If instructional design is dead, what fills the void?

If you haven’t heard, “Instructional design is dead.” At least, that’s what some industry leaders have been saying over the last few years. Obviously, the pace and place of workplace learning has transformed, but does that mean the role of instructional design has become obsolete? What does it take to thrive as a designer in digital learning, today?

outdated approach

Instructional design: Fight or flight?

Space and time have been bent – at least, they have when it comes to workplace learning and development. It now takes place anytime, anywhere, and pretty much from anyone or anything. Content is everywhere, on all our devices and at our fingertips, and it’s totally searchable. Compare this with five to ten years ago, where learning content was held mostly behind walls on internal systems, wasn’t portable, and was owned by the few, not the many.

Employees are now more likely to Google an answer to a problem or turn to a social forum, than go to those “official” look-up spaces. They expect to find a relevant, useful answer to their question…and usually do.

In the days of 1hr+ elearning courses, PPT presentations and workshops were an organization’s staples of employee learning – but these only ever made up one slice in a much bigger pie. Social learning and informal or on the job learning are not new and have always taken the largest share. But, enhanced by social technologies, it’s now easier to access experts across the global landscape – and, vitally, recall or re-find the answer when it’s needed again.

new workplace rules

Discover the essential skills and different structures for a successful elearning team.

Is the role of the instructional designer ‘dead’?

In the modern learning climate, the role of instructional design is being debated, including at last year’s Learning Technologies Conference.

Let’s turn to the instructional designer: producer of elearning, here to “instruct” others how to behave. Like the term “induction,” the odd name of the role somehow implies a kind of brain transplant process that spits out converted people.

Compared to the transactional “instructional designer,” the term “digital learning designer” better reflects the spectrum of learning interactions now possible (as for “elearning” – well, that’s another debate picked up in our annual trend report). But…these are just words. It’s what’s actually being done that matters. Is that dead too?

What of the digital learning designer role against this tumultuous backdrop? 

Well, let’s pull back for a moment. There’s been some good, some bad, and some ugly online and blended learning created. The good has probably had a great learning designer behind it. So, before we throw it all out, what might a digital learning designer do?

Foundations of a great learning designer:

  1. Hones in on the right problems or gaps
  2. Gets under the skin of the audience(s)
  3. Works with content experts to draw out and filter what’s helpful
  4. Designs active (not passive) learning
  5. Nails how to motivate the audience (by making something genuinely useful!)
  6. Uses tech wisely, and not only
  7. Tests out concepts before going full out

And then they may have (or have access to) skills to:

  • Write great (short) copy and craft stories
  • Design intuitive interfaces
  • Visually communicate concepts
  • Structure content – prioritize, order and nest it

5 traits of a modern digital learning designer

To stay ahead in the changing landscape of workplace learning, digital learning designers need to keep adding more strings to their bow and build on these foundational skills. Here’s our guide how to do this.

1.   Lose the middle ground: Go for experiences or performance support

anatomy of a modern learner

If you’re serious about enhancing performance, you need to embrace the idea of identifying, curating and/or creating well-honed, genuinely useful performance support resources.

More than 50% of workplace learning happens in the moment of need. In a work context, we don’t always find what we’re looking for quickly, nor are we always served up the best answer. You can do one better than Google here.

This is the stuff that people use in that moment, and come back to when they need it again. Usefulness is its mantra. Momentary is its other. It doesn’t need to be remembered, but you can help make it ultra-focused. We provide tips here.

That leaves a wide-open space for the stuff that is about deeper, longer-term personal development. The behavior-changing, habit-forming, thought-provoking, conscious-pricking, memorable experiences that actually help an individual get better at doing something and growing their capabilities.

This doesn’t require length, and certainly not a “course” mindset. It requires effective experience design: how can we effectively drive that person to go from A to B?
See Nick Shackleton-Jones’ great thinking around this.

2.   Personalize everything

We expect personally relevant content online to such an extent nowadays that anything else annoys us.

The great news is that it’s easy to create personalized, adaptive digital learning experiences with the latest authoring tools. In Elucidat, you can use diagnostic questions, rules, branching and scoring techniques to create adaptive content that tunes itself to the performance of an individual there and then.

It needs provide more than just relevant content. Personalization means bringing the person into their learning experience. Try using more app-like approaches that draw out reflections, enable users to set targets, and then provide well-honed tips or plans to help them get there.

survey questions personalization

Our delegation demo highlights some of the great personalization techniques available in Elucidat

Download our Guide: How To Create And Deliver Personalized Learning For The Modern Workplace

3.   Go beyond ‘instinct’: be data-driven

If you want to provide relevant interventions or content that meets individuals’ needs, you need to be able to know what those needs are and track what’s working, and what’s not.

As Lori Niles Hofmann, author of the brilliantly insightful ebook Data-driven learning, puts it:

“We can no longer push out content that we believe learners should or must digest … not when there is evidence that tells us what learners are willing to consume as digital content. Instead, it is time to be bold and give learners what they want.”

It’s so easy to do, it seems crazy that any learning designer wouldn’t want to.

elucidat analytics

Elucidat Analytics provides four vital dashboards of data to help you design strategically.

Find out:

  • What do learners actually want or need via a survey?
  • What is the common drop off point?
  • What device is being used?
  • What is working best – video with or without a polling question?
  • And the real test: What’s the take-up of your non-compulsory content?

4.   Use design thinking to work out your audience’s pain points

Good learning designers have always gotten under the skin of their audience, and know what the real gaps and hurdles are. Modern learning designers are much more learner-centric, and try to avoid the situation where the first interaction they have is with subject experts. Design thinking is about starting with the end user and working out what would make their work life easier. It’s about finding the right problem to fix, and not assuming it’s necessarily “learning” (see above on performance support).

Find out more in our article on “resources not courses.”

5.   Embrace collaboration, grassroots learning and curation

We are all for empowering people to create and share their expertise with others. The grassroots learning movement is slowly gaining pace and, importantly, respect in organizations. Does it put the instructional design role at risk? Not if you are open to smart solutions and engaging end users. Everyone can and should own their learning. A modern designer should be looking to work out what can be curated, what wisdom can be shared, and then, what needs to be created – and they can help with it all.

Get our free guide on collaborative working for more details.

Final thoughts

What else would you add to our list above? We’d love to hear your ideas.

Perhaps a name change is needed. But are the skills of good instructional designers dead? It’s certainly no longer about spending days writing scripts (was this ever a good idea?). While there are more digital tools and options available, the art of design is now about using these in very human ways and being fully user-centric in what we do. Ask, how can you really help that person get better at what they do? And, is it working? Data is there to help you.

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