Friday 28 May 2010

ID - Instructional Design or Interactivity Design in an interconnected world?

Maze - iStock - small

Instructional design is not only seen as a core competency for learning and development/training specialists, but it’s a huge industry, too. Most learning vendors tout their ‘expertise in instructional design’ as a key reason as to why we should engage them to produce learning content. If we do so, then almost invariably their approach is around developing content in an ‘instructionally-sound way’ to produce a set of ‘learning interventions’.

I have a real problem with this approach and the thinking behind it.

It simply isn’t appropriate for the needs of the 21st century knowledge industry, and is arguable even more inappropriate for those whose work is carried out with their hands rather than with their minds.

Let’s Forget About Events

Undoubtedly instructional design is crucial if the mindset is learning events – modules, courses, programmes and curricula. However, if the mindset has stretched beyond event-based learning to where most learning occurs for workers, which is in the workplace at the point-of-need, where process-based learning serves best – and where learning through doing and learning as part of the work process happens, then ID takes on a whole new dimension.

From Content to Activity

The vast majority of structured learning is content-rich and interaction-poor. That’s understandable in the context of a 20th century mindset and how learning professionals have been taught to develop ‘learning’ events. But it simply isn’t appropriate for today’s world.

For years we’ve been led to believe that ‘learning’ meant acquiring knowledge. If knowledge acquisition is the end-game, then the logical conclusion was to provide information that could be turned, whatever the magic employed, into knowledge in the recipient’s head. Believe me, the old idea that data becomes information which in turn becomes knowledge and finally transmogrifies into wisdom has been debunked years ago. We use our knowledge and experience to interpret data and information. Wisdom comes to a few only after years of experience.

These days we’re a little better informed about what constitutes learning. It’s not that there have been fundamental discoveries in the field. There have been a few, but we’ve also spent more time observing learning in action. And ‘action’ is the key word. It’s become clear that learning is about action and behaviours, not about how much information you hold in your head. If we train our dog, or our goldfish, we can observe learning by the fact that the animal can do something it couldn’t do before the training started. If their behaviour isn’t modified then we can only conclude that they haven’t learned. We have no idea of knowing, of course, but it may be that the dog ‘knows’ what it should do (‘’sit, now!’) but, for reasons known only to itself, can’t (or won’t) execute the action.

Ebbinghaus and All That

Knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve learned it. Challenging?

Let’s test this hypothesis. I attend a course on how to use my company’s new CRM system. The instructor (or virtual instructor delegated into an eLearning course) steps me through the various processes and delivers the learning content in an engaging way. I even have an opportunity to try things out on a ‘training system’. At the end of the course, I take an assessment. I pass with flying colours.

The training has been successful and I’ve learned. Right?

Not necessarily. What I’ve done is managed to retain information in short-term memory. Even if I’m successful in transferring this to long-term memory - and it’s likely that most won’t transfer. Dr Ebbinghaus’ experiment revealed we suffer an exponential ‘forgetting curve’ and that about 50% of context-free information is lost in the first hour after acquisition if there is no opportunity to reinforce it with practice.

I’ve only learned (or learned successfully – I don’t know what unsuccessful learning is – can someone please help me out with that?) when I can use the CRM system without constantly asking for help or referring to some documentation. And it’s almost impossible to achieve this without having the experience of using the system/tool. And I have no hope of learning without plenty of practice. Experience and practice are two of the main ways we change our behaviours and learn.

The Value of Real ID

If experience and practice, rather than knowledge acquisition and content, are the drivers of the learning process, what do Instructional Designers need to do to be effective?

The need to become Interactivity Designers. That’s what they need to do.

My colleague, Clark Quinn ( knows a thing or two about designing learning experiences, having been a leading expert in the field in both academia and the business world for some years. Clark talks about learning experience design. He provides good explanations of his thoughts and approach here and here.

I find both Clark’s learning experience designer and also the term interactivity designer helpful because they move us beyond instruction to where the real meat of learning is, to actions and interactions, experiences and conversations.

Unlocking the Power of Experience

Each of us holds hundreds of experiences inside our heads that can be used to improve our own performance and the performance of those around us in both formal and informal learning environments. We just need to figure out how to tap into those experiences – that’s where the skills in interactivity design come in.

Good ID will result in the design of experiences that can build capability and learning far more quickly and effectively than by filling heads with information and ‘knowledge’ and then hoping that will lead to behavioural change.

We need designers who understand that learning comes from experience, practice, conversations and reflection, and are prepared to move away from massaging content into what they see as good instructional design. Designers need to get off the content bus and start thinking about, using, designing and exploiting learning environments full of experiences and interactivity.

As they do this they’ll realise that most of the experiences and interactivity they can draw on will occur outside formal learning environments.


