Is this instructional design?

Instructional design is the practice of creating “instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and, appealing”.

We called it elearning

An ‘instructional experience’ is an experience that gives us the instructions. Traditionally this happens by a trainer deciding what should be taught and explaining it to a class of learners then giving them a quiz.

At some point everyone decided it was cheaper to do this using computers, so the information presentations and quizzes were put online and we called it elearning.

It didn’t take long for learners to figure out that this was almost as boring as listening to a trainer. We then decided to add interactivity to elearning. This took many forms. For example, clicking a button to reveal information that was previously hidden, or, hovering your mouse over a button to produce the same effect. Then there was the popular cover flow interaction (like flicking through your albums on your iPod). Another interaction one was filling in the blanks using a drop-down selection or dragging and dropping words to complete statements.

Often this type of interactivity was used in quiz questions. Apart from the good old multi-choice, there were drag-and-drop questions, sorting, and matching ones too.

Still, the basic effect was information presentation followed by a quiz.

Calling the output of instructional design ‘elearning’ means we’re focussing only on what is possible using technology and not how people actually get better at things. We all know that after years of information presentation and quizzes at school (we called them tests), that we still couldn’t get a real job right away because we had no skills (practical experience applying knowledge).

How is this supposed to work?

So back to our definition: instructional experiences “which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and, appealing”. Knowledge is acquired by repetition and skills are acquired by practice. Any instructional experiences that are created by instructional designers must therefore include repetition and practice.

Repetition doesn’t need to mean memorising only. We can repeatedly apply knowledge to real(istic) situations. In other words, we can do something with the knowledge. Children can often recite times tables, but can’t figure out how much change they should get at the supermarket or how many minutes until a boring car trip ends. This is because they usually practice memorisation instead of application. Which is more useful? Again, we come back to being able to do something. The best way to acquire knowledge is by doing something with it, or learning-by-doing for short.

The same is true of acquiring skills. We need real(istic) practice in order to get better any anything. Learning-by-doing wins again.

The efficiency of acquiring knowledge and skills can be definitely be increased using technology. Steve Jobs said:

“A computer is like a bicycle for our minds”.

This means that just as bicycles make human transport more efficient, computers can make activities like learning more efficient.

However, what we have come to know and love as elearning cannot be the answer (at least not in its current form) unless it focusses on learning-by-doing. Which it almost never does.

One way to think about this is to ask, “If a person wanting to get better at XYZ had to figure it out on their own, how successful would they be?” Results would vary wildly depending on the learner. At the other end of the spectrum, we can be pretty sure that almost everyone would benefit from having a more “efficient, effective and, appealing” instructional experience. This means we need an instructional designer to create an “instructional experience” of some kind.

Which sounds great. However, the reason we have what we currently have for “instructional experiences” is because instructional designers usually respond by doing the following. We assume that learners, especially adults, can’t possibly figure anything out on their own. So we cram as much information as possible into a facilitated workshop, an elearning module, or a webinar (yes, information presentation again) and add a quiz to make sure they memorised the information, or can at least recall it long enough to pass the quiz.

Of course they won’t have any new skills at the end of it all because they did basically zero practice. And they didn’t acquire knowledge by repeatedly applying it to real(istic) situations, so they will forget most of what they recalled in the quiz.

Is this “efficient, effective and, appealing”? I’ll let you answer that for yourself.

Learning by doing

The takeaway is that people learn best by doing. Unless an instructional experience is focussed on this, then it’s probably not much better than letting them figure things out on their own with some help from Google and YouTube.