An English Major’s Guide to Learning Design
“I know of nothing in the world that has as much power as a word.” – Emily Dickinson
Some learning designers are one-man or woman bands. They write the content, enter it into a rapid authoring tool (lovingly known as a RAT), and choose or create the images, audio, video, and everything else that goes into making a course dynamic. Some learning designers work with developers, user experience experts, and graphic designers who take on these tasks. But both types of instructional designers are first and foremost writers. Writing is the stuff upon which all else in a learning experience depends. Choose your words with care, knowing that every word has the weight of effective instruction on its shoulders.
“Write one true sentence (a day).” – Ernest Hemingway
Imagine a world where a project manager sends a daily email asking if the instructional designer has completed his or her “one true sentence” for that day. A 10-minute module would take a year to write. More often, instructional designers are given one day to write hundreds of sentences. We don’t have the luxury of Hemingway’s pace, but we can have the aspiration of writing true sentences—not true in the sense of factual, but true in the sense of credible, beautiful, and wise.
“…all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Learning designers are well versed in verbs. We comb Bloom’s list of verbs by cognitive category to find just the right one. The learning objective is instruction’s reason for living, and the verb is the engine that drives that purpose home. It is key to home in on the verb that will activate the learning objective and produce the desired learning outcome—the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that the learners must demonstrate by the end of the instruction.
“Omit needless words.” – Strunk and White
When editing, try to remove every other sentence and see if the paragraph still makes sense. Sounds crazy, right? But, it often works. We say a thing and then, unsure that we got it right, we say it again. This may be a case of faulty expression or of not trusting the learner. