Wednesday, December 5, 2007

IDT: Practical or Pie-in-the-Sky?

Designers-by-assignment pose a special, though not new, challenge to the field of Instructional Design. To understand the situation, designer-by-assignment must be understood. One the one hand, this is a job title, assigned to those who create instructional design products without necessarily having the training of an instructional designer. One the other hand, this entire matter is a reflection of an economic reality, and reveals the increasingly multitasking nature of the workplace. In that sense, people are often managers-by-assignment, negotiators-by-assignment and so on, as a strategy to alleviate the costs of using trained specialists.

One potential compromise in the approach of design-by-assignment is a loss of the value of research and theory. Without training, designers-by-assignment may not produce adequate materials. Merrill would like to see the tools of instructional design produced in such a way that they embody current and relevant theories, so that the products produced using those tools will have the essential qualities that traditionally came from the instructional designer on the job. Merrill would also like to see instructional designers receive more education in management.

Superficially, this sounds logical. Merrill has a strong bias towards the idealism of science and empirical results, so his proposal follows a methodology that looks good on paper. One must wonder, however, how a software tool can replace the brain of a trained designer. Even if one follows rigid scientific principles, there has to be creativity to work with those principles and arrive at useful solutions. Most scientists will attest to the need for creative thinking in solving problems of logic. So far, computers have not proven to be creative problem solvers.

On the other hand, Merrill’s suggestion to train designers to be good managers sounds like a very good idea. For one thing, learning management skills leads to better self-discipline and work habits. Large projects require both. It also seems inevitable that, as Merrill indicates with statistics, instructional designers with graduate degrees will increasingly be called on to manage designers-by-assignment and others as well.

Wilson actually rearranges the issue by indicating that designers-by-assignment is not necessarily inappropriate; often they have “extensive practical and content knowledge that empowers them to understand local cultures and processes…”. He points out that all designers have knowledge weaknesses, so the idea of a perfectly trained designer is not attainable in any event.

Wilson characterizes his approach as a broad way, and Merrill’s approach as a narrow way. Merrill takes this kindly, although he sticks to his points. The question remains: How do we, as instructional designer students, proceed? Do we take it upon ourselves to add management education? Do we learn an appropriate foreign language because, like so many other industries, the nuts and bolts of our jobs will be done overseas for relatively low wages? Will there be a decline, not only in quality, but also in the value of our hard won degrees?

It seems that since instructional design and technology is woven into the world of computers, constant change will be the order of the day. We must stay current not only in the technology, but also in our positions in the field. It seems reasonable to strongly suggest that work in education will remain strong, and some industries, like the military, just won’t function at all without the utmost attention to details. However, automated solutions seem inevitable for many industries, driven by economics and the ability to conform to widespread standards.

One example of that relates to custom software. Twenty years ago, I programmed a keyboard skills test for the Los Angeles Times in collaboration with an industrial psychologist. The test had to conform to the standards of affirmative action; therefore it required a qualified designer with a Ph.D. in industrial design. Since then, California has banned various forms of affirmative action. On that basis, an off-the-shelf program could be used today, in place of the custom solution. A Ph.D. level designer would not be required. The cost difference is significant. If our needs as a society become so trite as to make creative solutions extraneous, instructional products will be mere commodities to be produced as quickly and cheaply as possible. To prevent that, some of us need to move into research, others into theory development. In other words, we have the responsibility to keep our field fresh, relevant, and a land of opportunity for designers. Beyond that, we must be prepared to continue our education and enhance our value since, despite all of our reasoning about what we see now, the future is always unpredictable.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Chapter 31 reads like a Lucas/Spielberg script; accelerated learning through focused electronic stimulation of the brain, personal learning and life profiles maintained in centralized data mines, enhanced group think through brain synchronization... We accept these ideas readily in science fiction because it is just that, fiction.  However, science fiction has often cautioned us by its very cynical depiction of such "advances".  Chapter 31 has only one sentence that indicates there will certainly be ethical and legal questions to answer as we develop more invasive learning methods.

In this blog, I submit my personal opinion that the ethical questions start with learning itself.  I often argue that education is an unconditionally good thing.  But I also believe that learning must remain a process mediated by free will.  And sociologically, I believe we must maintain a society where various levels of education have their place and value.  Even if we had a pill that turned any person into an instant Einstein, should everyone take it, and would that really serve our variety of human needs best?  People learn for many reasons.  Some need job skills.  Others enjoy the process and the result is not so important.  Just about everyone needs to have reading skills, but not everyone needs to know how to fly a plane.  But what if a law were passed that required everyone to submit to an electronic brain implant that gave them emergency CPR skills?  That would save a lot of lives, but would it be fair, ethical, moral?  

