​A Starter Kit for Instructional Designers

column | Digital Learning

​A Starter Kit for Instructional Designers

By Amy Ahearn (Columnist)     Jul 20, 2017

​A Starter Kit for Instructional Designers

A 2016 report funded by the Gates Foundation found that in the U.S. alone, there are 13,000 instructional designers. Yet, when I graduated from college in 2008, I didn’t know this field existed. Surely a lot has changed!

Instructional design is experiencing a renaissance. As online course platforms proliferate, institutions of all shapes and sizes realize that they’ll need to translate content into digital forms. Designing online learning experiences is essential to training employees, mobilizing customers, serving students, building marketing channels, and sustaining business models.

The field has deep roots in distance education, human computer interaction, and visual design. But I’ve come to believe that contemporary instructional design sits at the intersection of three core disciplines: learning science, human-centered design, and digital marketing. It requires a deep respect for the pedagogical practices that teachers have honed for decades, balanced with fluency in today’s digital tools.

Most people with “instructional design” in their job title are involved in converting “traditional” written curriculum or in-person teaching into an online course. But they can also be creating learning apps, museum exhibits, or the latest educational toy. My classmates from Stanford’s Learning Design and Technology master’s program have gone on to design for big brands like Airbnb and Google as well as edtech upstarts including the African Leadership University, General Assembly, Osmo and Udacity.

Over the last few years, we’ve traded resources, articles and work samples as we try to build our own starter kit for this fast-moving field. Below are some of the lessons and resources that I wish I knew of when I first went on the job market—a combination of the academic texts you read in school along with practical tools that have been essential to practicing instructional design in the real world. This is not a complete or evergreen list, but hopefully it’s a helpful start.

Lesson 1: Start with a deep understanding of your learners.

No matter what type of learning experience you’re building, it’s always smart to start getting to know the people you’re designing for. To conduct learner research it’s helpful to combine practices from design thinking with those of participatory research or teacher action research that educators have been practicing for many years.

I typically start by developing an Empathy Guide like the one put together by the Stanford d.school or reviewing the free book by Giff Constable, “Talking to Humans” to structure productive conversations. After conducting observations and interviews with target learners, I synthesize my findings into learner archetypes.

Then, I test instructional concepts and product ideas by building rough prototypes that I put in front of learners to get their feedback quickly. The d.school has a great Prototyping Dashboard you can use to organize the hypotheses. If you’re looking for a crash course in the entire design thinking process, you can check out the free course offered by IDEO.org or the free resources from IDEO’s Teacher’s Guild.

Lesson 2: Ground yourself in the fundamentals of learning science.

Teachers have spent decades learning how to reliably help students master new skills, debunk misconceptions, and connect their prior knowledge to new concepts. To be a good instructional designer, you should steep yourself in the research on learning and teaching. The best and most digestible books I’ve found are “The ABCS of How We Learn,” a 2016 book by Daniel Schwartz and “How People Learn,” the 1999 foundational text edited by John Bransford, Ann Brown, and Rodney Cocking. If you’re looking for a crash course in digital education specifically, recordings from Stanford’s lecture series on Education’s Digital Future are all available for free online.

Lesson 3: Determine the “powerful ideas” you want to teach and build your curriculum using backwards design.

To get serious about education technology, you have to read Seymour Papert. His “Mindstorms: Children, Computer and Powerful Ideas” is a classic that is critical to helping you realize that all the ideas about edtech that we think are so unprecedented have actually been mulled over for decades. Pay particular attention to his chapter on “powerful ideas” where he describes how essential it is to find the enduring, transformative concepts that you want to teach and put those at the forefront of your design approach.

Once you’ve read Papert, use the Understanding By Design Framework to structure your curriculum. This approach helps you clarify your target outcomes and how you’ll collect “evidence of learning.” This curriculum design approach is used by teachers who work in traditional classrooms, but holds up just as well in the digital realm.

Lesson 4: Go study other great teachers and other great learning experiences.

Before becoming too beholden to the particular features (or limitations) of a technology platform, try to think bigger and more creatively about how you can meet the needs of your learners. One of the best ways to do this is to seek out inspiration from other learning designers. For example, look at the examples of host education that Airbnb puts together. Look at the altMBA program that Seth Godin runs using Slack. Watch how Angela Duckworth delivers messages to camera. Check out the beautiful animations produced by Amnesty International or the interactive lessons produced on Oppia. And look at examples of tangible rather than screen-based technologies that have been produced by groups like Paulo Blikstein’s Transformative Learning Technologies Lab.

Rather than limiting yourself to looking at educational resources produced by schools or universities, find examples of instructional materials from other sectors to get ideas. The field is so new that there are no definitive ways to do it “right” and lots of approaches are worth learning from.

Lesson 5. Get a lay of the technological landscape, but don’t let your LMS hold you hostage.

If you’re going to be an instructional designer who specializes in online courses, you should get familiar with your platform options and be prepared to speak to the pros and cons of each. Start with the “big four” that most people have heard of: Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, and EdX. Check out the list of global MOOC platforms curated by Class Central, but realize there are entirely different ecosystems of platforms that specialize in corporate training or adaptive learning. Then also read some critical perspectives from the likes of Digital Pedagogy Lab or the MIT Media Lab.

No current online education platform is perfect, but focus on being able to speak to the distinctions between them and make a recommendation based on the learning goals. You don’t need to master all of the options, but it’s helpful to keep a pulse on the major players. Perhaps more importantly, design content and learning experiences that are “platform agnostic,” meaning that you can easily transport them to another platform. Finally, check out the blogs of online learning pioneers like Connie Malmud who have been chronicling the field for many years and who has helpfully compiled a glossary of common terms.

Lesson 6. Don’t try to migrate an in-person experience into an online format.

One of the biggest mistakes people who are new to instructional design make is trying to replicate or simply migrate an offline experience onto an online platform. Instead, the better approach is to think about what the technology can do uniquely well and then design your experience to leverage those affordances. Allan Collins and Richard Halverson’s book, “Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology,” is a useful place to start, along with the perspectives and research of Mitch Resnick and the late Edith Ackermann of the MIT Media Lab.

Lesson 7: If you build it, they won’t come. Understand the fundamentals of digital marketing.

People will not automatically show up for your online course—unless you’re working for a big-name institution like Y Combinator or Harvard University. As online courses have proliferated, the market for students has also fragmented. To be an effective instructional designer, you also arguably need to know the basics of digital marketing and how to write compelling copy to get someone to click through, enroll in, and persist in your course.

One useful post on strategies to drive enrollment and sales of an online course was produced by the founders of Groove. Udemy has also created a great toolkit to help online course instructors market their learning experience. These strategies might seem distasteful to people whose primary focus is learning outcomes, but the reality is that if you don’t attract the right population of students to your courses (even if they’re free), all of your hard work and pedagogical design is moot.

Lesson 8: Collect student feedback. Iterate. Share what you learned.

Finally, perhaps one of the most important lessons is to get out from behind your computer and actually go meet the learners who experience your courses, apps or experiences. Set up Skype calls to interview them. Pore through the feedback they submit on surveys.

Some of their input will inevitably sting—especially when you’ve spent months building a course and someone only watches two videos before leaving a scathing review. But listen for the underlying pain points. Synthesize your feedback carefully and make changes, but avoid designing by committee. Finally, share your data, your lessons, and your failures with the broader learning design community when possible.

The field is fast-moving but still has a lot to figure out. The more creative pioneers we have who are pushing the boundaries of how to design compelling, thoughtful learning experiences in new formats, the better.

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