June 18, 2014

More and more individuals are graduating from university with an undergraduate or graduate degree in instructional design (ID). Yet, instructional design is so much more than the formulae taught today in universities.

ID, in order to be effective, combines creativity and analysis that, ideally, places the profession into an interpretative arts category. And, we all should know by now, that higher education — dominated by its Enlightenment-influenced academic departments — tends to look down on fields of study that cannot trace their research directly to the scientific or mathematical disciplines. As a former faculty member, I witnessed these not-so-veiled attacks on the creative and interpretative arts. Worse, I saw the faculty in those departments succumb — minimizing the creative components of their disciplines and concentrating on the history, formulae and jargonistic theory relating to their field of study — in order to buy “legitimacy.”

I once had the opportunity to work with Dr. Harold J. Bailey, now retired, who understood that instructional design was much, much more than pedagogical formulae.

Hank was founder and director of Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive Technologies and coordinator of its Master’s program in Instructional Technology. On the commercial side, he was founder and president of Bailey Interactive, Inc., a company that focused on technology-based solutions pertaining to workforce performance.

In our many conversations as well as in the numerous presentations he delivered and the articles he has written, he succinctly captured the working description of ID: “Most instructional design models include the following phases: analysis, design, development, and evaluation.”

Christy Tucker, Instructional Designer, and author of the “Experiencing E-Learning” blog ( has gone into even greater detail about what an instructional designer does:

“. . . one of the crucial things instructional designers can (and should!) do is make sure that students have opportunities to actively practice what they are learning.

If all you’re doing is dumping content into PowerPoint slides or text to read, you don’t need an instructional designer. The Subject Matter Expert or whoever knows the content can just write it, and the students will be passive recipients of that content. What the instructional designer adds to the process is the experiences of learning and practicing; IDs know how people learn and have ideas on how to help them learn better. If you are looking for engaging learning activities or ways to make practice closer to real life skills, that’s when an ID is who you need.

How do we do that?

• Work with Subject Matter Experts to identify what students need to learn

• Develop objectives and ensure content matches those objectives

• Revise and rewrite content to shape it for learning needs

• Structure content and activities for student learning

• Create media to support learning (e.g., visual aids for face-to-face, various multimedia for e-learning and online)

• Develop assessments (note that this does not only mean tests)

• Adapt instructional materials created for one format to another format (usually this is adapting materials from face-to-face to e-learning)”

While Tucker does not consider her list completely comprehensive, she — as well as Dr. Bailey — recognizes that the role of Instructional Designer is much more than simply applying the rigid formulae taught in so many universities.

While those universities are trying to turn ID into an engineering function, the best instructional designs also incorporate aesthetic choices — choices that go beyond the intellectual involvement in the learning and heighten the sensations of the learner in order that he may feel more integral with the learning process.

The truth is that both components are essential to the best in Instructional Design!

Instructional Designers are, also, losing sight of the preliminary research so necessary to effective learning. As Dr. Bailey has written: “Analysis is more critical in a training environment than in education. Academia may argue that the Analysis Phase is achieved when defining the content outline of a course. However, there is more to Analysis than defining content.”

A thorough Task Analysis; a complete Skills Analysis (which will include measuring Skills Gaps and Learning Cultures); and, agreed upon Performance Objectives must all take place before real learning — including acceptable skills transfer and significant retention — can take place.

As Dr. Bailey has concluded: “Designers organize content into meaningful, interactive learning experiences.” And, a big part of an ID’s success will ultimately depend on the aesthetic choices she makes — born from the degree of trust she has in her own creativity.

More on Monday – – – – –

— Bill Walton, Founder, ITC Learning (Tuesdays & Thursdays)