Cammy Bean is having an interesting dialog with John Curry on whether you need to know the underlying theories of ISD to do effective design. He’s revising his thinking on whether theory is useful, having initially come from that viewpoint. He says:
“Theoretical instructional design needs to mirror practical instructional design more. And when it does, and as our field shifts to more designers-by-assignment, then we’ll be on to something important.”
Cammy’s view is:
“I’ve heard of some of these theories and theoreticians. I’ve even read about some of them. I actually have some books on my shelf that cover these topics. Admittedly, I may not have read all of the books. Do you think it matters?”
Well, here’s my response. I don’t think you need to know all the different theories, but you do need to know the deeper implications for design. If you don’t understand from Spiro’s Cognitive Flexibility Theory when and why multiple concept representations are useful, you might miss helping your learners to comprehend and apply the principle. If you haven’t seen the intersection of Schoenfeld’s work as captured in Cognitive Apprenticeship with Sweller’s Cognitive Load theory, your examples might miss essential components in linking the concept to the context.
I don’t think you need them all, as there’s considerable overlap, but you do need an exposure to at least a ‘reader’s digest’ approach (not to mischaracterize the work, but I like Michael Allen’s Guide to eLearning as such, at least specific to elearning; or my own PDF, though overly simplified). Of course, you have to find a good approach that does integrate the nuances, and I’m not confident any one is really sufficient, and you do really need to know in some depth how the mind learns to make smart inferences in the ‘gaps’. You don’t have to read Vygotsky in the original Russian, but what you can not do, and I see all too often, is follow a cookie-cutter approach which says “I have to have an introduction, concept, example, …”, and then write one of each without understanding what are the key principles behind each of those elements.
The benefit of the Master’s is the chance to get to know the theories (depending on the program and instructor). The pedagogy for the course should include applying the theories to pragmatic design, not just reciting back the contents (I used to use RFP’s asking for designs or redesigns using the theories). It’s not the only way, but being familiar enough with the underlying principles to be able to adapt the design to match the circumstances is important. What I believe doesn’t work are ad hoc approaches based upon ‘experience’ and feedback. Learners don’t necessarily know what’s best for them versus what really works, so you need more than level 1 feedback.
Note that Cammy is a ‘reflective practitioner’ to use Schön’s term, as she reads and reflects on what she does. That’s why she’s effectively done her own ‘masters’ in learning/ISD. So, I’m not comfortable with trusting experience over time to yield competent results, I think it takes someone being an ongoing learner. That’s easier in a well-designed program, though the caveat is that all programs are not necessarily well-designed.
And I realize that there are pragmatic constraints, but I trust someone who understands the roles of the elements to make a better judgment about how to achieve the goal on limited resources rather than someone who’s not understanding the deeper principles. If your learning matters, that is. But if it doesn’t, why bother?