  1. Great blog post.
    As an Instructional designer I agree with the several points you present.
    But not always is possible to develop a more adequate and information efficiency retention, because our clients don't want that. Sometimes they give us a bible of a manual and order us to convert in to flash activities. I do not believe is this process, but the client is always right, right?
    My question is: How can the ID can also be a pedagogical consultant, although the client is still in 20st century teaching paradigm?

  2. I'm visiting your blog for the first time, and am delighted to have found you. This post is excellent.
    As I read, I was thinking of the interactive learning sites on the internet now (I'm always looking for good ones to include on my educational blog for my son and others to explore.) I am often amazed at the junk people put together and call educational, let alone interactive. I can sympathize with the commentor above - it seems to me that educating the client is critical if a website (or flash) designer is to have license to create something wonderful. On the other hand, I think to myself, how is it not obvious after all these years of research proving what is so intuitive: people learn best by experience and practice.

  3. As an instructional designer, I agree with your point but not with your labels. Instruction doesn't mean transferring content, it means teaching. And that includes learning experiences and interactivity as well as content transfer. And the instructional designers I work with absolutely emphasize active learning. Hugodom is correct, though, that the client and their attitude about instruction are critical elements - if they are not bought in, then the product will be suboptimal.

  4. Nice post Charles as always. Just to point out that Interactivity is not the only requirement to reaching the end state of learning actions and knowledge in order to perform accurately. Designers also need to prepare people to learn and to practice and apply new knowledge and behaviours. Building confidence and sustaining the motivation to change doesn't necessarily require interaction but does need persuasive language and appropriate use of media as well as connection and access to others (which is a form of interaction granted).

    I've started to think about a new model for systematic learning design which can be summarised: Confidence, Context, Content, Collaboration, Consolidate, Continue. Early days but might help reframe our design priorities to achieve a lasting more effective outcome.

  5. Charles - remember our intro presentations we had to put together in 2006 on the DTI Mission to the USA where I put forward the concept of "Less Learning More Often"?

    Hopefully some useful articles to supplement your posting for your readers:

    Less Learning More Often

    Transfer of Learning - Missing in Action

    Ubiquitious Performance Support

    Also a slide deck that promotes consideration of the spacing effect:

    Lars Hyland Webinar 090709 Re-inventing the E-learning Experience

  6. Lars
    As a non-expert in this sphere (former WSJ reporter now speaker/consultant on collaboration+ connective conversation) I find that your Confidence, Context, Content, Collaboration, Consolidate, Continue makes intuitive sense and would like to learn more as you develop this model.
    And Charles - this post was fascinating - now to figure out ways to put the ideas into practice so I might retain more than 50%. Will ask one of my biz partners who knows instructional design (Kris Schaeffer) how we can use these findings as we develop a site and guide on ways to collaborate.

  7. Respected Sir, Thanks for your posting. It is the question that is there with me and never I could articulate. One important point is how to bring the experiences to your instructional design. The tacit knowledge need to be experienced by the student or the participant. How to make him or her to experience in your classroom or through internet. How do we really know that understanding and competence of the students? we are not teaching one to one where there is possibility of knowing about the student. However, we are having a group and how to contextualize for a group. The the groups are virtual who are from different parts of the world the contextualization becomes difficult. For example ( i teach Statistics and Research Methodology) wall street issues may not be relevant for Indian students. How to develop universatalities in the world of individualities.
    I wish all my colleagues will be able to help me.

  8. A couple of quotes come to mind that I took from "Learning in 3D," a book by Karl M. Kapp and Tony O'Driscoll:

    "It's not about instructional design, it is about experiential design" (p. 87) [heading title].

    "When designing 3DLEs, think about the learning experience more than the learning objectives" (p. 88).

  9. Very nice insights. You really are improving performance through learning innovation. Great blog indeed.

  10. Hello Charles,
    Great post and something that I know is on the minds of a lot of my ID colleagues. I do think that it IS still the learning outcomes or objectives that play a big role in our innovation of design. I think that most learning outcomes are still so hypothetical that they have no meaning to the learner/facilitator/designer.
    I had the pleasure of attending a workshop based on the book by L. Dee Fink on Learner Centered Design. Through drilling down and actually figuring out what you want your learners to accomplish, how that is relevant to their lives and how they will manifest this change in attitude, skill or behaviour, you actually begin designing with the student and their learning experience in mind.
    It is quite an extensive topic, I do recommend anyone that is interested in relevant "interactivity design" to check out that book.
    Thank you for provoking discussion and reflection!

