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Instructional Design Battlefield: Information vs Instructional Design

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I’m currently working on some volunteer instructional design projects. There’ve been some bumps in the road, but for the most part, the project started well. There was a general feeling that by revamping the more fragmenting onboarding process (that’s what I’m helping with), there was an opportunity to create something much more interactive and relevant. I came into the project with my instructional designer hat on, excited to continue on my learning journey using Action Mapping and SAM. So, of course, my very first question was, “by the end of this course, what do your users need to be able to do?”

Battlefield ID

Over time, as we’ve continued to explore, there’s been a large change in the project scope.What started as a simple, single module morphed into a much larger multi-module course. I can certainly understand this growth and change during this exploration process. I made sure to keep an eye on scope and had to inform the organization that I wouldn’t be able to commit to doing, essentially the amount of work I did at my full-time, 8 dedicated hours a day job, in the space of maybe 10 dedicated hours a week. We got over that one with a bit of conversation but now, an even more serious issue has arisen. The storyboards I’m producing are going around through several stakeholders and now, more and more of a content-focus is being pushed. The orders have come to put more stuff that that users “need to know” in the course.

This is a much tougher problem because I can see the course moving straight ahead down “text-and-next” alley. Unlike a hired consultant (which, to be frank, is probably what this project needs) I’m a humble volunteer. And, much like in my day job, I don’t have a ton of (or any) power over whether or not a course needs to be created or whether other avenues have been explored. Still, I figured that they came to me as an instructional designer and I needed to push back. Here are the questions I asked:

  • Does the content need to all be in this module?
  • Does the content need to be in the course at all? How does it affect the user’s ability to do their job?
  • Have you considered the wholistic onboarding process and other activities that you might run in parallel to a course to disseminate information?

Real World

I haven’t yet heard a follow up, but I’m not optomistic. I would imagine that even hired freelancers, unless they felt willing and able to fire a client, might have to submit to putting on their information design hats, instead, and settle on making the course palatable by including whatever slick and interesting interactions they could dream up that break up the monotony of text.

I’d rather be an employed elearning compromiser than an unemployed elearning purist.

Tom Kuhlmann

I remember very vividly when I first jumped into instructional design, reading all of the advice of the established gurus and thinking (somewhat bitterly) that when the real world intervened, I was expected to perform the task I was given. (To be honest, it was one of the many reasons I was drawn to the Articulate blogs and forums. They seemed to be one of the only places talking about things like this with a community of folks in positions like me. Tom Kuhlmann even wrote that nifty quote above.) I’ve certainly learned to ask more questions, learned to push back on strategies and ideas that don’t work, but at the end of the day, I’m the captive developer; I’ve got to do the job, whether or not I’ve been able to convince others to go in a different direction.

Fellow instructional designers, freelance and otherwise, especially you fellow newbies out there, how do you fight this battle? How often do you win? What do you do when what is required of you is information design instead of instructional design?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


  1. June 4, 2015 - Reply

    […] the past 3 months, I have been working on a volunteer e-learning project. I’ve written about my struggles with it previously on the blog. It started off pretty well, but eventually spiraled into a scope explosion that had to be reined […]

  2. September 14, 2016 - Reply

    I love that quote … from experience with personal examples of being an unemployed purist 🙂

    • September 14, 2016

      Yeah, me too. Though, I admit, I’m starting to be swayed. Currently reading a book called You’re my Favorite client that makes some great arguments for fighting harder for doing the effective thing.

      I think it really comes down to communication experience (which I don’t have enough of). I’ve done a poor job of communicating my decisions and asking for the authority to do the effective thing.

  3. September 15, 2016 - Reply

    I had this exact problem on the project i’ve just completed. 2 things I did that let me sleep at night. 1. I was honest with them and told them that while I understand they have clear needs they want met, that the outcome meant that the design was not very good or in keeping with sound elearning principles (they understood this and appreciated my honesty). And then 2. i reminded myself that at the end of the day it is their project and therefore their goals are my goals, i.e. I practiced non attachment. We came to some compromises in the end.

    • September 15, 2016

      Good point, Janine! A lot of folks I’ve talked to have talked about this approach, that you document your objections/concerns and bring them to the attention in your meetings, but, at the end of the day, do what they ask you to do.

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