Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

28 July 2009

Creating Stellar Learning

Clark @ 9:50 AM

Getting the details right about instructional design is quite hard, or at least it appears that way, judging from how many bad examples there are.  Yet the failures are more from a lack of knowledge rather than inherent complexity.  While there are some depths to the underlying principles that aren’t sufficiently known, they can be learned.  However, a second level of embedding systematic creativity into the process is another component that’s also missed, however this time it’s from a broken process more than a lack of knowledge.

What we want are learning solutions that really shine: where the learning experience is engaging, efficient, and effective.  Whether you’re creating products for commercial sale, or solutions for internal or external partners, you want to take your learning experience design to the next level.  So, how does an organization improve their learning design process to create stellar learning?

Let’s go through this, step by step.  First, you’ve got to know what you should be doing. I’ve gone on before about what’s broken in learning design, and what needs to be done.  That can be learned, developed, practiced, and refined.  Ideally, you’d have a team with a shared understanding of what really good learning is composed of and looks like. But it’s not just the deep learning.

There’s more: the team needs to develop both the understanding of the learning principles, and a creative approach that encourages striking a balance between pragmatic constraints and a compelling experience.  Note that creating a compelling experience isn’t about wildly expensive productive values, but instead about ensuring meaningfulness, both of the content, and the context (read: examples and practice). The learners have to be engaged cognitively and emotionally, challenged to work through and apply the material, to really develop the skills. If not, why bother?  Again, it’s not about expensive media; it can be done in text, for crying out loud! (Not that I’m advocating that, but just to emphasize it’s about design, not media.)

I find that it’s not that designer’s aren’t creative, however, but that there’s just no tolerance in the system for taking that creative step.  Yes, it can be hard to break out of old approaches, but there has to be an appreciation for the value of creating engaging experiences.  I will admit that initially the process may take a bit longer, but with practice the design doesn’t take longer, yet the results are far better.  It does, however, take a shared understanding of what an engaging experience is just as it takes the understanding of the nuances of creating meaningful learning.

And that level of understanding about both deep learning and creative experience design can be developed as a shared understanding among your team in very pragmatic ways (applying those principles to the design of that learning, too).   It’s just not conscionable anymore to be doing just mediocre design.  It won’t lead to learning and is a waste of money, as well as a waste of learner’s time.

That covers the design, and even a bit of the process, but what’s needed is a look at your design tools and processes. And I’m not talking about whether you use Flash or not, what I’m talking about is your templates.  They can, and should, be structured to support the design I’m talking about.  Too often, the constraints in existence stifle the very depth and creativity needed, saddling them with unnecessary components and not requiring the appropriate ones.  Factors that can be improved include templates for design, tools for creation, and even underlying content models!  They all have to strike the balance between supportive structure and lack of confinement.

Look, I’ve worked numerous times on projects where I’ve helped teams understand the principles, refine their processes, and yielded far better outcomes than you usually get.  It’s doable!  Yes, it takes some time and work, but the outcome is far better. On the flip side, I’ve reliably gone through and eviscerated mediocre design, systematically.  The point is not to make others look bad, but instead to point out where and how to improve product.  Those flaws from the teams that developed it can be remedied.  Teams can learn good design.  My goal, after all, is better learning!

A caveat: to the untrained eye, the nuances are subtle.  That’s why it’s easy to slide by mediocre design that looks good to the undiscerning stakeholder.  Stellar design doesn’t seem that much better, until you ascertain the learner’s subjective experience, and look at the outcomes as well.  In fact, I recall one situation where there was a complaint from a manager about why the outcome didn’t look that different.  I walked that manager through the design, and the complaints changed to accolades.

You should do it because it’s the right thing to do, but you can justify it as well (and when you do walk folks through the nuances, they’ll learn that you really do know what you’re talking about).  There’s just no excuse for any more bad learning, so please, please, let’s start creating good learning experiences.


  1. In my organization the dilemma of creating good learning has a couple of challenges. SMEs who want to ‘help’ by just giving us a PowerPoint (usually animated slideuments) to ‘throw’ into the LMS. Even creative materials designed by SMEs need to be crafted by ID professionals, and we need time in order to make that happen. Sometimes we don’t have a choice in that, though. I admit that we save our best design for our projects with the most impact. We usually have more leeway in the project plan for those. I think the challenge is: Given limited time and resources on a project how can you plan in advance to ensure that your learning is engaging and creates effective outcomes?

    Comment by Shelley — 30 July 2009 @ 12:55 PM

  2. Shelley, your problem is common. You either have to reverse engineer the SMEs work to infer the real ‘application’, or go back to them to find out.

    Two answers to your question:

    The first is to have design templates that scaffold developing learning that is engaging and effective. Templates often enforce the rigor of having the elements without scaffolding the underpinnings that make them work, and that’s capable of being remedied. Just recently on a project I helped refine the template and understanding thereof and the quality of the products took a huge leap.

    So, the second answer is that learning to think along good design lines, while it does take practice, feedback, and time, is doable. With practice, your first drafts can come out both creatively engaging and effective. It’s a combination of a principled conceptual focus with some associated skills, and a ‘grab bag’ of tricks/examples/heuristics to make it work.

    Good luck!

    Comment by Clark — 30 July 2009 @ 1:31 PM

  3. I think that the term ‘template’ confuses folks, particularly newer folks. Some would read that and say, hmm… we need to sharpen the UI and container bucket that we use to dump our stuff into. I’m hoping you’re referring to methods and patterns, not the screen container:) In the big picture, the decoration and arrangement of the screen container means very little when compared to the instructional and media methods, patterns, and flow. Seems like ‘patterned instructional strategy’, ‘dance steps’, or ‘recipe’ might fit better than template. Just an observation:)

    Comment by Steve Flowers — 31 July 2009 @ 6:47 PM

  4. And the trouble of SME input or stakeholder inexperience is one of many possible hindrances to a good design. Some (many) are really going to struggle with certain design styles and engagement for some or all topic / performance types simply because they aren’t built that way. I’m not built to dance, I could be taught some moves but I’ll still be a clumsy oaf. Nothing much I can do about it and that’s nowhere near as complex a creative task as building an engaging learning experience. The unvarnished truth is ugly – in many cases there’s not much we can do to improve the situation if the designer isn’t equipped to do it.

    Comment by Steve Flowers — 31 July 2009 @ 6:55 PM

  5. Steve, yes, I do mean content development tools, not UI/screen layout templates. You may have a layout template as a consequence of a pedagogical choice, but I’m talking about the latter.

    And, yes, I always argue that the designer has to play a more active role with the SME when fighting for good design, keeping them focused on meaningful outcomes, not just knowledge. On the other hand, SMEs are also a great source of insight into why the topic is interesting, if you can tap into it!

    But, yes, there are definitely design skills that we need to develop and are not in sufficient supply! Thanks for the feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 1 August 2009 @ 7:48 AM

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