E-learning instructional design - a toolkit for craftspeople

I've been doing a lot of instructional design for e-learning courses lately. It's been such fun, even though meeting the rather tight deadlines meant that I didn't always get 8 hours of sleep each night. But the work itself is so interesting and as I've been designing, I've become even more aware of the fact that instructional design is a craft. The more you practise a craft, the more you learn, the more you apply, and the better you get. 

So before the next deluge of work comes in, I thought I'd stop to reflect on the craft of instructional design, particularly in an e-learning context. Because it's a craft, the craftsperson (is there such a word...?) needs a toolkit. I've identified five tools that I can't go without in my toolkit.

The paintbrush of graphic design

I'm certainly no artist, but I've learnt to use the graphics capabilities of PowerPoint (which are surprisingly immense) to get my visual messages across. When necessary, I open up CorelDraw to do some of the more intricate graphic editing. The Articulate community has some brilliant graphic assets for e-learning and I always learn something new from The Rapid e-learning Blog - whether it's about graphic design, or other instructional design tips.

I think that as instructional designers, at least a third of what we do involves graphic design and so it's important that we keep honing our craft in this regard. For design inspiration, I like to read the blog at Webdesigner Depot.

The spirit-level of creating learning patterns

I love Steve Krug's web usability book called Don't Make Me Think! and I believe it has influenced the way I think about instructional design in e-learning. I recommend it to any instructional designers.

We need to create patterns in our learners' minds, so that learners can build new knowledge on top of existing knowledge, which means they will be in a better position to apply what they know.

Also, in our quest to use the paintbrush of graphic design as extensively as possible, we also need to remember that overuse of graphic elements can detract from the learning message that is being communicated. That's where the spirit level of learning patterns comes in to neaten up the visual patterns on screen and to provide overall balance to the instructional design. 

The pencil of "put it on paper"

When you buy a toolkit from the shop, it doesn't always have a pencil in it, but any good craftsperson knows that there are times when only a pencil will do.

I think we all need to be careful of believing that e-learning has some kind of superiority over paper-based learning. Each methodology has it's purpose. Another myth is that if we present learners with information in an e-learning course, they will be able to retain and apply it more effectively than if they'd read it in a book. We need to be careful that these kind of myths and assumptions don't negatively influence our practice.

There are times when blocks of content will be better communicated to a learner if they are put on paper, rather than in an e-learning format. Often the "blended learning" solution of an e-learning course with an accompanying resource pack or manual will be the best solution. I want to dedicate a whole blog to this topic in future, so if you're interested in hearing more, then subscribe to the Action Light blog.

The pliers of concise writing

All instructional designers need to appreciate the value of concise and direct writing for our learners. Many of the learners in my target audiences will have English as a second language and so using flowery and figurative language, or repeating instructions in several different ways is actually going to be a barrier to learning.

I found myself using the pliers of concise writing in cases where I had limited space for a piece of text. I reworded the sentence or paragraph to make it shorter and in most cases, the result was a better, more understandable piece of text. So don't be afraid to take out the pliers of concise writing and cut out redundancies and flowery language - unless you have a very good reason for it.

The drill of interrogation

Drilling holes into a wall is not fun, it does not look nice initially, and it makes a real mess. However, in order to put up that shelf or that curtain rail, you've got to do it. In the end, you clean up the mess and realise it was all worth it when you admire the finished product.

I've learnt to drill holes into my own work. This means reflecting on what I've done, making improvements where I see they are needed, and making changes that I know the client will want to see. Sometimes, the process means taking the tough decision and pressing delete on a batch of work I've spent a lot of time on, but is just not working. (Although if it has potential, it's a little less drastic and it gets cut and pasted into a new project - in the hope that I can maybe reuse it in the future).

More difficult is letting other people drill holes into my work. But once I've silenced that little defensive voice in my head, the feedback that I receive from other people often leads me to discover new things and the overall result is quite pleasing.

What tools do you have in your instructional designer's toolkit?