Robert F. Mager, in his 1984 book Developing Attitude Toward Learning, wrote about three simple questions that have directed the performance improvement training and development process for several years:

  1. Where are we going?
  2.  How will we get there?
  3.  How will we know when we have reached our destination?

Instructional designers ask these questions as well as many more, as they evaluate how training is going to meet the goals for improving the learners’ technical skills and work performance. The role of instructional design has always been important. Today’s companies are finding out just how crucial instructional design is with the expanding horizon of Web-based training (WBT). Whereas paper-based manuals are very acceptable for reading in instructor-led courses, it is not acceptable to put page after page of scrolling text on the screen without thinking about the motivational elements of the learning process in a Web-based environment.

Also, WBT is often quoted as “any place, any time training” so the instructor is often not in the same room as the students and not able to adapt a concept to give students a better understanding of it. Once the training is delivered, it needs to be appropriate from day one due to the amount of development time and costs. The use of instructional design can guarantee effective instruction. One reason is that part of the instructional design process is the front-end analysis that requires the instructional designer to interview subject matter experts who know what skills are crucial for the job.

Research is required to design good training
As we enter the 21st century, training is becoming more a requirement than a luxury. Workers in the knowledge age are finding that they need to keep increasing the range and depth of their skills to keep up with technology’s rapid rate of change. Instructional designers can create more efficient training that increases production for a company. Using the instructional design process can improve work performance and production by ensuring that current instructional needs have been researched.

A couple of qualities good instructional designers possess are common sense and the ability to ask problem-solving questions. Questions should be designed to determine what the unmet needs are for each individual client. It also helps to be able to professionally encourage subject matter experts to talk about the reality of the current work environment. Sometimes instructional designers have to be detectives and weigh the responses to figure out if they get to the root of the training need. For instance, a manager was not aware that his employees still lacked confidence in using computers. Before the Web-based training could be successfully implemented, employees needed classes in basic Internet skills.

When you are identifying the need for instruction, you will need to determine how to solve an actual problem. Finding the training solution usually requires:

  • Interviewing students and subject matter experts.
  • Observing the trainees on the job.
  • Reviewing existing training materials.

By watching someone perform the required skill, the instructional designer will be able to determine day-to-day operations or teaching methods. Taking the time to conduct an analysis will help you decide how much of the training material is useful. Sometimes the material is out-dated and needs to be restructured for the current target audience.

Making the case for strong design
So how do you explain the importance of instructional design to a client? Just as an architect creates a blueprint for a house, an instructional designer writes a design document before developing the training. The design document, like the blueprint, is meant to ensure that the training department or client is getting what they want. The design document is also meant to ensure that the other people on the team know what the end product will be.

Another analogy that I have used to describe instructional design is the comparison of an instructional designer to a physician. First, a physician greets the patient and finds out what the problem is. An instructional designer interviews the subject matter experts, and finds out what the performance problems are. In other words, instructional designers are trained to ask questions that get to the root of the problem and to figure out what training is most appropriate.

After the physician diagnoses the problem, the doctor writes a prescription just as an instructional designer writes the design specifications after analysis. The design document is meant to clearly spell out the learning objectives, the training content, the audience specifications, the delivery system, and technical specifications.

Everyone benefits
Instructional design benefits the training program by not wasting the time of students and their managers on unnecessary training. For instance, a director did not know that his supervisors needed basic computer classes on how to save files and operate the computer before they felt more comfortable taking other computer-based courses. The instructional designer was the objective third party to identify this belief. If the company had missed this first step, there would have been an unexpected resistance to new computer-based training.

Students benefit from instructional design because they get a sense that someone has really listened to their individual learning needs. They feel like training that won’t make a difference is wasting their time. Employees want their employers to feel like their time is valuable. Students want training that is going to make a difference in their careers, not training that is non-applicable to day-to-day operations.

Laura Summers is the managing partner of instructional design at Alva Learning Systems. She is also completing her doctorate in instructional technology.

Do you know much about adult learning theory? What about instructional design? How do you get started when planning a new course? Send us an e-mail and explain what you consider when creating a new class.

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