Realistically, learning needs vary with each person and over the course of a lifetime.  Just in time learning might be the way to address the actual development of a person's life.  If I could rapidly acquire parenting skills during the nine months of pregnancy, I'd be a better parent and not have to guess five or ten years earlier, when I was originally in school, if those skills were really going to be necessary in the first place.  This might be a great opportunity for advanced learning systems to be applied.  On the other hand, maybe I prefer to learn by doing and wish to learn parenting as I go.  In either case, should I be forced to learn to be a good parent in advance?  

I don't want to live in a world ruled by a tyranny of education.  Alexis de Tocqueville is often noted for the concept of a tyranny of the majority, in which the interests of the majority completely override the interests of the minority.  The Bill of Rights is one example of how this tyranny is meant to be avoided, securing certain essential rights regardless of the wishes of the dominant powers.  I suggest that we need similar thinking wherever systems of power are developed.  The right to be blissfully ignorant might be right number one.  In our enthusiasm to create more advanced learning systems I think we need to remember that learning begins as a natural process for survival, adaptation, and a good quality of life.  We must be careful to let real human needs motivate those advances and not let the potential advances cause us to treat people as receivers of our zealous implementations of the latest technologies because those technologies can theoretically create statically better learning results.  Is it not apropos to consider that in the end, learning must remain a consequence of free will, personal choice and even the desire to have a bit of fun?

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Value of Rich Media

Chapter 30 has excellent information on the use of graphics and audio for instructional presentations. This should be of interest to all designers of instructional materials, especially those who have training and interest in multimedia. Because visual and aural elements can be so engaging for their surface characteristics, it is very important to understand how they can be used productively, and how they can also diminish learning if not used appropriately. It should seem obvious by now that using multimedia effects only for their “wow” factor is neither professional nor productive.

Visuals have been shown to improve learning (R.C. Clark & Mayer, 2003; Mayer, 2001). Note that this does not necessarily resolve the Clark/Kozma debate, which was over the issue of whether media cause learning. Knowing this is valuable, but equally important is to know that the visuals need to have important functional features, versus extravagant surface features. In other words, illustrations work as well, or better, than photographs, and still images work as well as animations. Likewise, a single audio element, such as narration is more effective than multiple audio elements together (narration, music and sound effects). The reason for this is that the human brain can process two channels of information, one audio, the other visual, provided that the individual channels are not themselves overloaded.

Looking at graphics, there are a variety of psychological functions served. Graphics can support attention, activate prior knowledge, build mental models, support the transfer of learning and support motivation. These benefits have been demonstrated in studies; so that it is with substantial empirical evidence that we can say graphics improve learning.

At the same time, it is necessary to minimize unnecessary visuals and text. This is an instance when a professional understanding of instructional design is very important. In studies by Harp and Mayer (1997), learners rated lesson versions with seductive graphics as more interesting, but they demonstrated a learning gain of 105% when they used lessons without the seductive graphics (seductive graphics are graphics added with no functional value, in other words “eye candy”). The problem is that the distraction of the extra visuals interfered with the building of a mental model and activated inappropriate prior knowledge.

The conclusion presented is that the best source of motivation is cognitive sources, or in other words, the material itself must have substantial elements to cause and improve learning. An example of a cognitive source would be analogies. Harp and Mayer (1997) recommend, “the best way to help learners enjoy a passage is to help them understand it”.

A further conclusion is that multimedia is most effective with learners that have little prior knowledge, and that as learners gain knowledge, the value of multimedia diminishes. It seems that learners with a great deal of prior knowledge can mentally compensate for poor presentations.

As a graphic designer, it is exciting to reframe the challenge of graphics in a way that is grounded in function. This should be the way all commercial graphics are approached; advertising graphics create desire, educational graphics stimulate learning and so on. However, especially without appropriate training, many in business either discount graphics excessively thereby missing an opportunity, or use graphics as a superficial type of attraction to enhance perceptions of content, without actually offering a better product. Of course, as excellent students of instructional design, we are not going to fall into either of those diminished approaches…

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Distributed Learning in the Years to Come

Distributed learning, as defined by Dempsey and Van Eck (chapter 28) sounds very much like blended learning, where e-learning is combined with traditional learning means and methods. I personally prefer the term blended learning because in computer terminology there is the process called: distributed computing, which is when a process is broken up and worked on by several computers in a computer network.

Here is the definition of blended learning excerpted from Wikipedia:

Researchers Heinze and Procter have developed the following definition for Blended Learning in higher education:
Blended Learning is learning that is facilitated by the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning, and founded on transparent communication amongst all parties involved with a course. (Heinze, A. and C. Procter (2004).

The question as to how education will look in 15 years can most assuredly be answered by saying that distributed learning (blended learning) is here to stay and will inevitably continue to grow.

