Is Instructional Design Dead?

I recently attended a webinar hosted by Elliott Masie, an internationally recognized futurist, analyst, and researcher on topics such as workforce learning, business collaboration, and emerging technologies. At this webinar, he spoke about challenges and learning trends for 2012. One of the questions he posed on the webinar was, “Is instructional design dead?” At first, I didn’t think I heard him correctly. I mean, I’ve been working in the learning space as an instructional designer for almost 18 years and have a Master’s degree to accompany it. Why would he ask this question? But after I continued to listen, I realized that he wasn’t actually saying the field of instructional design is dead; he was suggesting that the field must evolve to be more agile and therefore more effective.

Traditional instructional design by definition IS a process. After all, if you speak the words “instructional design,” many people will respond back with “ADDIE,” the most common model used for designing and developing instruction. And usually when the term ADDIE is used, it’s synonymous with “a long time.”

What Elliott Masie was really getting at when he asked whether instructional design is dead is how we as instructional designers will adapt to the changing business needs for 2012. At Accelerated Business Results (ABR), we recognize the challenges our clients face and have already begun making strides to ensure that we not only design practical solutions that align with the realities of our clients’ businesses, but that we do it as quickly as possible without impacting quality. Below are some guiding principles on how we do this.

  • Ask the right questions early in the process. We all know it’s important to understand the audience we’re designing for, but how much time do most instructional designers really spend interfacing with their audience group? Getting a solid understanding of the tasks your audience must be able to perform up front saves a ton of time on the back end. This means spending time with each group and asking well-thought-out questions to ensure that you understand their job, what is expected of them, and the challenges they face.
  • Ensure that your learning program is focused on “doing.” It’s a common fact that people learn best by “doing,” so it’s a good practice to spend face-to-face time practicing skills. And guess what? This type of design tends to take less time to develop! It is relatively easy to build structured activities in which learners have opportunities to role play real-life situations, ask tough questions, and get feedback from an experienced facilitator and/or subject matter expert (SME). This type of design does not require big, thick participant materials, which, by the way, no one ever reads. Rather, think “workbook-style” in which the materials truly serve as a guide, not a manual.
  • Figure out how best to use your subject matter experts. Many SMEs are capable of doing more than just providing raw content and/or reviewing content. Think about using SMEs to write content. Or try creating a template in which the SME simply fills in data. For example, recently I worked on a project in which we needed context behind the systems the learners were required to use for their job. We simply created a template in PowerPoint with headers on each slide and questions that would help the SME provide the exact information we needed. We also included placeholders for activities with instructions on the types of customer scenarios we needed for each. In this situation, the instructional designer played more of a coach and quality role, which sped up the process tremendously. Rather than receiving a big pile of documents from the SME with data that needed to be sorted and synthesized, I got back only the information I needed because I had provided clear parameters.

As I reflect back on Elliott Masie’s question around whether instructional design is dead, I realize that the role I play has indeed evolved over the last couple of years, but it is still very much valued and needed. Instructional design skills ensure that our learning interventions are realistic, authentic, and intelligent. What do you think?

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