The Space Between: An Interview with Craig Wiggins

By Jeannette Campos / April 2012

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In the third of this four-part series of interviews with eLearning experts, Jeannette Campos sits down with Craig Wiggins, who has been helping people create and manage learning experiences for the last 10 years. He is the eLearning Instructional Design Strategist for the Corporate Executive Board's Corporate Leadership Council, where he manages the creation of meaningful distance learning and performance solutions. Wiggins holds a B.A. in anthropology and an M.Ed. in curriculum development, and spends a lot of time thinking about how to sneak usability, accessibility, and proper task analysis into the mix. In his natural habitat, he is usually storyboarding on wall-sized whiteboards or pontificating on Google+.

Jeannette Campos: Craig, thanks for talking with us. To start things off, would you tell us how you began your career in instructional design for eLearning?

Craig Wiggins: Of course, the truth is, I got really, really lucky! People coming into the field these days have a lot more direction and a lot more resources available to them. Often times, I wish I could go back and take on some of my first projects again because I feel like I know so much more—I am so much better equipped, now. After college, I came to D.C. and put my cultural anthropology degree to work by putting Brazilian music on the Internet. From there, I went to the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation and was delivering training to bartenders. After doing instructor-led training for awhile, I started changing and improving the curriculum. I guess you could say this is where I unofficially discovered instructional design. From there, I got a gig developing eLearning for the Caribbean Epidemiology Center, designing training for nurses operating mobile HIV units. I didn't even know it was eLearning at the time—I had never even heard of eLearning back then. But I was hooked, and realized I wanted to learn more. So, I enrolled in a master's degree program in Curriculum and Instruction at George Mason University. In that immersive program, I worked with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

And that's what I mean when I say that I would love to back to some of my first projects. Knowing what I know now, these are the types of projects I would like to tackle again. These projects were complex, and complicated, and the impact of the training was huge. And I finally feel ready for them—10 years later!

But like I said, I've been really lucky and after graduating with my master's degree and doing a tour at the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute, I am really right where I want to be, as the eLearning Instructional Design Strategist for the Corporate Executive Board.

JC: Are there any skills that you used as a beginning designer that you continue to use today?

CW: Well, its sort of like Cammy Bean has often said, we are an industry of accidental designers. Back when I was an instructional designer and didn't even know it, I was really focused on how my work looked, you know, because I didn't always understand the content. I wanted to make sure that it was visually appealing and that my work looked nice. So, when I think back on it, I was relying a lot on color theory, visual design, and trying to design so that my work evoked emotion.

And to do that, I invested in a lot of books on graphic design and books on instructional design. And I still use these books, and I recommend that everyone have these books handy. We owe it to our learners to ground our work in some sort of theory, to help us design responsible learning solutions.

I think one of the best things about my master's degree program was that I wasn't allowed to use any authoring tools. So, I was really forced to focus on process. I was introduced to the practice of storyboarding and the concept of wire framing. And so this is the advice, and the sensibility, that I try to pass on to new designers whenever I can: Focus on the process and rely on the basics to guide you. Truthfully, I still do that.

JC: In your opinion, how has eLearning changed since you entered the field?

CW: This sounds like a very important question! So, there are many more authoring tools available. I mean think of how many tools are showcased at every conference. They are everywhere. And also, there has been this shift toward rapid development. And again, I think that is a result of people accidentally coming into the field, and just "needing to get something done." They are not instructional designers and they are not eLearning developers. They are just people who have been sold a bill of goods and they just just need to get things done. So, they turn to authoring tools and rapid development, because it allows them to meet demand and meet it with speed.

And it seems like authoring tools and rapid development have created a space between seasoned designers who can create sophisticated eLearning creations and who understand the science of learning and the practice of instructional design, and those who are new to the field—or converted to the field—who have to rely on tools because they don't have time to learn any other way. And there is this big space in between—and with more and more tools coming into the market, and with more and more demand that we need to meet more quickly. I don't think it's going to change, and I am not so sure that is a good thing.

JC: In what ways do you think these tools and trends are shaping the future of eLearning?

CW: I guess I was alluding to this earlier; the future is here and its pretty exciting! The new tools that are coming out now, already consider mobile experiences, we've got HTML5, and the industry is buzzing with gamification. But I wonder if we focus so much on the tools, and making the tools work for eLearning, in the process what do we lose as an industry? Are we still going to be able to bring people in with paper and pencil, and sit and talk about mechanics, and interactions, and instructional flow, and all the things that make great eLearning great? [Editor's Note: Kevin Thorn offered his insight into this as well, in his interview that was published in this series.]

I don't want to lose sight of the fact that eLearning professionals are skilled and trained, and need to be able to design and secure the best possible learning outcome from the learning experiences they create. The process doesn't begin with the technology. And I guess, that goes back to the "space between" the seasoned designer and the person just trying to get the job done.

But truly, the Web offers the opportunity to do our best work. Bandwidth is much less of a concern now, and we have the tools to do all the things we have always dreamed of doing. And so, the time is now. This is a great time to be an instructional designer for eLearning because we have the chance to create learning rich experiences, that people can access in so many different ways.

JC: How do you recommend we serve the "space between?"

CW: Some of the research we've uncovered is that L&D professionals don't challenge their peers, they don't challenge their clients, and they don't always advocate for the best possible learning creations. And that's unfortunate, because that's how we can bring value. So, I encourage anyone in the field, whether accidentally or intentionally, to start focusing on the organization and its performance, and stop focusing on tools.

Never, never start designing by sitting in front of an authoring tool. Start with a paper and pencil. Start with storyboarding. Introduce storyboarding into your design process early and often. Think about the intended learning outcomes, and the desired performance gains.

And last, don't just fill a space. Do the thing that you do best and get better at it. Diversify and add more and more skills to your portfolio. Invest in your own professional development, rely less on technology to design for you, and rely more on the function (the intended learning outcome) to guide you. You want your organization to see you as someone who adds value. Focus on performance, not training, and you'll go far in your career.

And actually, that's the simple advice I would give to anyone starting out in this field. Just sit and think about process for a few years, work your plan, go through the QA process, and learn from your mistakes. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

JC: Excellent, Craig. In the next article in this series, we'll be talking with Abigail Wheeler about project management for instructional design projects. Do you have any initial thoughts on that?

CW: Project management is terribly important, often overlooked, poorly assigned, and too many times, entrusted to the person who is also responsible for developing. I wish all L&D professionals understood this, "Project management is something you really, really, really, need."

JC: Thanks again for your time, Craig.

About the Author

Jeannette Campos is currently an Instructional Design Project Manager at the Central Intelligence Agency. Prior to joining the CIA, Campos owned and operated a service-disabled veteran-owned small business. She also served as a Project Manager and Senior Instructional Designer to multiple contracts awarded by the United States Department of Defense and Department of Labor. She is a graduate professor of Instructional Systems Design at UMBC and held an adjunct faculty appointment at The National Labor College. Campos teaches ISD for Project Managers to other organizations within the United States intelligence community.

ACM 1535-394X/12/04 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2181207.2184417

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