One important reason is cost. Education costs a lot of money and schools are competing more than ever for students. Some of those costs are direct, and others are indirect. So, in the first place, to manage tuition costs, lower-cost alternatives to buildings with classrooms and real-time instruction to a relatively small group must be developed. An indirect cost is gaining access to brick and mortar campuses. The school that can offer on-line learning programs can attract a worldwide audience that will put their money into tuition rather than cost of living expenses.

Another reason is cultural. An increasing percentage of people prefer to access their lives through the medium of the computer. Shopping, entertainment and education are all possible through the computer. The business world expects employees to accept and respond to change quickly. Only distributed learning has the inherent quality of such rapid response.
The question for us, as instructional designers is to understand our value – will we be seen as valuable after the mystery of this new technology is lifted through experience, or will our role diminish and be taken by technology itself, through the eventual development of advanced applications that do much of the design work for us? No individual will determine the outcome of this issue, but as individuals it is important that we understand our personal worth. We can support the idea of certification. We can discipline ourselves to produce work worthy of making our field a profession, rather than a trade.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Designing for the World at Large: A Tale of Two Settings

The section heading: “The Challenge of Diversity” would be an appropriate title for this topic while “Designing for the World at Large” is rather grandiose. The point of this topic (from Chapter 23) is that the world at large is a single world with multiple cultures that have various needs that diverge rather dramatically from the United States centered model of education and instructional design.

One extreme would be a country that has little if any centralized infrastructure. Furthermore, such a country may have a variety of needs that simply do not exist in a country such as the United States. Would it make sense to send FOSS (Full Option Science System) curriculum to Papua New Guinea (most of the population lives without electricity)? The challenge of education in locations most unlike the United States is great because there is a need for instructional designers who can work with alternative frameworks for learning, as well as understand the complex and challenging economic and social realities. Although there has been growing attention to the needs of the young, adult learners must be considered since the learning opportunities of their own childhood were very limited by today’s standards.

Until recently, most educational models were borrowed from the models used during colonial times. While this has seemed logical and “understandable”, it has worked for and mostly benefited those living in urban centers, while the masses continue to live in rural conditions. This also explains the slow rate of change in thinking related to these issues – the poor masses have had little voice in politics. This began to change at the World Conference on Education for All in 1990, where it was recognized that developing countries were using obsolete models of educational practice.

The importance of diversity is that the world needs diversity for healthy evolutionary growth, not only biological, but in terms of knowledge, learning and the development of thought and creativity. To acknowledge diversity and serve it accordingly is more productive and a more hopeful course than creating a one-size-fits-all mentality. Rather than transfer technologies, we need to reinvent them according to local needs.

A personal observation I made on a recent trip to Mexico was the contrast between high and low technology. It is possible to see a restaurant that is little more than a concrete shell with a tarp, and in the same city see a restaurant comparable to a modern sit-down restaurant such as Denny’s. In one government center the employees were typing forms on manual typewriters while the workers at the cellular store used networked computer workstations. Such a society has certain educational challenges greater than a highly industrialized society such as the United States because there are less universal standards throughout the infrastructure of the country. Just imagine if schools in the United States still had to teach the use of slide rules because half of the businesses in this country could not afford calculators!

I also feel that the challenges of reaching diverse populations are an excellent challenge for creative instructional designers because of the lack of predefined solutions.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Evaluation in Instructional Design

The implicit importance of evaluation in instructional design seems so obvious that it is surprising to learn that companies rarely engage in level 3 and 4 evaluations. Certainly one of the most basic reasons for this is cost. To develop a program costs money, but that expense cannot be avoided since the existence of the project depends on an investment. On the other hand, once a project is completed and put into practice, any further costs are an expense above and beyond the product itself. One can see the temptation to use the product and hope for the best as to its effectiveness. I've had this experience as a graphic designer designing advertisements. The clients accept the fees for ad development and ad insertion into a magazine, but are loathe to invest in follow-up as to the effectiveness of the ad. Their reasoning works something like this: If the ad is working, we'll have more business which means the ad will pay for itself and then some (and we don't want to reduce the profit by spending money on follow-up analysis of effectiveness). If the ad is not working, spending money to find that out will only contribute to the loss. It is as though they are arguing that it is most profitable to do what should work, but remain ignorant of the actual final results. One way to change this is to embed the social costs into the project. In other words, the results gained determine the final amount paid for the project.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Applying what we learn...

When I started EDIT451 I felt completely disoriented by the material. The problem is how to connect the readings, theories, etc. to the real world. Last week, my EDIT451 group started work on Situated-Learning Theory, so I developed a simple activity using this theory for a real-world class that I teach in Spanish. I've now done the new activity twice in two weeks and it's going very well. Learning a language is a particularly appropriate subject for testing this theory - language acquisition involves cultural components, social skills, and depends entirely on real-world effectiveness as a measure of success.

Now I'm wondering if anyone else in our class has had the opportunity to apply any of the new ideas in our course to their own real-world activities?