Effective Instructional Design – I Know It When I See It

When I was in graduate school, my favorite class was the art of the short story. My professor was a cutup but when it came to writing, he was a serious as I had ever seen. He had studied under Saul Bellow (winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976) and was an amazing author and storyteller.  One day he told the class that two authors, who were recent graduates of our university, were coming to speak with us. We couldn’t wait to talk shop and pick their brains. As Masters and PhD candidates, we would ask question after question, half because of curiosity and half just to prove that we knew our stuff.

The day of the class arrived and we were joined by our honored guests. One was a thin, lanky young woman with large maroon glasses and a slight lisp. The other was a tall, heavyset man with a thick beard and a thicker Texan accent.  As we found out, both had written novels that were published within that year. Both novels were fiction: one was a detective story and the other a work of science fiction. As they took their seats at the front of the lecture hall, we couldn’t wait to let the questions fly. Before answering questions however, they first gave us some background information. The woman was in law school and had graduated with a degree in international business. The man was a full time author, with two more books in the works, and he had graduated with a degree in computer science.

Once we learned that neither of these authors had come from our literary school, we began scratching our heads. How was it that two authors, releasing fiction novels in the same year, had come from outside our school while not one of our literary graduate students had published a novel within the last five years? It was disconcerting to us to say the least.

After the pleasantries were out of the way, we were unleashed on these poor unsuspecting souls and the floodgates burst open. The questions flew. How do you feel about the use of narrative distance? Are you a fan of dramatic irony in works of fiction? Do you prefer your narrator to be omniscient or first person? These types of questions went on for about 20 minutes. The woman attempted to answer them but she stuttered and fumbled and we knew she was not speaking our language. The man, however, answered all our questions with one statement. And this statement was made with utter confidence and astuteness. His answer was this: “I don’t know what any of those literary terms mean; I just know when something looks right to me.”

This man had never taken a writing class; he didn’t know an allegory from alliteration. But he knew when something felt right to him.

You may be asking how this relates to instructional design and I’ll answer you with this. You don’t need any kind of formal training in instructional design to know when something feels right to you. If a course feels boring and you know you can spice it up with some interactions or activities, you are being a good instructional designer. If, when designing an elearning course, you feel that you need to give some context to your learners, you are being a good instructional designer. You may never have heard of ADDIE or Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, but you know when a course is effective and flows. You know all of this because you have been on the other end of learning. You have taken a course that you found dull or ineffective and you know what you would have done to make it better.

If you truly care about your learner, you are already on your way to becoming an effective instructional designer.

For more information about adult learning, instructional design or elearning, visit www.learntoelearn.com.


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