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Instructional design is not only seen as a core competency for learning and development/training specialists, but it’s a huge industry, too. Most learning vendors tout their ‘expertise in instructional design’ as a key reason as to why we should engage them to produce learning content. If we do so, then almost invariably their approach is around developing content in an ‘instructionally-sound way’ to produce a set of ‘learning interventions’.

I have a real problem with this approach and the thinking behind it.

It simply isn’t appropriate for the needs of the 21st century knowledge industry, and is arguable even more inappropriate for those whose work is carried out with their hands rather than with their minds.

Let’s Forget About Events

Undoubtedly instructional design is crucial if the mindset is learning events – modules, courses, programmes and curricula. However, if the mindset has stretched beyond event-based learning to where most learning occurs for workers, which is in the workplace at the point-of-need, where process-based learning serves best – and where learning through doing and learning as part of the work process happens, then ID takes on a whole new dimension.

From Content to Activity

The vast majority of structured learning is content-rich and interaction-poor. That’s understandable in the context of a 20th century mindset and how learning professionals have been taught to develop ‘learning’ events. But it simply isn’t appropriate for today’s world.

For years we’ve been led to believe that ‘learning’ meant acquiring knowledge. If knowledge acquisition is the end-game, then the logical conclusion was to provide information that could be turned, whatever the magic employed, into knowledge in the recipient’s head. Believe me, the old idea that data becomes information which in turn becomes knowledge and finally transmogrifies into wisdom has been debunked years ago. We use our knowledge and experience to interpret data and information. Wisdom comes to a few only after years of experience.

These days we’re a little better informed about what constitutes learning. It’s not that there have been fundamental discoveries in the field. There have been a few, but we’ve also spent more time observing learning in action. And ‘action’ is the key word. It’s become clear that learning is about action and behaviours, not about how much information you hold in your head. If we train our dog, or our goldfish, we can observe learning by the fact that the animal can do something it couldn’t do before the training started. If their behaviour isn’t modified then we can only conclude that they haven’t learned. We have no idea of knowing, of course, but it may be that the dog ‘knows’ what it should do (‘’sit, now!’) but, for reasons known only to itself, can’t (or won’t) execute the action.

Ebbinghaus and All That

Knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve learned it. Challenging?

Let’s test this hypothesis. I attend a course on how to use my company’s new CRM system. The instructor (or virtual instructor delegated into an eLearning course) steps me through the various processes and delivers the learning content in an engaging way. I even have an opportunity to try things out on a ‘training system’. At the end of the course, I take an assessment. I pass with flying colours.

The training has been successful and I’ve learned. Right?

Not necessarily. What I’ve done is managed to retain information in short-term memory. Even if I’m successful in transferring this to long-term memory – and it’s likely that most won’t transfer. Dr Ebbinghaus’ experiment revealed we suffer an exponential ‘forgetting curve’ and that about 50% of context-free information is lost in the first hour after acquisition if there is no opportunity to reinforce it with practice.

I’ve only learned (or learned successfully – I don’t know what unsuccessful learning is – can someone please help me out with that?) when I can use the CRM system without constantly asking for help or referring to some documentation. And it’s almost impossible to achieve this without having the experience of using the system/tool. And I have no hope of learning without plenty of practice. Experience and practice are two of the main ways we change our behaviours and learn.

The Value of Real ID

If experience and practice, rather than knowledge acquisition and content, are the drivers of the learning process, what do Instructional Designers need to do to be effective?

The need to become Interactivity Designers. That’s what they need to do.

My colleague, Clark Quinn ( knows a thing or two about designing learning experiences, having been a leading expert in the field in both academia and the business world for some years. Clark talks about learning experience design. He provides good explanations of his thoughts and approach here and here.

I find both Clark’s learning experience designer and also the term interactivity designer helpful because they move us beyond instruction to where the real meat of learning is, to actions and interactions, experiences and conversations.

Unlocking the Power of Experience

Each of us holds hundreds of experiences inside our heads that can be used to improve our own performance and the performance of those around us in both formal and informal learning environments. We just need to figure out how to tap into those experiences – that’s where the skills in interactivity design come in.

Good ID will result in the design of experiences that can build capability and learning far more quickly and effectively than by filling heads with information and ‘knowledge’ and then hoping that will lead to behavioural change.

We need designers who understand that learning comes from experience, practice, conversations and reflection, and are prepared to move away from massaging content into what they see as good instructional design. Designers need to get off the content bus and start thinking about, using, designing and exploiting learning environments full of experiences and interactivity.

As they do this they’ll realise that most of the experiences and interactivity they can draw on will occur outside formal learning environments.