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Is Instructional Design Becoming a Commodity?

By Jerry Murphy / September 2003

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The ascension of Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) and their increasingly automated authoring processes may be marginalizing the craft, if not the science, of instructional design. All the templates, wizards, and other productivity tools that come bundled into the leading LCMS platforms have certainly made it easier to assemble and deploy structured learning content. But will we see better online learning, or simply more?

I've always trusted a basic law of project management: "good-fast-cheap-pick two." Quality, schedule, and budget are the three pillars of any project, and we always need to strike a balance among them. The question is whether quality e-learning experiences are being displaced by easy-to-use toolsets, and whether the perceived value of sound instructional design is diminishing as a result.

SMEs with specialist knowledge of their subject areas now have the means to efficiently build usable (and re-usable) content. Some LCMS vendors suggest that with automated instructional design methods, we can drag and drop our way to excellence by using a few simple tools.

Here's an analogy: you want a new kitchen--do you call an architect or a builder? These are not mutually exclusive choices, but different ends of a spectrum (and you'll need a builder regardless). The question comes down to approach: a custom solution, crafted with your specific needs in mind, or a template solution with a lot of generalizations and assumptions built in.

A major theme in e-learning's value proposition has been cost avoidance, and particularly in this economy, organizations will tend to go for the expedient approach, giving "fast and cheap" high priority over "good." But we need to lead our clients to a new appreciation (and definition) of quality, and link it directly to results, i.e., enhanced business performance. Instructional designers (IDs) should carry the flag, with the client's business goals in clear view. Online learning isn't cheap, but especially if the workforce doesn't use it.

And IDs need to keep the project's overall goals in view (assuming clear goals have been defined), focusing on the critical elements of a meaningful and effective learner experience: attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction. Like some architects, IDs may have become their own worst enemies by spending too much of their time (and their clients' money) on process rather than results. I've heard more than enough theoretical debate among designers, and I say leave it to the professors. A project manager colleague agrees that IDs should be "more practical and less academic," and need to keep their focus on the needs of the user as they master new tools and techniques.

So maybe this is an opportunity for IDs to embrace the realities of "fast and cheap" as they become champions of quality in the new world order of templates and wizards. Rather than succumb to the "cookie cutter" temptations of convenient shortcuts, IDs can master them to design learning experiences that are appropriate to the subject matter and the learning situation. The LCMS may be a disruptive technology breakthrough, but we've seen before that these events have a way of returning to equilibrium.

Did desktop publishing technology render graphic designers extinct? No, it made new tools available and required designers to learn and apply some new skills. In the meantime we had to endure some mighty ugly publications (dig out one of those company newsletters from the '80s), because the new tools were suddenly available to everyone. But graphic designers have made their role stronger than ever, with wholly new creative and business possibilities on the Web as well as the printed page.

Instructional designers will also need to regroup, adapt to new technologies, and emphasize the value they can bring to the table: designing engaging, interactive learning experiences...and delivering business results.

Jerry Murphy assists clients with communications strategy and development. His projects often blend learning and marketing, and recently include strategic marketing for AT&T, a multi-faceted communications program for Northeastern University, and a sales training initiative for Thomson Financial. He also leads organizations in thinking visually to solve problems and set strategy. He can be reached at [email protected]


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