Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Do We Need Instructional Designers for Technology Content Projects?

Starting April, I am starting the eCube Ponder series. Each month, we will ponder over a topic. You can simply respond by leaving your comments on the topic. If you post a response in your blog, leave a link to you blog in the comments.

In the last few years of building content for technology subject areas and for technology companies, I have wondered whether instructional design holds any value while building technology content. Subject Matter Expert (SME) is King holds absolutely true for technology content. Instructional Designer is a marginal player in learning projects for technology companies or creating courses on technology subjects. What do you think can the Instructional Designer contribute in tech content projects? Where do you see the Instructional Designer adding value in these projects? Can Instructional Designer role be eliminated for tech content projects? How should the Instructional Designer adapt herself/himself when creating tech content?

What do you think?

PS: If you have a question we should ponder over, send me an email.


Anonymous said...

Look at the key skills required for generating effective elearning content - understand your learner, structure content well, design the instruction, present it in an engaging and clear manner, evaluate and remediate...

The SME should provide consulting, training and review on the domain to the instructional designer and graphics team, enabling them with an understanding of the content that is sufficient for them to come up with strategies of how to design the instruction. IDs and GFX team members can educate SMEs on how to design effective courseware.

Depending upon how esoteric and complex the domain is, the balance will shift either towards the SME or the ID with the above knowledge transfer being the biggest influencing factor.

Cammy Bean on March 31, 2008 at 10:16 PM said...

I've been wondering the same thing, as I write storyboard #23 in a series of 29 software training courses. I'm not sure how much ID I'm really doing here. The skills I need in this case are more about being able to quickly understand the technology and then spit it back to the user in a clear and understandable format.

Yes, there was some "ID" work up front when we defined our general approach, but it's pretty basic stuff. No assessments, some interactivity, lots of content boiled down to the minimal for quick accessibility by the end-user...

Manish Mohan on April 1, 2008 at 12:08 AM said...

Thanks Viplav and Cammy for your valuable comments. From my experience, most training or customer education departments of tech companies are under pressure to deliver content that is changing rapidly very quickly to the audiences. In most cases, the engineering group (read SME) has the final say about the content. Instructional Design knowledge is key and foundation knowledge. However while working for tech companies, instructional designers need to adapt more and me more tuned to learning content to have meaningful conversation with the SMEs and other stakeholders. Customers usually respect instructional designers more if the IDs know the content, or at least can appear knowledgeable about the content.

Kuljit on April 1, 2008 at 9:37 AM said...

Yes - we do need IDs for tech content projects. My experience says that in the absence of an ID for such projects - the content becomes more of "content dump" than "instructional content". Most of the SMEs that I have worked with are good at providing content on the "technology" per se. Putting that content into proper design, structure and flow to make it instructionally sound and effective for the learners is where an ID can help. Exception is when you have a SME who is also a trainer or has training experience - that's where an ID may not contribute much.

Sandipan on April 2, 2008 at 3:47 PM said...

I think we need to arrive at a consensus of what 'ID" is. Personally, I do not think ID is any rocket-science; its just "making the learner listen to what I am saying". In other words, present content back to the learner in a simple and easy to understand format. From that viewpoint, I do think ID plays an equally important role in "technology content projects". However, if we view ID as all about completely redesigning the existing content using all available tools and techniques, I think technology content does not need such roles.

Taruna Goel on April 3, 2008 at 10:33 AM said...

I believe we need instructional designers for any content/training project - technology or not. And maybe even more ...for technology...let's discover my reasons for this.

What is a Subject Matter Expert (SME)? - someone who is an expert in the content area. The key words are expert and specific content area.

The first argument I can put forth is - while all SMEs (are expected to) know the content well - they can't necessarily teach the content well to other users (novices or otherwise). I have two skills to highlight here - the ability to teach and then to teach it well so that the trainees actually learn. That is the biggest reason why technology content training projects need instructional designers! While the SME holds the content, an instructional designer is the SME for figuring out the best way to design and develop the training. Both are SMEs in their domain and I like to respect that relationship.

My next argument is regarding the need for ‘designing’ training. Yes, it is true that content is the king but we are discovering that form is important too. The audience of today wants to learn things fast and easy. And instructional designers know what appropriate techniques to use such that the content is layered for the user and is easily available on request. Instructional designers understand various approaches and strategies that can help the user feel more ‘comfortable’ learning new content. Besides, more often than not, I have found SMEs who would like to include 'everything' about the technology and the instructional designers help them scope it out and present it as per the requirements of the audience. Instructional designers help design the product and SMEs ensure that it is meaningful for the learner.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that in some projects we may let go of instructional designers and leave the SMEs to design and develop the training. I believe that in these situations we have considered all available options and we believe our SME is inherently a good instructional designer (many are). In order to work within the constraints of time and money, we choose to make such a decision. In an ideal scenario, I believe we would always like to have the instructional designer.