    Also, if we are to call ID a profession, a type of expertise in a field, then we will have to do our research and push back on those clients who try to impress their (sometimes lacking in experience and knowledge) ideas on us. You would not go to a doctor, tell him what you want prescribed and then expect him to just hand over the prescription with no examination or research? Well that is exactly what we are doing when a client says "convert these books into flash" and we humbly comply. The client is not always right, you are the ID, they are consulting with YOU. They don't know what they don't know. Show them a better way, prove it works, and they will respect you for it.

  11. Why would someone train in a CRM system and then not use it? Of course, this happens but it is pointless. The training should help users become proficient in the system quickly. If they never use it they will forget. So practise is essential but that does not negate the value of training in the first place. When starting out in most fields, basic information and knowledge are vital. Then you can practise ... as you practise ... you can gain experience

  12. Niall - if there is no practice, they will forget. They will forget not just the task-based actions that have 'learned' but also most of the basic conceptual information. If this happens the training IS useless and has no value.

    I fail to be convinced that retaining a few pieces of basic information about a system that you have not practised on can ever be justified as good use of anyone's time - trainer or trainee.

  13. Clive Brotchie4 June 2010 at 02:44

    The implication from this, about which you have previously written, is the importance of effective performance support in asssisting successful adoption of IT enabled business change. The workplace is where the interaction designer also needs to focus.

    Referring to the CRM example, designers need to consider how to find and prepare the right expert coaches and online guidance for people to ask or retrieve easily on the job.

    There are challenges. System rollouts are nototriously time poor, SMEs are hard get hold of, subject matter is unstable up to the line and there may be large audience footprints to cover quickly. All of this makes useful content and events tricky to produce.

    Stakeholder and user expectations for a particular style of pre-release training also need to be managed. The risks around people in some roles making business critical mistakes because they were not properly prepared or supported will need particular attention.

    For an IT rollout, an ideal design should try to minimise the gap between pre-release guided practice, if any (perhaps using a simulation or test environment), and really well executed on the job support.

  14. Great post.
    In the classroom as a teacher i ave found it easy to construct 'learning experiences by ditching help sheets and structuring tasks very carefully to build concepts up from the ground up. (works very well with maths & ICT - my 2 teaching subjects) but... when it comes to adults this whole approach is VERY difficult to implement - they are often 'scared' to try without a carefully constructed help/click sheet - unlike children who are very happy to click away/experiment - 'see what happens if' and eventually find a solution to the small task - which they are comfortable with (which they own) and then this provides the next step to the next task. But with adults there is often so much resistance to this method 'you're not teaching me' 'i need to be shown first'.
    i do a far bit of ID work and my biggest obstacles to transferring these methods to ID is the 'template' restrictions and the clients wishes for fairly linear coverage of content objectives.
    Where i have had most success in implementing a different approach with adults is using moodle to deliver the content objectives because i've also been able to build-in 'informal' learning objectives from the 'stuff' (forums, blogs etc) surrounding the learning and making contributions to these part of the course.
    i think now with the massive adoption of social media - these hold great prospects for making online learning more effective - less of a single event. howevere we still get back to your points which are about the design of online learning 'events' and i don't know how we solve this. As a freelancer I will always end up saying yes to an ID job and try to make the best of it - even if the templates are 'enforcing' working with old ideas - i guess others do the same.

  15. Hi Charles,

    I would like to ask you a few questions about e-learning courses. What is your opinion about QuickLessons? Do you think that this platform can make users effective learners? On the one hand, I admit that QuickLessons is interactive and easy to use. On the other hand, I believe it is not usable for two reasons. One reason is every time a user clicks on a next or previous slide of QuickLessons, it is loading, because it is based on Adobe Flash. As a result, the user wastes his time waiting for the slide to appear on the screen completely. Another reason is that there is no detailed navigation in QuickLessons.

    After all, I would appreciate if you could show me some examples of effective e-learning solutions. For example, I like Moodle and I have developed e-learning courses and uploaded them in Moodle. However, I am wondering how effective those courses are to users.

    Thank you for your time.

    I am looking forward to your reply.

  16. Hi,

    I think designers also need to prepare people to learn and to practice and apply new knowledge and behaviors. Building confidence and sustaining the motivation to change doesn't necessarily require interaction but does need persuasive language and appropriate use of media as well as connection.

    thanks metrogyl

  17. Great thoughts! The traditional learning style (no matter if provided via eLearning or classromm training)is very useful to have a quick jump start on the subject. Similar to FAQs in the social media.
    You need the necessary knowledge first to not bore the experienced and experted to death. But then you need to expose your opinion on the subject, let our opinion get challenged read an experience report of somebody who did already the path you need to go in order to turn the basic knowledge into something useful.
    A nice starting point can be found under tacit knowledge.

  18. Experience is really an important aspect of producing an idea when it comes to designing, along with knowledge and talent. But this field also requires the ability to adapt with what's going on and the changes every now and then.