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Instructional Design for Flow in Online Teaching
The Art of Instructional Design

By Sandra C. Ceraulo / April 2004

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This tutorial explains how the process of designing instruction can be a creative and enjoyable artistic experience for the online teacher and for the instructional designer. Since many online teachers create their own course materials, the online teacher and the instructional designer are often the same person. An enjoyable creative activity in which the task to be accomplished is seen as a challenge has been termed a "flow" process by well-known creativity researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This tutorial gives objectives that instructional designers can use to answer the question: How can instructional design become an exhilarating, creative, and fulfilling job rather than mundane work filled with tedium and anonymity?

Relationship to Flow in Online Learning
This tutorial is a sequel to the tutorial "Instructional Design for Flow in Online Learning" which was published in eLearn in early 2003. In contrast, that tutorial focused on how the instructional design of a course can make the students' learning conducive to flow, or, in other words, creative, enjoyable, and challenging. This tutorial focuses on how to make the instructor's or instructional designer's teaching conducive to flow.

While the two tutorials are complementary, both follow the same general format, i.e., they give background information on flow and on instructional design and then apply the seven principles that make an activity conducive to flow apply to the process of instructional design. The seven principles, termed the seven habits of effective instructional design in the previous tutorial, are not original ideas. Rather, these habits have been extracted from books on flow and were in turn compiled from the common experiences of creative and successful people throughout the ages.

Need for This Tutorial
Initially, working with the Internet is inherently fun. Millions of people create Web sites as a hobby because they find it fun. However, after a prolonged period of working on a computer, any form of Web design can become tedious. The motions involved are repetitive and can even lead to injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Since instructional designers primarily work with computers, the lack of human interaction they experience can also increase the tedium inherent in their jobs. In addition, though they are highly skilled, most instructional designers and online teachers are not highly paid. While instructional design involves knowledge of computing and of teaching, instructional design is often devalued within both the computer science and academic communities. The low salaries characteristic of instructional designers are one reflection of their employers' devaluation of their positions.

To be creative and productive in their jobs, instructional designers must remain inspired despite the repetitive motions, low pay, anonymity and devaluation that characterize their highly creative profession. Thus there is a strong need for the instructional designer to feel an artistic connection with other designers, e.g. artists, architects, product designers, interior designers, graphic designers, theatrical designers. This tutorial forges that connection.

Background on Flow
The term "flow" was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and was based on the descriptions creative people gave to their mental processes while working. According to Csikszentmihalyi, a flow process is an optimal experience or an activity people find so enjoyable that they lose track of time while doing it. In everyday language, people often refer to a flow experience as being "focused" or "in the zone." Consider an artist at work on a canvas. She may be so immersed her work and so focused on ironing out any problems with the painting that she paints for several hours longer than she intended. Such an artist is having a flow experience.

From Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (HarperCollins, 1990), I have identified seven characteristics that make an experience conducive to flow. This tutorial explains how to apply these seven characteristics to instructional design so those who design online courses—like artists, architects, and other designers—can make their work conducive to a flow experience.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Instructional Design
In the previous tutorial "Instructional Design for Flow in Online Learning," which explained how instructional design can make a students' learning conducive to flow, I identified seven characteristics of highly effective instructional design. In a tongue-and-cheek manner, I referred to them as the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Instructional Design and gave them as:

  1. Focus Goals
  2. Eliminate Distractions
  3. Match Student Skills and Course Level
  4. Create a Supportive Environment
  5. Create Order Through Rules
  6. Let Students Express Themselves
  7. Provide Timely and Consistent Feedback

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Online Teaching
Applied to the experience of the instructional designer or online teacher, the seven Characteristics now become the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Online Teaching. They are:

  1. Focus on the Goals of the Project
  2. Eliminate (or Minimize) Distractions
  3. Match Designer Skills to E-learning Projects
  4. Create an Inspirational Office-Studio
  5. Employ the Principles of Web Design and of Teaching
  6. Make Each Project an Original Work of Art
  7. Request Timely and Consistent Feedback

In this tutorial, I will elaborate on each of these habits. By drawing upon these habits on a daily basis, an instructional designer can master technology rather than feel like a slave to it.

