Reservations about instructional design

The following is at first a rambling diatribe outlining some of my reservations with instructional design as it is practiced. Then it is a summary/reflection on Winn (1990) – “Some implications of cognitive theory for instructional design”. The abstract for Winn (199)

This article examines some of the implications of recent developments in cognitive theory for instmctional design. It is argued that behavioral theory is inadequate to prescribe instructional strategies that teach for understanding. Examples of how instructional designers have adopted relevant aspects of cognitive theory are described. However, it is argued that such adoption is only a first step. The growing body of evidence for the indeterminism of human cognition requires even further changes in how instructional designers think and act. A number of bodies of scholarly research and opinion are cited in support of this claim. Three implications of cognitive theory for design are offered: instructional strategies need to be developed to counter the reductienism implicit in task analysis; design needs to be integrated into the implementation of instruction; designers should work from a thorough knowledge of theory not just from design proceduts.

Actually, I’m running out of time, this post will be just the diatribe. The summary/reflection on Winn (1990) will have to wait till later.

Some context

The following line of thought is part of an on-going attempt to identify potential problems in the practice of instructional design because I work within a Curriculum Design & Development Unit at a University. I am trying to identify and understand these problems as an attempt to move toward something that might be more effective (but would likely have its own problems). The current attempt at moving toward a solution will hopefully arise out of some ideas around curriculum mapping.

The diatribe

Back in the mid-1990s I was being put in charge of my first courses. The institution I worked at was, at that stage, a true 2nd generation distance education provider bolted onto an on-campus university (the university was a few years old, having evolved from an institute of advance education). Second generation distance education was “enterprise” print distance education. There was a whole infrastructure, set of processes and resources targeted at the production of print-based study guides and resource materials that were sent to students as their prime means of education. A part of the resources were instructional designers.

From the start, my experiences with the instructional designers and the system they existed within was not good. The system couldn’t see it was increasingly less relevant through the rise of information technology and the instructional designers seemed more interested in their knowledge about what was the right thing to do, rather than recognising the realities of my context and abilities. Rather than engaging with me and my context and applying their knowledge to show how I could solve my problems, they kept pushing their own ideal situations.

Over 15 years on, and not a lot has changed. I still see the same problem in folk trying to improve learning and teaching at that institution. Rather than engage in an on-going process of improvement and reflection, it’s all about big bang changes and their problems. Worse, then as now, only the smallest population of the academics are being effectively engaged by the instructional designers. i.e. the academics that are keen, the ones that are willing to engage with the ideas of the designers (and others). This is perhaps my biggest concern/proposition, that the majority of academics are not engaging with this work and that a significant proportion of them (but not all) are not improving their teaching. But there are others:

  • Instructional designers are increasingly the tools of management, not folk helping academics.
    In an increasingly managerialist sector, the “correct” directions/methods for learning and teaching are increasingly being set by government, government funded bodies (e.g. ALTC and AUQA) and subsequently the management and professionals (e.g. instructional designers, staff developers, quality assurance etc.) that are institutionally responsible for being seen to respond effectively to the outside demands.

    There are two problems with this:

    1. the technologists alliance; and
      The professionals within universities, because of their interactions with the external bodies and because their success depends on engaging with and responding to the demands of the external body, start to think more like the external body. For example, many of the folk on the ALTC boards/etc are from university L&T centres. Their agenda internally becomes more about achieving ALTC outcomes, rather than outcomes for the academics. Geoghegan (1994) identified the technologists alliance around technology, it is increasingly in existence for L&T.
    2. do what management says.
      Similarly, because senior management within universities are being measured on how well they respond to the external demands. They to are suffering the same problem. In addition, because they are generally on short-term contracts there’s increased demand to respond via short-term approaches that show short-term gain but are questionable in the long-term. Instructional designers etc are then directed to carry out these short-term approaches, even if they will hurt in the long term are or seen as nonsensical by academics.

    The end result is that academics perceive instructional designers as people doing change to them, not doing change with them or for them. Not a good foundation on which to encourage change and improvement in something as personal as teaching.

  • Traditional instructional design is not scalable.
    My current institution has about 4 instructional designers. The first term of this year sees the institution offering 400+ courses. That means somewhere around 800 courses a year. That’s 200 courses a year per instructional designer. If you’re looking at each course being “helped” once every two years, that means each course gets the instructional designer for 2 days every 2 years, at best.

    In this environment, traditional ADDIE type big-bang approaches can’t scale.

  • Instructional design seems informed by a great knowledge of ideal learning and teaching, but none of how to effectively bridge the gap between academics and that ideal.

References

Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

Winn, W. (1990). “Some implications of cognitive theory for instructional design.” Instructional Science 19(1): 53-69.

2 thoughts on “Reservations about instructional design

  1. David

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I’d also add another problem (#3) – instructional design, as a separate discipline from teaching means that teachers never learn the skills of designing good experiences, thus reducing the effectiveness of their work.

    This idea was developed a long time ago by Ted Nunan – http://books.google.com.au/books?id=l_4NAAAAQAAJ

    1. G’day Ian,

      Thanks for the comment and the pointer to the book. This really hits a sweet spot for me and this will be a useful resource. It gels with some other literature I came across on the weekend and I’m hoping to use it to inform some future work.

      Thanks again.

      David.

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