The Prime Directive Of 21st-Century eLearning Design: Part 1

Designing Engaging Learning Experiences: Part 1
Summary: The term "the Prime Directive" harkens back to the days of the TV show "Star Trek." This directive was the binding force that united the federation of planets in a common goal and mission. Can we learn something from this that could give us direction for Instructional Design in the 21st century?

Daring To Be Innovative Out Of Necessity

The relationship between learning designers and learning experiences is predicated on the assumption that we are up to date on how learning science has changed in the 21st century. From accurate knowledge of how adults in the 21st century learn, we derive principles of instruction which in fact then speak to how Instructional Designers create effective learning experiences for those who need to work on upskilling.

Traditional Role Of The Instructional Designer

If you were to ask the typical Instructional Designer what steps they would take in designing learning experiences, they would typically reply:

  • Meet with the client to determine what their expectations are with regard to what in their mind the ideal eLearning course would look like considering their target audience. Other ideas that would need to be resolved are the development of a mission statement, will the course be largely localized or is it meant to be streamed to other branches of the organization nationally or internationally, and hardware requirements.
  • Once that the Instructional Designer has gained these important insights, the focus then falls upon what tools will be used in the design process. At the time of this article, there are many very useful and proven design tools that are available such as PowerPoint, Captivate, Articulate, etc. Tools are created to make use of the new technologies becoming available through research. Even a simple presentation tool like Doodly makes it possible for a beginning Instructional Designer to make inroads into their profession.
  • Once a tool or a combination of tools has been selected, writing scripts and storyboarding is the next logical step. This is the creative step where the Instructional Designer plans out the flow of the learning experience. This might involve the use of such media as voiceover audio or very defined branch tracking scripts in which decisions made by the learner determine the path that the script and experience will follow.
  • Production now begins with using the tools to produce a beta version of the course which then is used in testing to gather data that speaks to what stays and what needs to change. This process is dictated by the choice of model that you use. At present, two of the most used models are ADDIE and SAM; each has its pros and cons.
  • The next logical step is to get your client's approval of the product that you have created. This might involve going back to the drawing board or storyboard, literally.
  • The last step is publishing and implementing. In a 24/7 connected world, this means that the product should be accessible on any mobile device and scaled for clear viewing on each device.

The question that arises from following this process is: "What happens if our understanding of how adults learn in the 21st century is inaccurate to the point that we can't follow these traditional steps to arrive at an effective learning experience?"

One of the greatest problems that we have as business organizations is our inability to adapt to change. Always doing things the way we have always done things leads us to the barrier of "habituation." This is where "paralysis by analysis" sets in when we need to change and innovate.

A Ted Talk conducted by Tony Fadell titled " The First Secret of Great Design" (below) highlights this trap that Instructional Designers can fall into in developing a learning product for business organizations that need to upskill employees for the future.

Principles Of Instruction Connection To Principles Of Instructional Design

Given the symbiotic relationship among Instructional Design, learning, and principles of instruction, it is vital that the relationship be harmonious in a time of great change.

In 2002, Dr. David Merrill introduced what he called "The First Principles of Instruction." In this article, Dr. Merrill not only points to what he called the "e3" (effective, efficient, engaging) but also how the application of the 5 principles he outlines are crucial as a guide to how Instructional Designers create important learning experiences that help employees of a business organization reach higher levels of performance.

In a recent interview with Dr. David Merrill conducted for ATD by Alexander Salas titled "Dr. David Merrill Importance of Instructional Science Off-the Cuff Episode #50" (below), Dr. Merrill points out how this speaks to today's Instructional Designer. It should be noted that these principles (as listed below) are prescriptive (design-oriented) instead of descriptive (learner-oriented).

  • Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
  • Learning is promoted when existing knowledge (and skill) is activated as a foundation for new knowledge (and skill).
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner's world.

Of interest to Instructional Designers in designing engaging learning experiences for employees in business organizations are:

Principle 1

Solving real-world problems clearly suggests that the past goal of the design to overload ("cognitive load") the minds of learners with just content is not only naïve but also does not work anymore. Content is not king in the 21st century. It means that in order for learners to learn what they need to learn, they need to be engaged through the use of interactive simulations or immersive scenarios. What this would look like is clearly demonstrated by business organizations such as Conducttr. I would encourage Instructional Designers who are interested in building such scenarios into their training to try out some of the demos they offer.

Principle 2

In business training, learners need to relate to what is being presented to them to engage in or it will be dismissed as irrelevant to their specific area of expertise. Many of us who have gone through the one-shot training session were either engaged at the start because we could relate to what was being offered or we were immediately saying to ourselves, "Why do they keep torturing us with these types of sessions?" The big question here is: "Are we shooting for incidental engagement or sustained engagement beyond the training session?" Online learning used in training has often received harsh reviews because too often it looks like compliance training. To bring relevancy to upskilling employees means that we need to individualize instruction. This means that within the organization, and not necessarily in the HR department, there needs to be an individual who is responsible for tracking the learning and skill development of employees. This leads us to some very valid, practical questions:

  • How can a company with over 1,000 employees possibly achieve this?
  • Does this mean that we should expand the role of the CLO or the ID?
  • Does this bring into play the idea of Big Data and the use of predictive analytics?

Principle 3 And 4

These two principles are connected. They depend on each other in order to function. If new knowledge can not be demonstrated, then it can't be applied. The question is: "What method can be used to demonstrate new knowledge to the learner that will be the most effective in that the learner will be able to apply the new knowledge to their particular area of expertise?" One of the main complaints against the typical training session is that it is often too disconnected from what the employee does and there is no opportunity to test real understanding and receive effective feedback at the point of work.

Principle 5

The idea of what is learned being integrated into the learner's world depends upon a number of factors such as daily reinforcement and feedback of the knowledge and skills learned at the actual point of work. Simply put, if my area of expertise involves working with setting up hybrid cloud storage for the company, then I need to see that my newly acquired knowledge and skills make this task much more understandable and that it is improving my overall performance at what I do. My understanding of the new knowledge and skillsets is also demonstrated and observable so that when confronted by an unusual problem that I need to solve, I can use the new knowledge and skillsets to adapt to arrive at a solution.

Having these principles not only speaks to our methods as Instructional Designers but also points to a very important question: "How do the new technological innovations fit into an evolving process of Instructional Design and how do I capitalize on them to make full use of their potential in designing engaging, collaborative, effective learning experiences for a business organization that is looking to the future?"

This is the focus of Part 2 of this article...