1) Focus on the Goals of the Project
To begin work as a flow activity, an instructional designer can focus on the needs of the particular project and identify the requirements unique to that project. Designers must ask themselves "How does this project differ from all others?" Focusing on the uniqueness of each project can make work interesting and absorbing. These unique and standard requirements of each project could be written in the instructional designer's notebook, similar to an artist's sketchbook (see habit #4 on next page).

Primary and secondary goals can be identified for each project. Primary goals would be Web design elements related to primary objectives of a course or objectives that all students should meet. Secondary goals would be Web design elements related to secondary objectives or finer points of a course.

2) Eliminate (or Minimize) Distractions
Instructional designers and online teachers usually have some flexibility built into their schedules. In most cases, there are deadlines for projects but in the time before the deadline, tasks required for the project can be executed in any number of sequences.

If instructional designers can free a few hours at a time to work at their art by structuring their days so as to eliminate or minimize distractions, flow process will be encouraged. Artists working on their canvases will have hindered creativity if they are under constant interruptions; the same is true of instructional designers working on educational Web sites.

Simple steps such as answering most email between 3 and 4 p.m. or starting work early before most others arrive could greatly enhance creativity and productivity. Another such step to enhance instructional design creativity might be to work or even just to think about a project in an area away from others such as in a quiet place, such as a library or café—just as some students study more efficiently in such areas.

3) Match Designer Skills to E-learning Projects
Like students, instructional designers will feel overwhelmed by projects that seem to require a higher level of skills than they possess. They may also feel bored by projects that seem too simple. However, educational Web sites are creative projects and can usually be made using the skills the designer already possesses.

Great instructional design generally requires using basic technical knowledge astutely. Thus, instructional designers can make e-learning sites using skills and technologies that are most familiar to them. Since simplicity is the ultimate goal, there usually is no need to fill an e-learning site with "bells and whistles." For example, one audio or video segment or guest speaker, coupled with readings, would be sufficient for two to three weeks of assignments in most asynchronous online learning.

An instructional designer's basic knowledge of Web-based graphics design, audio, and video should be sufficient for nearly all e-learning Web sites. Instructional designers can concentrate on how to combine their skills and knowledge to make the best possible educational Web sites rather than on creating high-tech "gee-wiz" effects. Adding too many "bells and whistles" can distract the designer—and the student—from the pedagogical goals of the course site.

In Csikszentmihalyi's theory, flow is an enjoyable and productive alternative to anxiety and boredom. If instructional designers feel that a project requires skills they don't have and can't acquire, they will feel anxious about it. Matching designer skills to the project will avoid anxiety and make the work conducive to a flow experience for the online course creator. At the same time, by constantly developing new skills, designers can keep their work challenging and avoid boredom. Increasing complexity is integral to maintaining a flow activity.

4) Create an Inspirational Office-Studio
Like all designers, instructional designers are artists, and their creativity will flourish in an inspirational and motivational studio. An instructional designer's office-studio could be similar to that of a Web designer or an architect. For example, an inspirational office-studio might include an artistic and organized arrangement of the following:

  • Computer with personalized desktop and screensaver
  • Well-designed and functional Computer peripherals
  • Rows of software, manuals, and other Web design books
  • Color-coded project files
  • Memo board
  • Attractive and meaningful photographs or paintings
  • Framed professional documents such as diplomas or certificates

The office-studios can reflect the creativity, talent, uniqueness, and pride of instructional designers and would serve as a supportive environment for them.

The instructional designer can also keep a sketchbook in which to write goals and ideas, record possible color combinations, and diagram the information architecture for educational Web sites. As a creative professional, instructional designers may find that ideas come to them at odd times. For example, after being inspired by a visit to an art museum exhibit, a new idea for an e-learning Web site might be born.

5) Employ the Principles of Web Design and of Teaching
Csikszentmihalyi found that activities conducive to flow usually have a strict set of rules people use. For example, proving a mathematical fact is conducive to flow and in a mathematical proof, mathematicians make use of theorems and corollaries as their rules.

Instructional Design is Hybrid of Disciplines
To understand the principles behind instructional design, it can be seen as a hybrid of three component disciplines: Web design, writing for the Web, and teaching. Thus, instructional design's basic principles are those of these three fields and are briefly reviewed here.

