Monday, March 15, 2010

Instructional versus experiential design: do you have what it takes?

If your instructional design experience has focused on e-learning modules or workshop development or print don't have the skill set to design experiential learning. At least, not yet.

Instructional design typically focuses on the systematic layout of content in a way that can be easily understood, and hopefully learned, by the intended audience. Classroom curriculum development, print, e-learning...typically they present the content, explain the concepts, and allow for some kind of practice before providing some way of assessing what you learned. Most instructional design degree programs focus on this pattern, and applying it to different content. Many instructional designers become experts at breaking content down into easy-to-understand, bite-sized pieces--making difficult concepts easy to understand.

This actually makes a lot of sense, right? If something is difficult to understand, its important to simplify it so that it is understandable. This type of instruction is important, and has its place. But its not the same as experiential design.

The truth is, life is complicated. Decisions are complicated. Many times, there isn't a right or wrong answer--there are better and worse answers. There are often hidden implications in addition to the obvious ones for any decision we make. There's a reason why its called complex decision-making. Its not easy. And you really can't simplify it so that its easier to understand. We can really only get better at dealing with the complexities of the real choices we are faced with every day by practicing making those tough decisions.

Enter experiential design. Where immersive and experiential learning succeeds is in replicating realistic environments and presenting complex problems that require deeper reflection and understanding than most content or concepts presented in traditional training. To design experientially, you have to design a mirror to reality. You wouldn't want a doctor to perform surgery on you who hadn't practiced numerous times and faced a multitude of different situations before. Nor would you want to fly on a plane with a pilot who had only flown a couple times before getting in the cockpit. Why would you want a company full of employees who weren't skilled in handling the complexities of business decisions that companies face every day? No, those decisions typically aren't life or death. But they could mean the life or death of your organization.

In real life, there are very seldom heroes who always make the right choice or villains that always make the wrong ones. Most of us struggle day to day with facing tough choices, weighing all of the options, and making the best decisions we can. The potential of experiential learning design is to be able to provide practice making those decisions and seeing the potential short-term and long-term implications and outcomes before we make the decisions in real life. Call it insight. Call it reflection. Experiential design allows us to help people overcome short-sighted or narrowly-focused decisions by providing the long-term and wide-reaching implications.

Isn't that the kind of thinking and understanding we'd like to see in all of our organizations? Isn't that what we'd like to see in ourselves?

I'm looking forward to talking about this topic more at Learning Solutions, March 24-26th in Orlando, in my session with Ellen Wagner and Cammy Bean titled New Skills for Instructional Designers. And I'm thrilled to be participating in Harrisburg University's LEEF conference June 17-18th where I'll be spending 2 days hearing amazing case study examples of experiential design in simulations, games, and virtual worlds for enterprise (& I hear I'll be presenting on alternate reality games as well...).

Its time that instructional designers more specifically define their skill sets and identify their expertise. Are you designing for simplicity or complexity? In either case, do you know what it takes?


  1. A very good post Koreen and I totally agree with you about the different skill sets. I am at this very minute designing an e-Learning programme on Community Engagement which is a combination of the two approaches. The experiential part, based on a case study, is particularly challenging but very rewarding to design. As I work on it I also realise that I am acquiring and developing a whole raft of new skills!

    Judith Christian-Carter

  2. This is a good post. I concur on your main point. Since the majority of my audiences are "knowledge workers" dealing with complex situations in their jobs, rote lecture-based training just won't work. One of the key elements in the experiential training I am trying to design right now is what I call the "authenticity factor".

    I have observed our company's basic sales training where there is opportunity for role-playing. The students get up in front of everyone, including the facilitators, and deliver their "elevator pitch" as if the customer was in the room. This is a good opportunity for them to experience standing up in front of peers and speaking... it doesn't really provide a truly authentic experience, in context of talking to a customer.

    What I want to do is move toward contextual authenticity in the training environment (as much as possible) so that the student can gain real-world experience while still having a "safe" environment to fail in. This means I have to step out of my "safe-zone" as an ID, and question the status quo, usurp the process, and challenge our traditional approach to designing and delivering training. Sometimes these together are too much of a jolt, so baby-stepping may be necessary -- but it's nice to hear your perspective on this because you're right. At the end of the day, "training" needs to support the real-world job tasks as much as possible. This means throwing over eLearning lectures with rote multiple choice assessments is really not doing anyone any good.


  3. Experiential [instructional design]: you may be on to something. You don't mention it explicitly in your brief post but I'm wondering if you've considered the role socialization plays in experiential learning. Most people don't live/work/learn by themselves: individuals are usually near others. An immersive learning experience isn't really experiential if it does not include, at some level, the ability to communicate with others.

    One other thing comes to mind regarding experiential learning: it has to include the capability for the learner to fail, perhaps in a big way: it depends on the context. This is where socialization in ILT (instructor-led training) or elearning can really make a difference. Getting immediate feedback from some one else helps the learner view their actions from another's perspective. In experiential learning this is gold because it gives critical thinking a kick-in-the-pants.

  4. very good points you make.

    Now, let's acknowledge that good ID would yield experiential design. But that said, it's sure easy to lose it in content mapping, 4 part objectives and matched test items.

    Isn't performance support the ultimate experiential design?