Fill a room full with training and development professionals,
mention the word design, and expect a heated discussion with views
all over the map--from hardcore Skinner behaviorists trying to
condition every response to designers who advocate creating
structured chaos, something akin to letting the inmates run the
asylum. (Very vogue these days but I'm not sure what it means. More
on this later.) So do you find the idea of architecting people's
learning experiences an exciting prospect?
Designing training is riddled with pitfalls. These pitfalls are
many, seductive, and very easy to fall into. I recall some of my
early fumblings as an instructional designer. Imagine the following
conversation in my well-intentioned but nave head:
"Doesn't everyone learn the way I do? I'm the ideal learner -
I'll just model the design on how I would want to learn the
material. I can forge a perfect path through these ideas, concepts,
skills, information, and behaviors; it will be flawless. If the
trainers just follow my blueprints, neither they nor the learners
will ever go astray."
I relished the ideas of sitting in the director's learning chair
calling out the intricate actions and gestures of each scene. Even
a great movie director like Cecil B. De Mille would be jealous of
my facility. I grin to myself while I relish my fantasy.
Now fast forward the movie and what do we see. The next scene is a
pile of evaluations from disgruntled learners and trainers and an
endless stream of emails and unanswered voice
mails. I'm drowning in shock. My dream is
shattered, and I have to go back to the drawing board to figure out
where I went wrong.
There are days when I swear I will never write another course. I
just want to throw the materials out. That turns out not to be a
bad idea; at least in spirit. What happens when a group of learners
assembles is sacred. One thing's for sure - it's never the same. If
what we design can act more as a guide than a literal map, I
believe we come closer to actualizing the organizational and
personal imperative of real-time learning.
If we were public training companies forced to repeat the same
learning experience over and over again with little to no variation
between events, I might have more tolerance for a more controlled
approach to instructional design. That's just not the case for most
of us. Even when we need to train specific behavioral responses
there is more latitude to how we can move folks from point A to
That being said, it's an exciting and humbling time in the field of
instructional design. Never before have we been faced with so many
wonderful technologies, delivery strategies, and increasing
research to help us understand how we learn.
There are no right answers, but here are a few of the questions
that keep me up at night:
- How will instructional design change over the next 10 years?
What can we learn from the field of complexity that we can apply to
learning? How will advances in neuroscience and cognitive science
change our field?
- Will the pace of information and the technologies we use to
communicate learning substantively change the process and
principles we use, or will the same principles hold for different
delivery mediums and or a decrease in development time?
- Do we really need to design courses at all?
- What if design were done in real time, where courses were
co-created by participants? For what sorts of topics would this
approach work for? Which ones would it not work for? What sort of
skills would trainers need to have?
- Given the diversity of topics and performance results we are
asked to produce learning for, is it realistic to think
instructional design is a robust and flexible enough discipline to
guide us? What other disciplines can we use to inform us?
Write to me at email@example.com with your thoughts and
reactions to these questions.
In future articles I will highlight your ideas and discuss them. I won't be surprised if we even stumble upon some truly novel ways to design learning.
Thanks in advance for sharing your passions with me. In the
meantime I am going to get back to fantasizing about being a great
movie director like Cecil B. De Mille.