Principles of Web Usability
Basic principles of Web usability include:

  • Keep Web sites simple with ample white space, i.e. not "too busy."
  • Structure information so it is quick and easy to obtain.
  • Avoid excessive "bells and whistles."
  • Use sharp color contrast between text color and background color.
  • Use high-quality photographs and graphics in small or "thumbnail" sizes.
  • Use consistent formatting, e.g. all titles in same font, font-size, and font-weight.

Principles of Writing for the Web
The basic principles of writing for the Web do not completely overlap with the basic principles of writing in other genres. There are several reasons for this. For one, many studies have shown that, due to decreased color contrast between text and background, people read an average of 25 percent more slowly when reading on a computer. In addition, Web users tend to scan rather than read Web pages although more thorough reading can be expected of students reading materials an online course.

Basic Principles of Writing for the Web include:

  • "Chunking" writing into short paragraphs (less than the 100 words-paragraphs typical of newspapers)
  • Using many subheads to break-up text
  • Writing as concisely as possible
  • Using boldface, bullets, horizontal lines, tables, and other formatting methods wherever they would simplify reading and make concepts more clear

Many books have been written on Web usability and on writing for the Web. For more information on these topics, the reader is referred to Jakob Nielson's classic text Designing Web Usability.

Principles of Teaching
Will any group of teachers ever agree upon the principles of pedagogy? It seems most unlikely. However, many experienced teachers agree that following these three steps can greatly improve instruction:

  1. Tell the students what you will be telling them in the lesson
  2. Tell the students what you are saying during the lesson
  3. Tell the students what you told them in the lesson

In its cyber-version, this familiar advice translates to writing online lectures that include an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. For some reason, few online instructors take these simple steps. Online teaching isn't about multimedia or about trying to break records for the number of threads in a discussion. It is still about instilling concepts and skills. Instructional designers must call upon steps 1-3 above just as mathematicians use general axioms and theorems in a mathematical proof.

There is one major difference between online and face-to-face college pedagogical practices. Rather than being a lecturer, the online instructor is more of a facilitator of self-paced and often self-motivated learning. In higher education, online instructors tend to get classes with many professionals interested in life-long learning. Successful online teachers tend to treat both traditional and non-traditional students as self-motivated professionals.

In addition, online teachers may relate better to their students, since in learning to teach online, they have recently learned a great deal of new material themselves.

6) Make Each Project an Original Work of Art
Many people can identify a Picasso or a Miró in an art museum because of the artists' distinctive styles. As designers, those who create e-learning can also have a distinctive style. It takes experience to develop a personal artistic style, but it will be rewarding in the long term. Designers might also sign their works with a logo or image that indicates the name of the designer.

While designers can develop their own styles, they can also make each project unique by limiting the reliance on templates. While time constraints are always present, each course is unique so each educational Web site must be unique, too. For inspiration, instructional designers can also keep Picasso and Miró or other artists with distinctive styles in mind while creating e-learning sites.

7) Request Timely and Consistent Feedback
Since online students tend to be busy people, a quick survey containing only one or two questions may be the best way of obtaining objective feedback on instructional design. The possible responses to the questions would be simply "Yes" or "No." For example, to obtain feedback on the use of a video, one question might be "Did this video bring the topic to life for you?" or "Did this video help you recall the reading?" The short survey would pop-up immediately after the instructional segment.

When time is short and surveys are long, a disproportionately high number of disgruntled students may submit them. Short surveys can be added in pop-up windows, and because of their brevity should not interfere with instruction.

Various social and economic forces may dampen the creativity of instructional designers. This tutorial suggests how instructional designers may conduct their work so that it is conducive to flow and so that their work connects them to other artists. In doing this, an instructional designer's creativity and productivity is likely to be enhanced. Moreover, by maintaining flow in their work, instructional designers are more likely to enjoy their work and the quality of their experience is likely to be much higher.

Sandra C. Ceraulo, Ph.D., is an online teaching consultant who is an experienced online instructor as well as an experienced online student. She has taught online computing courses at The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and SUNY Buffalo and has ten years of experience in higher education.


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