By Mona Meyer
I’ll never forget the episode of “Cheers” when the rest of the gang teased Norm relentlessly about his interest in interior design. Finally, in an attempt to deflect attention from his hobby, Norm shrugs and says along the lines of, “I can’t help it. I’ve just always known where to put the ottoman.” That phrase has returned to me many times during my career as an instructional designer. After all, it describes what we do pretty accurately-we know where to put the ottoman. Okay, we’re not usually really moving furniture around, but the art of “arrangement” is key to the practice of instructional design. When faced with a mountain of information in the form of textbooks, lecture notes, training materials, and articles, instructional designers choose the most critical pieces of content then reframe them and serve them up to the learner in the arrangement that is best designed to promote learning and retention.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of instructional design in higher education. I have often heard this question (or a variant) posed by university deans and other administrators: “Why do we need to hire instructional designers when we’ve already got faculty on staff that teach these courses?” While this may seem like a legitimate question on the surface, I find myself responding (usually in my head), “Because they haven’t been taught where to put the ottoman.” Unlike K-12 educators, most university and college faculty have little or no training in the art of education. While they are experts in their particular fields and can usually write a bang-up research paper for scholarly publication, many of them struggle with how to present information to their students in a manner designed to promote mastery of specific learning objectives. They tend to deliver long lectures, possibly supplemented with visual aids, while students furiously scribble notes. The question-and-answer period (if there is one) is generally relegated to the end of the lecture period. This teaching style contradicts decades of educational research that says that students learn best when information is presented in manageable “chunks” and students are offered multiple and frequent opportunities for feedback.
The recent growth in distance education has shown a spotlight on this issue for many colleges, universities, and accrediting bodies. For traditional face-to-face courses, the syllabus is typically the one and only document that is subjected to scrutiny by college administration and accreditors. And, you can’t really tell much about style of instruction from a syllabus. Online courses, on the other hand, capture the whole of a student’s instructional experience. If they were so inclined, administrators and accreditors could peruse the institution’s learning management system and see exactly how course information is chunked and delivered to students. Therefore, it behooves colleges and universities to ensure that what lives in their learning management systems stands up to rigorous academic scrutiny.
Unfortunately, without instructional design guidance, college and university faculty often tend to try to replicate the face-to-face course online. They may upload PowerPoint presentations with hundreds of slides, link to dozens of offline readings, and perhaps even include a video of themselves “lecturing” as if to a live audience. Students are then faced with the daunting task of mining this information dump to tease out the most salient points on which they’ll be tested. Typically, students will receive little feedback on their understanding of key course concepts until they view their quiz and test grades-by which point it’s really too late. However, a good instructional designer knows how to avoid these pitfalls. He or she will work with the faculty member to structure the course materials for maximum learning impact. The instructional designer will tie critical course content to measurable learning objectives, “chunk” it to aid retention, add frequent opportunities for students to check their understanding, and collaborate with the instructor and their peers. In short, the instructional designer will arrange the furniture for maximum comfort and utility-placing even the most recalcitrant ottoman in the best possible location.
Mona Meyer is Senior Manager for Instructional Design at A Pass Educational Group, LLC