Not sure what instructional design is?

Another title that sounds impressive but tells you little about what the work actually involves? Well it’s becoming increasingly important due to the changing nature of our workforce, so let’s look a bit deeper.

In the past, it was quite common for people to embark on a career path that could take them through to retirement. Perhaps after learning one set of skills, they had the base knowledge to see them through for the rest of their working lives (of course, developing experience and expertise along the way).

However, we keep hearing that this isn’t the case anymore. Young people entering the workforce now are unlikely to stick with just one career for the entirety of their working lives. Instead, they will zig zag through jobs and industries and be expected to pick up a range of new skills or completely re-train along the way. Even more experienced workers are expected to be constantly learning; familiarising themselves with new technologies, software, and processes.

This is where instructional design comes in. Instructional designers create learning programmes and courses that help people get the skills and knowledge that they need, when they need it, and in the most effective way.

Sometimes this can be in the form of an entire qualification that takes years to complete (think university or trade qualifications). But increasingly it is in the form of short courses that quickly fill knowledge gaps and enable people to get on with their jobs.

Instructional designers sit in the middle of education, psychology, communications and design. They are problem solvers and creatives. They spend time thinking about the knowledge and skills gaps that a certain organisation or group of people need, and then they get to work creating the best way to fill those gaps.

Practically, instructional designers use their expertise to figure out how to simplify tricky concepts so they are easy for learners to understand, how to design learning material so that it is easy to use and gets the main points across, and how to ensure that learners will continue using what they have learnt in their daily work.

The results of all this thinking could include learning products like:

  • Short online learning courses that are professionally designed to be user friendly and applicable to real life situations. This way learners can complete the course when and where is convenient for them (handy in our new flexible working world).
  • Course or class outlines that include teaching materials and content, interactive learning activities and scenarios, and confirmation tests or assignments. One example of this type of instructional design is our Redshirts in Community Project – which you can read about here.
  • Entire qualifications, including learning and teaching guides as well as formal assessments. These could be paper based resources, completely online or a mix of both.

By creating these types of learning courses and materials, instructional design is a field that is adapting to the changing nature of the workforce; making sure that people get the skills that they need for their jobs (whether young or old, new or experienced) when they need them.

Top five tips for creating learning material

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1. Guide the learner to think for themselves

Learners are more likely to retain information if they have engaged with the material and thought about the key ideas for themselves. You can help to encourage learners to think about the material in a range of different ways. If creating online learning material, it can be a good idea to ask the learner questions before giving them all the information. This way, they are forced to do some thinking about the topic for themselves. If using paper-based learning material, you can create activities, questions or short quizzes to help the learner engage with what they have read.

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2. Keep it short and simple

Learning material does not need to be lengthy to be informative. When writing learning material, the goal should be to get the main points across to the learner as clearly and succinctly as possible. This means keeping sentences and paragraphs short and only including information that is essential for the learner. If the learning material is very long and cannot be condensed, then key points boxes or summary sections are essential.

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3. Find a way to make it interesting

Learning doesn’t need to be serious, dry and boring (even if the topic is of that nature). In fact, it would be terrible if it were. Luckily with technology, there are so many opportunities to make learning interesting and enjoyable for the learner now. With new learning software, it’s possible to gamify learning material and enable learners to interact with each other. Even with the most basic paper-based learning though, using interesting examples, positive encouragement and perhaps a bit of humour can help keep your learner’s minds on track.

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4. Put it into context

Learners are learning for a reason, whether to start out in a new career or develop new skills that will enable them to perform better. Either way, it is not just learning for learning’s sake. Rather, there is a need for the learners to take what they have learnt and apply it to real life situations. For this reason, it is important for learning material to clearly demonstrate how it relates to a real-life context. If learners understand why they are learning something and how it is going to benefit them when they finish the online module or leave the classroom, then they are more likely to engage with the content.

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5. Mix it up

Learners are all different and it would be impossible to create material that suits every learner perfectly. However, you can use a range of different strategies to help your learners and give them the best chance of succeeding. For example, offering podcasts or recordings in addition to written information, or providing short summaries or reference pages to complement e-learning packages. This way, learners can pick and choose what works best for them.

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