Monday, 25 July 2011

I’m an Instructional Designer so respect me!

Instructional designers, like all workers, are treated in different ways by different people but a key question, which as yet remains unanswered, is are they respected?

Over the course of the last few years I have come across a number of instructional designers (who obviously have to remain anonymous) who bemoan the fact that the role they play in designing eLearning programmes is not respected or appreciated. Many of them feel unvalued, frustrated, demotivated, usurped and fed up. By nature, instructional designers are very good, if somewhat unassuming, team players, however for many a feeling of exclusion has become the norm.
So, what’s going on that has led to this sorry state of affairs? Well, I have managed to determine two causes which, singly or together, invariably lead to one effect.

Cause 1 – Project managers rule
For instructional designers who work in teams, alongside graphic designers, video producers and programers, there is usually a project manager ‘conducting’ the work and acting as the ‘go-between’ with the team and the client.
When a project manager is not and has never been an instructional designer, problems arise when they assume the instructional design mantle and seek to cut-off essential communication channels with the client and the lead/senior instructional designer.
In situations where the project manager is a control freak and/or will do anything to keep the client happy by agreeing to their requests, no matter how unwise, inappropriate, time-consuming or costly, then the lead/senior instructional designer becomes impotent and their vital role ceases to exist.
In the worst case scenarios, project managers have even been known to undermine the credibility, knowledge, skills and experience of instructional designers by dismissing the latter’s efforts and achievements to the client, as well as keeping the two parties well apart in order to retain their control.

Cause 2 – Authoring tools dominate
In this situation, the instructional designer is forced to work to the lowest common denominator ie the authoring tool or software. The instructional designer is told “We will be using ‘X’ tool, so you will need to design the programme accordingly.”. Depending on the tool, as some are not so limited as others, this can result in the instructional designer being severely constrained in how they can treat the content. Not only is this extremely frustrating, it is also very demeaning, somewhat akin to asking a top-notch organist who is used to having four manuals at their disposal to achieve the same musical outcome with only one manual!
In those cases, which sadly are becoming more and more common, where the instructional designer is also the programer, then the tool in question easily dominates most design considerations. The individual in question either forgets any instructional design knowledge and skills they may have or lets the tool dominate their design.
In either case, the outcome is one in which the ‘science’ and ‘art’ of instructional design plays very little, if any part. No small wonder then that many people are asking just what is an instructional designer good for!

Effect – Bottom of the heap syndrome
In an increasing number of cases, instructional designers are now being treated as second class citizens. In terms of an eLearning pecking order they are rapidly being relegated to the bottom of the heap. No small wonder then that so many feel unvalued, frustrated, demotivated, usurped and generally fed up.

A recipe for disaster
If this state of affairs continues then quality and fit-for-purpose eLearning programmes, irrespective of whether they are stand-alone, form part of a blended learning solution, or are used as a form of performance support, will rapidly become a thing of the past.
Sound and effective instructional design are the sine qua nons of all formal learning solutions, as well as for provision which is used informally for performance support. This is no more true than when, arguably, the most demanding delivery medium of all, eLearning, is involved.
We have got to do something to address this current lack of respect of instructional designers by, first, acknowledging that it exists, second, by bringing it to the attention of others and, third, by enforcing our role as indispensible L&D professionals. I sincerely hope that this post will make a positive contribution to the first two steps.

“I got to have (just a little bit) – A little respect (just a little bit)” (Aretha Franklin)

If you have had similar experiences to then please do use the comments box and tell me about them.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Terror of Templates: an Instructional Designers nightmare!

In today’s world of rapid everything, particularly when it comes to e-Learning programmes, I have noticed and become a victim of a most disturbing trend: the scourge of templates.

Rapid e-Learning design has its place but not when instructional design is compromised. The use of templates is nothing new, where at the start of a e-Learning project it is agreed by the instructional designer in conjunction with the client, the graphic designers, and the programers, where specific assets can be placed on the screen.
Over the last few years though, I have noticed a most disturbing and counter-productive trend – one where templates become the sine qua non of all e-Learning design; effectively kicking instructional designers into touch. So, here’s my take on what is the good, bad and (the downright) ugly of using templates in designing e-Learning programmes.

Templates – the good
First of all, let me say that as an instructional designer I define and use templates. However, these are very simple and few in number. Generally, they just cover where graphics and text can go, to make life easier for other instructional designers in the team and for the programers.
Knowing what the various options are, it’s relatively easy to look at some content and decide what screen layouts to use: graphics & text, text & graphics, graphics/text and so on.
What happens next though is left solely to the instructional designer, in terms of how the text, graphics and audio work with one another, and the interactions that are required. The instructional designer is therefore completely in charge.

Templates – the bad
Here, the programers, with minimal or even no input from an instructional designer, come up with 20 or so templates, all of which are to do with what they want to see in order to make their lives easier.
Very few, if any, of these has anything to do with what an instructional designer would have chosen or that will work best for learners.  They attempt, and generally fail, to describe everything, including interactions.  Their use serves only to provide boring and predictable e-Learning programmes.
In short, these types of templates become a strait jacket for the instructional designer, depriving the latter of any creativity or of using their considerable knowledge and skill of learning to produce high quality, effective e-Learning.

Templates – the (downright) ugly
OK it goes like this. An e-Learning provider (who will remain nameless) gives me a total of 80, yes 80, templates to use (and on pain of death if I didn’t use them correctly). Each one of these 80 templates is so complicated, so restricted, and so inane that I rapidly lose the will to live!
Being an inquiring soul, I ask why do all these templates have to control what I do? Answer: “Well, we are using an offshore company to keep the costs down and this is the only way we can control what they provide”.
So, the tail is wagging the proverbial dog. I tried, oh believe me how I tried, but after a few days I gave up, as I couldn’t work/dance to such a cacophony.
I also felt that everything I knew and was experienced in doing as an instructional designer had just flown out of the window.  In short I’d become the operator of a sausage machine!

Sweet dreams
If I am going to sleep well and perform at my best as an instructional designer, then the ‘terror of templates’ has to become a thing of the past.
I do wish more instructional designers who have had sleepless nights or, worse still nightmares, about this scourge of the templates would also speak out. The life of an instructional designer can, at the worse, be a fairly unthankful task but with all these templates, it is rapidly becoming an unworkable one.
As I always live and work in hope, can I now say ‘goodbye to the terror of templates as “Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?” (Eurythmics). I most sincerely hope so.