Your Ticket to Great Instructional Design

Instructional design is certainly not an easy business. Having been in the learning, training and development industry for more than 27 years, I can assertively say so. Instructional designers shoulder the important responsibility of sugar-coating the critical learning content in such a manner that training becomes not just a mandatory activity, but something that employees love. Now how do you do that? How can you possibly turn something boring into something that employees love? The answer to that is what differentiates a good instructional design from a poor one.

Your Ticket to Great Instructional Design

At the heart of it lies a thorough understanding of the employees who are going to take up this eLearning course. Are they the young, flexible and typically social-media-and-technology savvy generation or are they (say) workers in a manufacturing unit and who have little knowledge of the latest technologies? Since we are talking about eLearning here, the way you approach your audience will be directly based on their level of comfort with operating technological devices like PCs, smartphones and tablets.

Any instructional design process will typically consist of a mix of text, graphics, audio, video and animated elements. The question is- what to put where. What best can we teach by giving learners reading material? What part of the training can be explained using animations, and so on. Again, as I said, while the answer to each of these questions would be organization and audience dependent, these basic rules of thumb never go wrong:

Establish Expectations

Nobody likes to shoot in the dark. It is important for employees to know what to expect from a course. Keeping two pages in the beginning that are solely for the purpose of defining the course and why it is important. A good way to begin is by discussing a generally likely problem/ scenario that they face on-the-job and evoking responses and first-hand experiences of how they dealt with the situation. Then proceed to how the eLearning module will fill the gaps in their current capabilities. From the very outset, learners must feel confident that they are going to add qualitative value to themselves by achieving the specific objectives that the course aims for.

Consistent Colors

A simple, yet effective mantra. Have a clearly differentiable color theme for separate modules that a particular group of employees will take. Say, your Marketing team must be trained in Branding, Relationship Marketing and Customer Relationship Management. Each of these training modules must have clearly distinguishable color and imagery themes. Such a design helps the content to sit in the memory of learners because they can visually recall, associate and cluster concepts based on colors. Ad companies do this all the time, taking a cue from them wouldn’t hurt at all.

Trigger Thinking

Scenarios do a wonderful trick here. It is very tempting for instructional designers to present problems that have clear-cut answers. Rather than having a results-oriented approach to problem design, a more effective way is to give them open ended problems in the form of ‘what-if’ scenarios. The goal here must not be to solve the problem, but to stimulate trainees to think about the various possible solutions- be they right or wrong. Allowing for mistakes is another mark of a good learning culture; it is inherent human nature to learn and retain best from our own mistakes. A quick reference to what I said earlier: Expectations must be set in the beginning, but breaking expectations once in a while in the middle of the course, for example asking participants to perform an (achievable) task impromptu is a great technique to stimulate interest and activate participation.

Talk to Them

Again, a simple yet tried and tested method to enhance engagement. Whatever mode of narration you may use- human or recorded, directly address your employees as ‘You’. Throughout the module, they must feel that they are being talked to directly. Use vivacious language, tone and manner of conversation in your audio narration. Give them facts, instances, stories and examples that they can directly relate to. General definitions and indirect communication of ideas do not establish an emotional connection that a conversational tone so easily does.

Increase Interactivity

The word ‘increase’ is important here. True, interactive elements have become more of a minimum requirement rather than an added functionality, but that doesn’t mean adding interactive elements randomly would achieve the purpose. Concentrate on making interactivity meaningful rather than a show off of fancy interface.Cognitive Load Theory warns against the dangers of overloading learners with too much information. Suppose the very first page of your eLearning course has all interactive elements- mouse hovers, tabs, pop-up dialog boxes for help, embedded videos and so on, most learners will become lost with the outburst of information they are exposed to. A smarter way is to begin the course with minimum interactivity and add subsequent levels of interactive and responsive elements that get complex as learners become comfortable with the existing levels. You sure don’t want to place your learners in a simulation environment from the very start. Start with simple elements like audio, text and graphics before you let them try a piece of equipment or software hands-on, and finally let them indulge in life-like environments.

Last but not the least, the textual part, if worked on in a way that can improve retention makes it so much easier for learners to remember information in chunks. I’ve done exactly the same here, creating the mnemonic TICET:

Trigger Thinking

Increase Interactivity

Consistent Colors

Establish Expectations

Talk to Them

Doesn’t it make it so much simpler to remember the crux of the entire article? Keep these points in mind the next time you set about to design new or improve existing content, and you might have your TIC(K)ET to a successful instructional design!

Mobile Learning case study

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