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Designing effective web based training

Within the e-learning industry, the role of instructional design has traditionally had a low profile. Training and e-learning consultant, Viv Cole, highlights the value good instructional design brings to a successful e-learning project. Let’s start with three questions:

  1. Would you build a house without an Architect?
  2. Would you produce a feature film without using an Editor?
  3. Would you produce an e-learning module without an Instructional Designer?

If you answered “Yes” to questions 1 and 2, it is clear that you would run a big risk of the finished product turning out very differently from intended. When people have produced e-learning, they have not always used an Instructional Designer - it’s less obvious why they should pay for good quality Instructional Design. If you have sat through e-learning that involves scrolling through lots of text with little interaction or has lots of gimmicks that distract from the content, you have probably experienced bad instructional design. This article aims to clarify the five main ways that a good Instructional Designer enhances an e-learning project.

1. Knowing the audience

It is important to take time to understand the target users by doing a robust learning needs analysis. This involves assessing the typical level of experience/ competence of the users and defining clear learning objectives. This is a fundamental step in designing a face to face training course, but even more crucial in an e-learning environment as once the content has been built there is little scope to flex it.

2. Championing the learner

The instructional designer’s role is to think things through from the point of view of the learner. Typically a project will rely on one or more Subject Matter Experts who have great knowledge of the topic. Subject Matter Experts have a bias towards demonstrating their superior knowledge by going into painstaking detail. A good instructional designer will distil this knowledge into a tailored message that acknowledges the user’s level of experience and gives them what they need to know to do their job better. The message will be formatted so that the user stays motivated to learn and change.

3. Structuring the content

The Instructional Designer will format the content so that it is interesting and easy to remember. There are several psychological models that cover how to enhance memory, e.g. Keller’s “ARCS” model of Learning Design, Gagne’s nine “instructional events”. The detail of these models is not important in the context of this article, however use of these models helps provide a logical sequence of information. A good instructional designer will make use of these models, but will also know when it is in the learner’s interests to take a more flexible approach.

4. Accommodating different learning styles

Different users will have different preferred ways of learning; for instance some prefer the detail to the overview, and vice versa. There are several psychological models that categorise the differences between individuals (e.g. Myers Briggs Type Inventory, Honey & Mumford’s Learning Styles). A good instructional designer will consider how users with different learning styles will address the topic. This involves making the topic accessible to all learning styles. Sometimes this includes providing different pathways through the content so that the user can play to the strengths of their own style.

5. Providing an environment for learning

Adults learn best in an environment where they can experiment and make mistakes without losing face. A user should expect to be able to get things wrong and then receive some high quality feedback that shows not only why they have gone wrong but what they need to do to reach the correct solution. A good instructional designer will design questions, answers and feedback that isolate misunderstandings and ensure that the users are able to achieve the learning objectives.

How to find a good instructional designer

If there is no-one in your e-learning project team who can convincingly bring the above five elements, you will need to source a good instructional designer. Qualifications such as the CIPD “Certificate in Online Learning” and the IITT “Certified e-learning Practitioner” are good signs that someone has made the effort to invest in a formal qualification. Organisations such as the e-learning Network and the British Learning Association have several Instructional Designers amongst their membership. At the start of a project, it may not totally be essential to invest in using an instructional designer. However once the project goes live, the users will be grateful that you did.

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