Instructional Design Malpractice

I came across an interesting online conversational podcast with Clark Quinn (Quinnovation) and Cammy Bean (Kineo) on the topic of “instructional design malpractice.” Of course there is no such crime on the books, but perhaps there should be. The upshot of the admittedly tongue-in-cheek conversation was that there is too much boring eLearning out there that is overly long, overly detailed, and just not focused on what counts – namely, changing behaviour. Quinn, an expert on the use of games in learning, says much of existing eLearning is an “unemotional knowledge dump.” Learners must read through or listen to loads of often irrelevant subject matter content, and then do an often insulting multiple choice test. Is it any wonder that many learners dread eLearning more than root canals? Ouch, this really hits home. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has been guilty of such crimes in the past, or has some embarrassing examples of “unemotional knowledge dumps” in my portfolio. But what brings it on? There are the usual excuses: no time; no budget; client wants a knowledge dump, etc. But if we as eLearning developers were to be honest with ourselves, we are often the problem because we do not fight hard enough for what we know to be the right approach. Quinn contends that instructional designers need to take a more active role in educating subject matter experts and fighting for what they know works best for eLearners. He says we have a responsibility to keep digging for what is important. Instead of just blindly accepting droves of content from subject matter experts, we need to get to the gist of what the targeted learners will need to be able to do. What cognitive decisions will they need to make? This is what should inform the learning, not memorizing a wad of useless facts. For Quinn, good eLearning:
  • Is centred on skills (doing vs. knowing)
  • Is lean (focused on what is important, to-the-point, less-is-more)
  • Is emotionally engaging (hooks the learner with clear WIIFM – What’s In It For Me – statements)
  • Provides mental models for learners (greater context for new skills that are being developed)
  • Uses examples (makes the learning real)
  • Provides opportunities for practice (learners apply new concepts, make decisions, see results)
  • Provides opportunities for reflection (providing a closure to the learning experience, reflecting on what the learning means in the learner’s own context)
We should keep Quinn’s seven-step model for good instructional design in mind when developing eLearning. Clients rarely hire us for any particular subject matter expertise we may have. They hire us because we know how learning best happens and what type of learning will have real impact where it counts – in changing behaviours. So it behooves us to take an activist role and fight for what we know works best. Otherwise, we may be rightly charged with “instructional design malpractice.”
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