What is Instructional Design and Why Should Anyone Care?

by Sue Schnorr on October 16, 2009

Most of the definitions that I’ve seen for instructional design are so technical and filled with jargon that people clam up and their eyes glaze over they hear them. As a result, many people don’t understand WHAT instructional design is, let alone the value of instructional design.
Simply stated, instructional design is about creating learning experiences. It’s more than just presenting information to an audience. It’s an art and science that involves finding the best way to for a particular audience to learn a particular skill.
Many companies use Subject Matter Experts to ‘train’ their employees. Subject Matter Experts are people who are knowledgeable and proficient in a topic. They are well qualified to present their information.
These sessions are known affectionately by training professionals as ‘Death by PowerPoint’ or ‘PowerPoint-less Presentations’. Training programs are created by Instructional designers who work in concert with Subject Matter Experts.

Instructional Designers are often referred to as the architects of learning. They don’t design in isolation; they create a blueprint; a dialogue, and collaborate with many people, including Subject Matter Experts, and take many factors into consideration to create an instructional strategy and to plan the best way for certain people to learn a certain topic or skill.
Working with Subject Matter Experts is just one facet of the instructional designer’s craft. In order to create training that works, instructional designers analyze the target audience, complete a needs analysis and a course rationale and define measurable objectives.
Instructional Designers sequence the content in an appropriate manner, divide the content into appropriate modules and identify the proper learning formats and media to use so learners can synthesize the material in the learning style that works best for them.
Module tests are created to ensure that the identified objectives have been successfully completed and an evaluation process is created to ensure that the entire design process is the best that it can be. Clearly, a great deal of work and planning goes into designing, developing, implementing and evaluating training programs.
Many people say they provide ‘training sessions’ these days, but they really are giving presentations. They are knowledgeable and have expertise with the subject at hand, but, some have little or no training experience. In short, they are Subject Matter Experts, who are presenting information but lack an agenda, objectives, a skilled teaching plan and don’t use appropriate learning formats and media for disseminating the material.

How can you tell if a session has appropriate instructional design? Simply ask these questions:
• Was it a presentation? (given by a Subject Matter Expert simply TELLING information) or
• Was it a learning session? (that got learners involved, utilized many learning styles and appropriate learning formats and media, and participants left being able to achieve the program objectives.)
These guidelines will help you determine if the session you attend is an informational presentation or if it was designed by a professional whose job it is to ensure that you LEARN the skills and achieve the expected outcomes.

After attending a session, if you’ve left and …you thought it was interesting, but when you got back to your desk and tried to recall it all, you could only remember a couple things. You didn’t know how to do it for yourself…
Then …… it was a presentation.

After attending a session …if you thought it was interesting and enjoyed the activities but they seemed a bit corny and weren’t related to the session’s learning objectives… and back on the job you didn’t know how to do it for yourself.
Then … it was poor training; not designed by an Instructional Designer.

After attending a session …if you liked it. It was interesting and had demonstrations and you now have a good understanding what was presented. You get it but you can’t do it yet.
Then… it was mediocre training; not designed by an Instructional Designer. It was missing the needed components that allow learners to develop skills and confidence.
After attending a session …if you liked it a lot. It was interesting and had demonstrations and practice opportunities. You have a good understanding and had ample opportunities to develop skills. You’ve built your confidence and can do the skill and apply it to your job.
Then …… it was a good training session, created by an Instructional Designer. It had appropriate practice activities that were relevant to learners’ jobs and enabled them to develop skills and confidence.

In summary, different topics, concepts and skills should be taught in different ways. Instructional Designers are experts in developing an instructional strategy; the best way to teach something to a particular audience.
If you want an introduction to a topic, then go to a presentation. If you want to master the knowledge and skills, go to a training session … designed by a professional Instructional Designer.

Sue Schnorr, M.S., is President of Training Insights, Inc. where she designs Training that Sticks. She is certified in Instructional Module Development and Criteron Referenced Instruction. She is also an Associate for Contacts Count where she teaches strategic networking workshops, Webinars and keynotes. Visit her at www.training-insights.com and www.contactscount.com/sueschnorr.html

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