Last reviewed 4 August 2022

Whether it is called instructional design or learning design matters not a lot. What does matter though is that for all forms and types of learning, be it via face-to-face, virtual or asynchronous digital formats, it matters a considerable amount. So what does learning design involve and what is required to be a successful instructional or learning designer? In the first of several articles, Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at what is involved in getting started in this important area.

Here are some of the things that learning/instructional design is not.

  • It is not just about pulling some content together and assuming people will access it.

  • It is not about adopting just one model and sticking to it no matter what.

  • It is not about taking training slides and putting them on a digital platform for anyone to use.

  • It is not about using zooming, spinning words, irrelevant animations and sound effects in a misguided attempt to engage learners.

  • It is not and never will be the sole context through which people learn.

However, here are some of the things that learning/instructional is.

  • It requires a thorough analysis before any design even takes place.

  • It requires a good understanding of how people, in particular adults, learn.

  • It is about only using content that is relevant and required.

  • It is about attention to detail and, when and where needed, a somewhat pedantic attitude.

  • It is also about being flexible where and when needed, and not being bound by any models, rules or existing conventions.

  • It requires a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of all the various delivery channels available, and the ability to design learning in accordance with the strengths of each.

  • It requires the knowledge and ability to create appropriate assessments and evaluation tools where required.

  • It requires, above all, the knowledge, skill and experience of being able to provide what is required and not, necessarily, formal certificates or degrees in the field.

Analysis

In the past, and still today, Learning and Development (L&D) practitioners and stakeholders often start with the assumption that there is a training problem. From this unproven assumption, activity on identifying the specifics gets underway, followed by L&D starting to work on designing and delivering the training. What happens next is anyone’s guess. The resulting training might, just might, hit the “need spot”, but it is far more likely that it won’t. If the latter then both money and time has been wasted, valuable L&D resources have been used to no avail and, probably even more importantly, those who undertook the training are disillusioned and frustrated. The result is another bad notch on the “L&D dashboard”!

Therefore, the starting point for all learning/instructional design is a proper and thorough analysis of what is required and why. Are there performance problems, are there behavioural/attitudinal problems, are there new working practices, procedures, equipment, software involved? Who are the people involved, ie the target audience, what do they do, where do they come from, what are their abilities, and so on? Essentially, what is the problem, what is the need, or needs, for the organisation and the target audience, and, definitely not, there a training need?

Design

In many ways, this is the crunch stage. Get this wrong, even after a thorough analysis, and L&D is in deep trouble. The key points in any quality learning/instructional design are:

  • deciding on the most appropriate delivery channels to be used, eg face-to-face, virtual, eLearning, blended learning, performance support, on-the-job and so on

  • keeping strictly to what is needed in terms of learning content

  • designing learning content that is appropriate for the chosen delivery channel or channels

  • not to think, even for one moment, that an existing face-to-face classroom course can be converted as it into an asynchronous format, eg eLearning

  • making informed decisions on what content needs to be ‘pushed’ to learners and what can be “pulled” by learners

  • providing all the above in formats that can be developed into appropriate learning content.

Development

There is a well-known saying that “if we build it they will come”, except, of course, they won’t. Depending on what is required in terms of learning/instructional content, the development stage is extremely important, especially when eLearning or blended learning are in the frame.

This stage may involve using people with graphic design, video creation and software skills, where the latter requires people who can use various authoring software. All too often, the learning/instructional designer is expected to fulfil all the above roles. Of course, they may well be able to do so, but to expect them to do so can be another matter altogether.

Assessment and evaluation

Essentially, assessment is about designing and developing the means by which individuals in the target audience can demonstrate their competence of what it is the learning content is about and/or what it is they should be able to do as an end result. The whole area is a minefield, it really is. There is so much involved in designing, developing and delivering both valid and reliable assessments, which is why so many of these are often inappropriate or fail to deliver the data required.

Inextricably linked with assessment is evaluation. Evaluation is about measuring how effective, on a number of criteria, the learning provision has been in achieving what was required, ie the stated outcomes. Happy Sheets still rule here, where people are asked how “happy” they were with various aspects of what they have received. However, this is only scratching the surface when it comes to evaluating learning provision.

Evaluation is both the alpha and the omega of learning/instructional design. However, for many reasons, evaluation is either ignored completely or paid “lip service” to on so many occasions. Yet, for many organisations, knowing to what extent learning provision has proved to be effective is a fundamental requirement. Evaluation, therefore, cannot be ignored and it is another important part of the learning/instructional designers role.

Getting going

For sure, learning/instructional design is far from easy. It is also incredibly challenging. However, it is very rewarding when people engage with the end result, praise it and, most importantly of all, their performance in the workplace improves.

Learning/instructional designers come from all walks of life. Many came to it by chance, such as being an expert in a certain content area or as a result of being a good web designer. However, and regardless of people’s backgrounds, good and even great learning/instructional designers all have certain skills and attributes. A key attribute is that they have a deep desire to see others develop through learning and being able to transfer their learning into the workplace, with the end result that they are better at their jobs and happier as a result.

The next few articles will look at specific areas of a learning/instructional designer’s role. As far as the “instructional” part goes, this will be dropped, as today the role is no longer about instructing people how to do something or providing them with information/knowledge. Instruction and training often go together, but learning needs are not necessarily met by training. So getting going starts with analysis.