Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Manager's 5 commandments to Instruction Designers

1.  Instructional Integrity: What I, as a manager, expect from an ID, is one and only this. "Instructional Integrity". Foraying in other areas is OK. But to a manager the main stream value of ID is to judge and justify the instructional integrity on the project.

Instructional integrity to a non-instruction design manager should answer the following key questions.
  • Are the instructions based on a learners model?: Don't mistake it to the theories, please. What this means is for example, a techie is going to find the instruction:"Please note that OOP stands for Object Oriented Programming. Let us explain the terms one by one" very weak instruction model.What a techie would rather find a sound instruction is "OOP is Object Oriented Programming. Objects have properties and can perform certain functions...."
  • Is there a theme that is followed?: Themes are necessary to identify situations and the written style to those situations. For example, when you have to put code block for explanation, what is the theme that you are going to follow. May follow a courier font and in a different background. The code blocks in explanatory sentences are italicized. These consistencies need to be decided upfront by ID on project.
  • Is there a precedence of instruction types? All courses and IDs know that we start with Objective screen and end with a summary screen. But further down the instructions, are there precedences followed: Continuing our fictional techie course, precedence of instruction types might be to :
  • Give a case
  • Show solution splits
  • Write code for each solution (may be function by function)
  • Explain the code and the exclusions that would be expanded as a homework.
Instruction Integrity, sadly is given a back seat and is mostly left to the acumen and individual intelligence than make it into a system experience. A good design document detailing the instruction treatment and the writing styles will go a long way in ensuring the value of Instruction Designers for a long time on project.

What many courses lack, is not good instructions. They are abundant and every ID want to vouch for it.
But it is the consistency of
  • Instructional Ownership: All instruction should belong to a single family (example: refer to messages from Hootsuite or Google and compare it to Windows errors). The first parties are best examples of instructional ownership.
  • Verification of instructions: Instructions for learning has to be predictive than predictable.Predictive because learner knows where to reach when they have a decision to know what they want to read at that time. Predictive because the style of writing by any number of people will more or less result in same impact. Predictability, on other hand, kills learning spirit. I have always cursed courses, that every time start with "In this module you will learn the following points..." That is predictability.
In predictivity, I will reach for the content and know when/where to consume it. In predictability, I will skip the content.

2. Causal Loops and Analysis: Might sound strange. Yes, reading Peter Senge "The Fifth Discipline" would help understand this section. It is the unspoken expectation from managers that IDs know to create mental causal loops and analysis. They realize the problems of an early decision only during production stage. The volumes are never managed or estimated upfront. So Instruction Designers while working on their deliverables, must develop causal loops and analysis skills to determine if any of their decisions are going to choke the team down stream.

Often the customer centered design decisions choke the rhythm and flow of an otherwise easier project. Be it a simple addition of knowledge checks or showcasing the content in a new interactive format or an addition of simulation module are all valid customer centric brownies. But in a project, deciding on them after committing to a budget and scope is a strict no-no. Haven't any of them posed problems for your teams in your projects ?

Since the first output is to come from ID, understand the budgetary figure and sticking to the limits is the first command. Lots of creative ideas and learner understanding that go tangent to proposed expectations is not what customers pay for. They want instructional courses for propagating a message downstream. Help acheive this simple goal. If it doesn't make sense, try making sense for yourself as to what can be achieved by all parties in that given time and budget. Evolve a consensus, take it to customer for a confirmation and then Implement it with full concurrence.

It is often a habit to always curse the presales team to have made commitments that either are non-implementable or during start of project dont make sense. The easy route of doing is scrapping them and explaining a better way to customers.

Control the drift would be my second command to instruction designers, if the causal analysis is never done.

3. Stick to Basics: For a non-instructional design project manager, ID role is to
  • Focus on Message: There is no better person to write good instructions. English writing is not instructional writing. But prove it with tangibles. "You dont understand" as you are not from the field is a common refrain. True, but isnt the onus to explain in simple english the paramount value of any role/function. Imagine an architect saying, you dont understand. Just do what I say. Would you pay them for their efforts ?
  • Spread the message in such a way that it is appealing: Customers demand instructions and courses to be understandable and meaningful. But they miss the point here. We miss explaining them better that understanding and meanings are derived by users themselves. What would make them do so, is only if they find the material appealing.To make an appeal is not same as sprucing it up with graphics. To make them appealing is to write instructions that relates to their lingo. For a techie, it is results that matter. Giving away code snippets that give an output make the book appealing. A lengthy 2 page code book that a techie types in or performs 100 step experiment, only to get errors, is not an appealing situation.  The learning is more in unwinding the errors than in seeking the meaning of the materials read so far.
The crux of job of an Instruction Designer is to make text information appealing and impactful. When they get mixed with Visuals and auditory support, it should be a great cocktail party.
 
4. Become Dispensable: The more you try to become one, the stronger the link. Trying to position SME vs ID debate is a lose-all proposition. Yes, SME's can do all of above. Similarly, trying to argue that writing good English cannot write good instruction, is illegible argument. Yes, if I know good english, I can write good instructions. But for either of them to do so, IDs must give them the relevant tools and training as outlined in #1 above.

Try occupying a higher pedestal in an argument. One, you don't have to argue. Second, you get to win by giving away the fight.

5. Focus to improvise: This is not to change the course of project. Improvisation is progressive elimination of gaps and adaptation of writing styles to solve understanding problems. There is no one good or correct way of instruction or teaching. If so, improvise constantly to keep options ready. Each of them must be adaptable in same situation with some changes. Be an asset to managers and customer and lay options in front of them. Let them pick the style. That is the key for sign offs. 

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