The point really is – no one is more important than the other in general terms. Both are important and required.
The time and effort required by each role may vary across projects but the bottom line is that we can’t make a good learning product without either!

Achugh on April 4, 2008 at 1:19 PM said...

Well...having read these posts, I could not hold back on writing another post. I have worked both as an instructional designer and SME in most of the projects. For me, it is essential to have both the entities doing their jobs but in a much desired collaborated fashion. Both entities in a project cannot exist without each other when it comes to dealing with the technical content. SME knows what is best in terms of depth and the subject area and an instructional designer knows what can go where...well, the designing part. If you get a two-in-one package deal, which means SME doing the work of an instructional designer, then you know that you have just hit a jackpot.

Kamakshi said...

I couldn't agree more with Ashish and Taruna. I'd say instruction design is a systematic, methodical approach to the delivery of instruction to a given target audience. So, instruction designers (IDs) do play a key role in ensuring that the packaging of content meets the learners' needs and objectives. Well, that makes teachers and professors instructional designers too that way.
And because IDs approach instruction in a methodical fashion, they also figure out what is relevant to the learner and how. So their acquisition and dissemination of content is focused. For that, they need an expert on the content of course, if it's technical or beyond their knowledge. So can't have an ID without a SME in such courses.

A good SME and instruction designer is an ideal combination. But then, not all SMEs are good instructors or IDs. I've had some PhDs in Economics teach me Statistics in college. Great in knowledge of their subject; but went all over the place when teaching - leaving us wondering about the relation of the lecture to our syllabus and exam.

sp on April 15, 2008 at 12:08 PM said...

I second Ashish’s thoughts… Per me the question may not be “whether we need an ID for technical content” but “do we have the right SMEs and IDs doing the job?” (we can have a separate blog on how to define “right”  - so for now not entering into it).

For creation of any content, technical, soft skill, or any other, ideal deal would be for a SME with ID & writing skill. While Subject Matter Expertise helps define the content in its entirety, ID skill helps define the approach, structure, & scope for the learning material, and Writing skill helps refine the script to make it precise and crisp. In my words, ID provides the “Common sensical” (tolerate that word pls :) approach for learning – So three skills: SME, ID, and writing, are mandatory for creating any learning solution.

For Technical content projects, we should spend more time in taking up the right SMEs and assign IDs with at least a little bend towards technology / who are not afraid of ‘technology’!!! that makes a lot of difference – yeah for certain projects it might mean a costly proposition but am sure clients understand the criticality of it, if we are reasonable! If we plan for authors for technology projects (given the scalability factor), might be we should look for people like “Technical writers” – who may/mayn’t need editorial support.

Also, another key thing to keep in mind & this is w.r.t the third skill set “writing”:ID skills may or mayn’t assure “good writing’ skills; I don’t think it is a package deal always; ‘writing’ is different from ‘ID’ and most of the times we tend to mix both. Alternatively, might be we can decide to make it a mandate => to be an Instructional Designer; one should have good writing skills. But that will give us only a very small (restricted) pool but nevertheless a good / strong one…

Robin on April 17, 2008 at 8:30 PM said...

Instructional Designers absolutely have a role in tech learning.

As a software developer and instructional designer, I've worked with many people who are incredibly knowledgeable about technology, and learning from them on a day-to-day basis was easy enough for anyone with a desire to learn. But 95% of the time, I would NOT want these people in charge of creating formalized learning for me, or for younger developers it was my job to mentor.

It's not simply a matter of being able to present information well. It's about understanding delivery mechanisms and how people use technology. That is a deeply humanistic field of study, which an engineer cannot be implicitly trusted to illuminate. And in the case of tech-oriented learning, it's about understanding not only how people use technology but how they create it.

ID is the process of creating education for adults - autonomous entities who are actively involved - not children sitting at their desks. So while it may be true that the SME is king when it comes to tech education, it is not sufficient for the ID to simply rely on the SME. In a situation like this, an Instructional Designer needs to think like an Interaction Designer - and focus on the experience. Tools like personas, etc., commonly used in Interaction Design to create a focus the target audience, can help in this regard.

Developers may hate to admit it, but they need designers. I've seen plenty of tools that were designed by engineers, and lemme tell ya. Ouch, baby. Way ouch.

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