Why Bother with Instructional Design?

This week I had a revelation: My instructional design doesn’t matter. Then I read the Big Question over at the Learning Circuits blog:

For a given project, how do you determine if, when and how much an instructional designer and instructional design is needed?

I read several of the responses and the blog post by Cammy Bean that inspired the question. I think I like Jay Cross’s response the best, probably because it’s short and obvious. (People often don’t see the obvious). My short answer is enough to meet the objectives of the course. For eLearning I think careful planning is required, especially for self-paced courses. For classroom training, and maybe even live online training, almost no ID is needed. Huh? An instructional designer saying you don’t need instructional design? Yep, you need course developers not instructional designers.

In the past year I’ve spent a lot of time working on instructor-led training for both in-person classes and live online classes. What I’ve found is that no matter how much work I do two things are true:

  • The instructor will always do things their way.
  • Students don’t care about instructional design.

The instructor will always do things their way. The trainers I work with are outstanding, both as trainers and as technical experts. They know the product and have years of experience training. They will always, for any given class, adjust the course as necessary for the students that show up that day. The activities I labored over may not be done in a class and the instructor may improvise and create activities on the fly. In other words, no matter how much I plan and design there is no guarantee it will be used in class.

Will this impact learning? Probably, but the students don’t seem to notice because they don’t know what they are missing. Sure, there are pages and slides that were skipped or taught in a different sequence, but they came to class knowing nothing and left with their heads full of stuff. Let’s not debate if it was the right stuff; stuff is stuff.

Students don’t care about instructional design. All they care about is having a good instructor and doing some exercises that are relevant to their world of work. They also like not being at their real job for a few days, and the free coffee and pastries go a long way toward high scores on the course evaluation form (smile sheet). They want the course materials to be accurate so when they do an exercise it works. They also want a copy of the slides, except the slides that say “Objectives” or “Course Goals”. Never mind that the book has all the information they need to accomplish the objectives (and then some), they want the slides.

So a course developer is all you need. Someone to make slides with pretty graphics, write exercises (based on what the instructors want), and produce student handouts. Some planning is needed, but only so at a high level things look like they are in order. For example, if you’re training on how to bake a cake you want to make sure the oven is on before you put the cake in to bake. Simple, obvious stuff. The course developer should test the exercises to make sure they work, even if the instructor skips the previous exercise.

Instructional design for instructor led training is over rated. Good instructors are all you really need. eLearning, now that’s a totally different animal. As instructional designer you get to exercise your complete control and make sure learners get the what they need in the way you’ve determined is best. What about learner control ? That just means making sure they can read the text instead of listening to the narration.

Just remember, people might actually learn in spite of instruction.

6 Responses to Why Bother with Instructional Design?

  1. Pingback: Rebuttal: Why Bother with Instructional Design? « eLearning Development News

  2. It’s been a couple of months, but I just found out Tony Karrer responded to this post on his blog. http://elearningtech.blogspot.com/2008/02/safety-training-design.html
    Tony makes some valid points about why we do need Instructional Design.
    Thanks to B.J. Schone for letting me know.

  3. Ron says:

    Question for you, what is the difference between an Instructional Designer and Courseware Developer?

  4. Ron,
    To me the main difference is that the Instructional Designer is primarily concerned focused on what to train, how to train it, and how to determine people learned. A courseware developer on the other hand focuses on how the training materials are put together, usually in an online course. In reality, they are often the same person and the distinction between them is very blurry. Also, Courseware developers may not have any background in instructional design, but no how to use development tools.


  5. Ann says:

    Does anyone have a reference for how to design good exercises? I’m looking for guidelines as to what makes an exercise an effective one.

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