Hi! I’m your older self, writing to you from 30 years in the future. Here in 2018, we can send messages to the past, but only to our younger selves.
In this message I’ll give you lessons from the instructional design mistakes I made in the past, in hopes that you’ll avoid them. If you ignore this message, you’ll make these mistakes in the future. And that'll be bad for you and your learners.
Within a few months, you’ll quit your job at the VHS tape factory, dust off your M.Ed. and become an instructional designer, developing courses for classroom trainers and self-paced instruction via computer. Of course, for you in 1988 there’s no such thing as “elearning.” But training over the “Internet” will become a big thing over the next few decades.
Looking back on my mistakes
Here are some errors I committed at some point in my instructional design career. As a result of these mistakes, a lot of people didn’t learn what they should have. So, they made poor decisions on their job or in their lives—a heavy burden for anyone to be responsible for.
Mistake: I forgot who my learners were. I’d prepare a classroom lesson or an elearning module without any thought as to who was going to be in the audience. And no one understood what I was trying to explain, because I had reached beyond their current level of knowledge. The learners I had profiled in my mind weren’t the ones who actually showed up for class.
There are ways out of this trap. In addition to finding out exactly who your learners are, you need to “become” a learner before you become the instructional designer. In other words, assume at the start that you know very little about the curriculum you’re trying to teach. Then figure out the best techniques you can use to understand and retain it for yourself, and implement those techniques in your instruction. These might include spaced repetition, interleaving, scenario questions, gamification and role-playing.
Mistake: I wasn’t interested in what I wanted to teach, so my learners weren’t interested, either. Some topics were boring to me, but I still tried to put together the best course that I could under the circumstances. As it turned out, most learners who completed the course evaluated it as “very poor.” They didn’t appreciate the monotony of slide after slide after slide of bullet points. They didn’t get challenged or have their lingering questions answered. They could sense I wasn’t putting in a worthwhile effort to make the knowledge stick. Because my training wasn’t interesting, they didn’t learn.
Later on, I realized that if the content bores me when I’m developing the course, I’ll end up boring my learners. So, before writing learning objectives and a course outline, I got genuinely interested in the subject matter. I learned as much about the topic as possible beyond what was necessary for the course, even becoming an expert for a short time. Then I found out who my learners were and tailored the curriculum to their knowledge level. My enthusiasm for the subject matter came out naturally in the instruction.
Mistake: I made my learners work too hard to retain knowledge. I used only words and some images to explain the content, and didn’t give learners anything to interact with or attach meaning to. So, they looked at and listened to the words, with few opportunities to be engaged. The course went on too long and ended without a means to check understanding. Then the learners went back to work and forgot almost everything. Some were involved in safety accidents because they didn’t pay enough attention.
Starting with your era, human attention spans shrank. People easily forgot what they saw and heard, and then went on to something else. So, after a few minutes, my learners stopped tuning in to what they needed to learn. But it was my fault because I didn’t try to understand the best way to help them learn and manage their attention span.
After I understood what was happening, I did things differently. I told them at the beginning and at the end what items were important. Then I paused several times during the course so that my learners could prove to themselves that they remembered and understood. I frequently let my learners interact with the material, so they wouldn’t become passive seat warmers. And I made difficult information more meaningful with real-life examples, illustrations, animation and mnemonics.
Mistake: I tried to make learning too much fun, and lost sight of what was important. After going through my “make learning dull” phase, I swung to the opposite extreme and tried to plan the lesson like a game. The class would split into groups and discuss solutions to relevant problems, then compete to see which solution “won” in competition. Or I asked them to create a complex diagram of the various functions of their jobs, even though it served no purpose in reality. Or I led learners through a maze of scenarios that eventually reached an inevitable conclusion. These exercises seemed like fun, and I spent a lot of time developing them. Learners said they had a good time, but they didn’t improve their knowledge, skills and abilities. They learned little despite their enjoyment.
So, the second extreme (“fun”) was just as bad as the first (“dull”). I recognized that I couldn’t use enjoyment as the main teaching tool or the learner’s primary experience. Instead, I made certain that I met the learning objectives in the best way possible, so learners could demonstrate their knowledge. I still added fun interactions now and then, but their purpose was to apply the knowledge the learners had gained, or to discover and learn further on their own.
Looking forward to your future
So many mistakes, so little time! I’ll send you more of them as I remember, and they’ll also become part of the “blog.” (Never mind; you don’t know what that is.)
But I gotta run. Just after I clone myself to keep working, my personal robot will take me in the flying car to the shuttle terminal for a Martian weekend. Oh, to be you again, with so many exciting things to look forward to in 2018!