So I’ve started the Instructional Design & Educational Technology graduate program at the University of Utah. The typical response when I tell people this is a momentary blank look, then a comment along the lines of, “Oh, good. We need more of those.” It’s true, we do. But why? What does “instructional design” even mean? Those are good questions with complicated answers. Let’s see if I can begin to articulate an answer here:
Ever had a class where you were bombarded with information, and you weren’t sure what any of it was for, why it was important, and what the main points you were supposed to get out of it were? (My most recent experience in this was my final Mass Media Law course, but that’s another story.) The answer is yes, you have. But in case you can’t remember it, here’s a fun video that illustrates the point:
Admit it. You’ve been in a class where you thought you were supposed to focus on the passes the white team makes — and then found a question on your final exam about a moonwalking bear.
Right there we get an answer to the first question: properly designed instruction is more than simply dumping information on people and expecting them to know what to do with it — Instead, it’s about helping the learners make sense of the information. And not only that, we help them focus on what’s important, and build up their knowledge in the right order and under the correct circumstances. (Learning theory calls this “scaffolding.”)
For example, think of all the things the narrator could have asked you to keep track of in that video. How many people were there? Where do you think they are? Get three sentences said by the players. What type of ball? Is that an ambulance or a police siren in the background? Which team is better? See? There’s a lot going on here. And what if the video had been in another language? What if you have poor eyesight and can’t see it very well — but you’re still tested the same as everyone else on what you see?
Instructional design helps learners get the information they need while skipping what’s not (or not yet) useful, and presents it in an appropriate manner, which all ends up saving time and money. And we like saving time and money.
There’s a whole lot more to it than this, but that’s scratching the surface. We’ll get deeper into the details later. As far as this post goes, Tom Kuhlmann explains it all in more depth over at articulate.com.