(Originally posted on our Distance Ed unit’s IDS ‘blog.)
I and several folks on our team are currently in what our sister-in-arms Janel would rightly call “crisis mode” for a certain online course we’re producing. We have been for the past 10 weeks. It’s not a comfortable place to be, and much of the additional stress is my responsibility–in part through miscalculating the length of the project’s development cycles, and in part by acquiescing to the instructors’ wishes for an “on-time” delivery. However, now I’m beginning to reflect on the course of this project, and in fielding a number of complaints throughout the process I have returned to an article I read some years ago on rapid prototyping in instructional design:
Tripp, S. D., & Bichelmeyer, B. (1990). Rapid protoyping: An alternative instructional design strategy. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 38(1), 31-44.
(You can read a summary of the Tripp Bichelmeyer article here.)
The number-one complaint I’ve heard from folks on the team (myself included!) is that the scope of the project is not clear, and both the instructor and the instructional designer (me) are asking for changes to the tools and the learning media “mid-stream”–that is, as the students progress. But when I analyze those complaints, they lose a lot of their legitimacy.
Unlike other types of design, instructional design has as its highest priority the effectiveness and usability of the learning media for the outcome of learning. What instructional designers deliver to learners is not a product, but an experience. Unlike other media, effective learning media does not entertain, it engages. Technology-facilitated learning media has the potential of providing maximum return for minimal effort. And yet it is still a fairly a new “art”. Though there are principles and best practices, and though instructional designers likely know more about learning and cognition than ever before, there are no easy formulas for designing instruction, and no instructional design will “fit” all instructors, let alone all learners.
Instructional designers design and produce learning media with the assistance of skilled human resources, such as programmers, graphic designers, videographers, etc. In order to provide the optimum learning experience, instructional designers must evaluate the learning media for usability and effectiveness continually, and as early as possible, with the option of immediately revising, rewriting, recreating, or adding to the learning media in a cyclic pattern. As one cycle proves effective and usable, the next cycle begins, based upon the best-practices of the previous, and so on.
Even as the learning media goes into production, instructors should receive formative feedback from learners in each lesson. Formative feedback provides instructors with information as to whether or the not the students are learning, how efficient that learning is, and whether or not the tools that facilitate the learning are frustrating and over-encumbering. When a learner is over-encumbered by extraneous tasks, such as manipulating the technology, learning is inhibited, if not impossible. Such encumbrances must be eliminated as they are discovered.
Scope, therefore, is something that is only recognizably accurate in hindsight for an instructional designer. Scope is a forecast, not a definition.
This idea of instructional design through rapid prototyping may be most necessary when the learning outcomes are skills-based. If you remove the severe time constraints that we’ve been on, this online course is a perfect example of effective instructional design through rapid prototyping. It is also a perfect example of how it is nearly impossible to define scope all at once; the learners have four skills that they must develop, and each skill is dramatically different in how it’s learned and how it’s practiced. Not only that, but as the learners progress through the course, the learning outcomes change, their needs change, and the tools that will best facilitate their skills must also change.
Is there a point at which an instructional design is complete? Not necessarily. Sometimes we finish a project when we’ve shown that we’ve met our learning objectives, sometimes the conclusion is based on more arbitrary factors. Budget, time, personality conflicts—all of these are capable of providing sufficient justification for the conclusion of any given project. But the point is that we are open, we are zen in the way we accept change, we are focused on the learners their experiences, and we base our success on effectiveness more than efficiency.
And though we in Distance Education pride ourselves in outwitting the limitations of time and space, efficiency must still be a principle concern to any director and any project manager. At the same time the process of rapid prototyping and a focus on the learner’s experience will help us take learning media from bad to better to best. I don’t think the two are necessarily at odds; by practicing the process we can only learn from experience, and our results can surely become better, faster and more efficient. The pay-off is clear; it’s merely the mind-sets that are muddled.