This is a long one – apologies in advance!
I’ve been working as an ID since early 1998, starting with the newly formed, but now defunct GartnerLearning. That company was in turn bought over by Thompson Netg, where I remained for a further 2 years, learning my trade.
Those early days were interesting. The focus of ID back then was in technical writing and graphical presentation, rather than interactivity or designing to facilitate organisational improvements. Mostly my training consisted of mentoring, reviewing more experienced people’s work and any reading that I undertook myself. At that time I was introduced to the common ID theories by Merrill, Mager, Bloom etc…Even at that early stage, I was stuck by the thought that the skills and knowledge to be a good ID are so diverse that it might take one years to become competent. I was right!
In late 1999, I began an MSC in Advanced Learning Technologies by distance learning through Lancaster University. This was actually my first experience of being an “eLearner”. Now I view this experience as invaluable. I am struck by how many eLearning people I meet who don’t actually like being an eLearner themselves, or have had the chance to experience being on the other side.
My background previous to my GartnerLearning/Netg experiences was an eclectic one. Originally a Computing graduate, I worked in the area of Database design. I then got involved in organisational change initiatives mainly as a result of trying to understand organisational structure in order to design good database information systems to support the organisation. My undergrad degree was a general computing and business course, where I not only learned the principles of software engineering, but I also studied business and people management principles. It was in the mix of these three general areas that I found my passion – learning and helping people and organisations to change.
My ID Approach
At this point in my career, I can see how my background and experiences have helped to shape the type of Instructional Designer that I am. I have a passion for learning and for understanding how things work – including people and organisations. So that is always my starting point. I talk to my clients with the expectation that anything I design will actually improve people and organisational performance. If that is not going to happen, then I’d always question the client on the appropriateness of the project.
1. Problem/Solution Analysis
It’s interesting to me though, in that my approach to ID is probably still a software engineering or systems approach to design – understand the business problem/situation first and then try to identify the best solutions.
When I am discussing solutions with the client, I often say that the solution may not always be an eLearning course. These conversations can be challenging as mostly when a client has decided to talk to an eLearning company or ID, they have already made up their mind about the solution! I remember once being involved with a large public sector organisation to design an eLearning programme for Data Protection. Staff had already been to so many training programmes on the principles of Data Protection but so many high profile mistakes were still being made. It surprised me that no-one thought to ask the question about why the previous training programmes hadn’t worked and what else might be needed now.
2. Target Audience & Content Analysis
So, I stay in the problem definition/solution analysis phase longer than most. It is my ID mantra to solve the right problem in the right way. Most eLearning courses that I design involve more than just eLearning content. I look at organisational structures, roles, policies and procedures to ensure that the newly designed courses actually have a chance of making an impact.
In the case of our Data Protection eLearning programme, this analysis yielded many surprising results about why people were failing to get data protection right. From simple interventions like not having enough re-cycling facilities to poorly operating paper shredders, we came up with many interventions that hadn’t been looked at before.
Once I have identified the right problem to be solved in the right way, I then set about looking at target audience and content to identify the learning that is really going to make a difference to solving that problem.
This is the key in any ID process – we don’t (or shouldn’t) just “throw” all the content we have at the problem. We must take time to understand what the target audience already knows and what they need to know now in order to make the lasting change that solves the identified problem.
I believe many eLearning design processes miss this vital step – especially inexperienced IDs and people engaging in rapid eLearning processes. Selectively identify content that is going to make the most difference to the learner takes time and skill, as well as patience! The ID really has to step into the shoes of recent learners, experienced learners and work closely with the Subject Matter Expert to tease this information out into coherent and useful chunks.
I follow a fairly common ID approach of analysing the target audience needs, and use a nice strategy learned in my GartnerLearning days – DIF analysis:
- D –What is difficult for the target audience to understand?
- I – What is important?
- F – What frequently comes up this area?
I work with the Subject Matter Expert to really understand the content and by the end of this process I know the content so well I can actually teach it to others. And that’s what IDs do – teach, or rather facilitate the learning process for others. It makes sense that if an ID is to do this, they should have a good grasp of the content.
3. Content Design
Once I understand the content, all its nuances and challenges for the target audience, I set about devising a Curriculum Plan and a set of storyboards for each area of the Curriculum Plan.
If budget is tight or the client advocates a rapid approach, I storyboard directly in an authoring tool such as Articulate or Captivate. If we have more time to pour over words and ideas for images, media and interactivity, I storyboard in Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint. The latter is easier for some clients as it helps them to visualise what a screen looks like. Power point is trickier though from a Project Management point of view in terms or recording client changes and managing the review process.
As lead ID in many projects, I often double-task as Project Manager. This of course is not an ideal situation, but has been brought about by squeezed budgets and increase client expectations.
As PM, I organise review and sign off process for Curriculum Plan before moving on to Storyboarding. Each Storyboard is also signed off before moving onto the next stage – Content Build.
4. Content Build
In Content Build, depending on our budget, I either build the content myself and have some graphic design support, or I hand it over to a developer/designer to complete the build.
The key at this stage is to ensure that the build matches the signed off Storyboard. I usually pilot a short section of each built learning object with the client to ensure we are on track with their expectations.
At content build stage, we also plan for and add any media elements. For example, if we are using some drama-based learning elements, as lead ID I will often direct and manage any video shoot to complete the media requirements.
5. Continuous Evaluation
I build in evaluation and sign off at all stages of the process. From ensuring we have identified the right problem to having the Curriculum Plan reviewed by recent learners, not just a management group, I ensure we get the right input to verify all of our decisions.
Even during storyboarding, we have representative learners reviewing the interactive ideas.
What I find works best at storyboarding stage is an actual face to face workshop, with all the necessary people meeting to review and make changes to the storyboard in real time.
Some IDs prefer to have clients review and comment remotely and then incorporate the changes. I prefer the more hands on approach if time and budget allows.
6. Return on Investment & Critical Success Factors
As part of the Curriculum Plan, I often agree a set of Critical Success Factors with the client. Most clients find this challenging as it can be difficult to isolate a particular organisation metric that could be measured by the impact of an eLearning course alone.
In general we tend to agree metrics such as X% of the organisation will complete the course by end of XX. I also try to influence the client to add more impactful measures such as %improvement in specific areas or %reductions.
In conclusion, my role as an ID is a varied and electric one, which probably is based on my eclectic route in Instructional Design. I see myself as an organisational consultant, trainer, teacher, learner, designer and project manager. I truly enjoy the creative nature of the role and feel very lucky that I get to live out my passion most days!
The ID process described here is mainly for formal, structured eLearning content.
My work has changed a lot in the last few years, where I am increasingly designing short, independent learning sequences such as a 10 minute “key points” video or a short branching scenario to practice a particular area of learning.
Clients are increasingly asking for short nuggets of learning like this to build up a series of learning objects which can be used by staff in a more flexible and informal manner. These objects don’t get tracked within an LMS, rather they are just freely available as performance support. I personally like this approach and hope this is how my role as an ID/Learning designer will develop.