As an e-learning, m-learning, and ILT vendor-partner working directly with clients and as manager of a team of instructional designers, Catherine Davis actively works on innovative instructional design projects every day. Preparing for the new year ahead, Catherine recaps the instructional design trends and opportunities in 2013 that we’ll continue to see in 2014. While instructional technology, including m-learning and gamification, made headlines, storytelling chops and effective communication skills were just as important.

Instructional Design Trends from 2013 and Outlook for 2014: Combining the Use of Instructional Technology with Effective Communication Skills

2013 was a fascinating year with changes in the industry that kept us all on our toes with a wide variety of instructional design projects. Before you pack your snow pants, surf board, or that hefty book you’ve been eyeing for your holiday travel plans, let’s take a look at some top trends for instructional designers that made an impact in 2013 and will continue into 2014.

Employing M-Learning
This year we saw increased demand for mobile learning and explored more ways to employ m-learning in corporate training. As with any learning project, instructional designers who look at the client’s business drivers and think strategically and creatively will design more effective m-learning solutions. Get clear on your client’s needs. What I’m seeing most often is clients want their learners to have the flexibility to view a course on a tablet, but not necessarily the option to view the course on their smartphone.This results in different considerations for authoring tools, user interface, and m-learning interactivity, and we’ve found ourselves spending a good deal of time counseling clients on this changing landscape. With tablets, you must take screen size and the functionality of the touchscreen into consideration. Smartphones have their place in learning, but are best used to access supplemental materials, like job aids and reference guides, on demand. Take a look at M-Learning: Is it Right for Your Organization for more on m-learning strategy, and check out these M-Learning tips for designing tablet-based courses.

Leveraging Gaming Elements and Gamification
All of us play games—yes, board games count! They motivate us in different ways, and make us laugh, cooperate, and strategize. They engage our competitive spirit. Games evoke an emotional response and connection, just like the best learning materials. Certainly it’s the natural evolution of learning that joined these two together.In the e-learning field, we’re seeing more emphasis on the gamification of learning—particularly adding gaming elements to e-learning courses of all levels.

Heads up: Instructional designers need to be creative and inspired, so get in the “gaming” frame of mind. Read up on the current literature and blogs. Try out today’s popular games, and even drag out those old board games during the holiday break. Visualize how the game dynamics and mechanics might be incorporated into an e-learning course.For more inspiration, check out these articles from my colleagues to get started on gamifying your next project: 4 Lessons McDonald’s MONOPOLY Teaches about Learning Games and What Makes a Good Learning Game?

Focusing on Storytelling
Storytelling has been around since the dawn of man, long before the written word. It’s an essential part of the fabric that makes us human; it’s how we connect to one another and how we communicate with impact. Storytelling is a powerful tool to employ into your design, strengthening your learning materials by evoking an emotional response in your learners.Like gamification (and in support of gamification), incorporating stories, particularly real-world scenarios, is becoming the norm for e-learning courses. Lower-level e-learning courses benefit from brief scenarios that put multiple-choice questions in context, while more complex courses may have an intricate story woven throughout—and even different “branches” and outcomes depending on what the learner chooses.Of course, the basics of our discipline remain. Instructional designers should always start with the business drivers and an analysis of the audience and objectives for the e-learning course, and then work with subject-matter experts (SMEs) to identify realistic stories that will support effective learning. Then flex that creative writing muscle! This is fun stuff.Take a look at the four building blocks for adding storytelling to any course and more creative techniques for courses with complex simulations.

Communicating Effectively
We have all enjoyed and are inspired by technological advances that seem to come at us daily. These advances influence instructional technology, and drive a significant part of the e-learning and m-learning solutions we design. We can really do some awesome and creative things these days!Yet even with the latest and greatest technology, we always need to return to the basics of effective communication.All of the trends I’ve mentioned above—m-learning, gamification, storytelling—while not new, are seeing increased buzz, and clients want to know how they might be used to affect performance in their organizations. As instructional designers, we need to keep our clients up to date and offer solutions that will work best for their organizations. (You might be a great carpenter, but if you can’t use the latest, state-of-the-art power tools … you’re just not going to get new projects.)We also need to help set client expectations that more complex e-learning, m-learning, and game-based learning projects take more time, including time from their team and their SMEs. And they will likely have a higher price tag.It takes a strong communicator to talk a client through “sticker shock” and address wants versus needs. Eye-catching, engaging courses can seem to originate from effortless designs. Breaking down projects plans and walking through the details and complexities can help a client better understand what it takes and why a price tag may be higher than expected. In the end, the instructional designer helps drive a solution with the right balance of creativity, timeline, and budget.There’s no doubt that these top instructional design trends of 2013 will continue full force into 2014. I look forward to sharing more insights and helping instructional designers with tips and techniques on my blog at SweetRush.com

Enjoy the holiday season and here’s to a fantastic 2014!Interested to find out more about effective learning techniques? Check out our illustrated infographic All About Avatars.