Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Instructional Designing - My first lessons

This is my first blog. As I write this, I feel the excitement, a sense if achievement that finally, I started one too! It sure feels great. I want to share all that I have gathered so far over the years. I request all my readers to comment, criticize, guide, and teach me on all that you can as you read on.
My learning in instructional designing did not start with learning theories. It started with my own experiences. I don’t have a degree in Instructional Designing. Am an English Literature student who took to e-learning. It took a while for me to learn that Gagne had propounded those 9 events. Keller’s ARCS model was totally unknown when I started off. My learning started on the floor - with my very first project.
Let me take you back to this scene which happened about 8 years back when I started on my e-learning career.
I started my career with an e-learning vendor in my home town. We were supposed to roll out courses for our clients in the US. We were trained by e-learning experts. The training that they gave is one of the best I’ve ever known.
My very first project was to create an Instructor-Led training course on Microsoft products. The product that I was supposed to teach was Microsoft Publisher, an all-attractive tool with which you could make brochures, newsletters, and what not. My assignment was to teach my learners on how they can make a brochure by using the MS Publisher tool.
For that, my tasks were:
- Explore the tool
- Create a brochure, which I can first show my learners
-Teach them how to create a similar brochure
The strategy was simple – show and teach. My first step in instructional designing was slowly unfolding.

Exploring the tool itself was great fun. I was overwhelmed by the art work you could do with their colorful graphic options. I let myself loose on the product! I created such a colorful brochure that at the end of it, I was swelling with pride. The next day, I couldn’t wait to show it off to my trainer. However, her comment changed my entire perspective about my approach towards teaching itself. And ever since, it has kept me on track. She picked my brochure, admired the color and jazz on it, and told me: “Tell me why a customer would like this brochure. If I were your customer, I would reject it.” It was shattering to hear. But when she explained why, I was amazed. The brochure was jazzy and colorful, alright. But that’s all it was. The intention of the brochure is not to show off my art work -it was to present information. There was no structure to the information. The placement of information was not quite user-friendly. The description of the product for which the brochure was designed, was not quite clear. Will the customer understand what product we are talking about? I don’t matter here. What matters is the information, customer satisfaction.

I understood what she was talking about. Looks do matter – but the “inner matter” matters more. As the project proceeded, I picked some lessons. Those lessons don’t pertain to brochure creation alone! They apply to all my courses that I would create from then on. I am glad I made a mess of that brochure, for what I gained were some priceless lessons. They have remained with me ever since. Here they come:

Lesson 1: You courses should look attractive, alright – but the “inner matter” is what makes it wholesome, worthy. How does one achieve that? For that, the instructional designer should be sure of what she is going to teach first. The command over the subject should be proper. She can achieve that by an in-depth understanding of the subject that she is going to teach. Once her learning is complete, the teaching is smooth. The teacher has to learn first before she can pass the knowledge to her students.
Lesson 2: I learnt that structuring your courses is important. The rule is: Simple to complex. General to specific. Start teaching simple stuff first. Show the big picture first and drill down to the basics. Guess my dad had a reason when he insisted that I learn how to add 2 and 2 before we got on to the lesson on Trigonometry!
Not just that, all those little bits of your course should be connected. We call this “flow” in e-learning parlance. When you move from topic to topic, lesson to lesson, it should emerge as a beautiful well-connected craft.
Lesson 3: Keep it simple. The way you present your matter should be simple - not jazzy. The idea is not to show off your vocabulary. A student should not be intimidated by the instruction. Rather, he should look forward to a great learning experience. This is where communication plays well. Simplicity of language is the best when it comes to communicating your ideas. The idea is to help your learner understand a specific subject.
Lesson 4: Hand hold and then let them fly off. You should provide enough guidance to understand the matter. Provide meaningful assessment questions. Every bit of the assessment question requires great caution when you build it. First of all, the question should test what the learner has already learnt. Your questions should not be a means of teaching him what he does not know yet. If he needs to know something more before he can answer that question, teach that extra bit of information as a separate section. Test him only on the information that has already been taught.
Another important part of assessment questions is the distracters you use. In a multiple choice question, the distracter deserves equal attention as the question itself. I shall discuss this in detail later on.
Lesson 5: The customer is the King. A very important lesson indeed. A course might look better if it were designed your way. But probably, that is not what your customer wants. An extra animation might give you the satisfaction of having created a great course. For all you know, the customer might not want it at all. Too bad -but then that’s how the game goes. Not you – the customer runs the show!

These are some of the basics that I picked up at the start of my career. But they went a long way in grooming me as an instructional designer. Where does this learning end? It doesn’t – as per my experience. Learning is an ongoing process. The more you learn, the better your course gets, and richer the experience for your learners.

What were your lessons? How have they shaped your ID career so far? Let’s share.

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