thinkers. It means that as a profession, instructional designers need to be trained to not only know the process, but also how to recognize the limitations of process.
More than anything, if instructional design is going to survive and thrive as a profession, we need to be leaders--leaders in research, leaders in our organizations, and leaders in our field, not accepting the mediocre. Otherwise, instructional design is dead.