Friday, November 4, 2011

Instructional Designers as Weavers

I defended my Masters Thesis (actually, it was more of a development project than anything) yesterday afternoon.  It went well and it felt much more like a dialogue about ideas than a "defense" in the traditional sense.  What I enjoyed most was that everyone in the room--myself and the three faculty members on my committee--seemed to learn something during the two hours we spent together.The most interesting idea that came out of our conversation was that instructional design is a process of weaving together an experience (or set of experiences) that move learners towards a desired outcome.  And, that the best instructional experiences are those which are based upon a variety of theories, which have been woven together in a coherent way.

Andy Gibbons has written about a theory of design layering where instructional designers approach the process of designing a learning experience as one of attending to a variety of separate, but highly interrelated "layers" (e.g. content, messaging, representation, strategy).  Similarly, Joseph Schwab described four "commonplaces" of educational thought that should be considered when undergoing curricular design:  the learner, the instructor, the subject matter, and the sociocultural milieux.  When instructional design is viewed through these lenses (i.e. layers or commonplaces) it becomes apparent that relying exclusively upon a single theoretical base in making design decisions is inadequate.  For example, while relying upon a theory of learning may inform decisions about the types of instructional activities to include in a design and how to sequence them, that theory won't be of much help in determining how to present material to learners.  Likewise, a theory of instructional design may provide helpful rationale for the underlying structure of the instruction, but it isn't likely to be much help when a designer encounters problems in measuring or evaluating the learning that is taking place during a course or training program.

Consequently, a good design, while often based upon one or two fundamental or core theories, will rely upon a variety of other theories in order to resolve challenges and problems which arise during the design process (e.g. how will we keep learners motivated? how will we know if they have learned what we hope they will? how will we represent this abstract concept graphically? etc.)  A good designer, then, is one who can weave seemingly disparate theories together to construct a learning experience which is complete, coherent, and experienced by learners as meaningful narrative.

In short, the argument I'm making is that theoretical zealots or those familiar with only a narrow segment of theories, aren't likely to be able to design learning materials, experiences, or systems, which lead to meaningful growth for individual learners.  Instead, they'll produce the bandwagon curricula which seems exciting on the surface, but which flames out and leaves learners, instructors, and administrators frustrated and unfulfilled.  What we need is a generation of design "weavers" who are knowledgeable and nimble enough to weave together great designs.

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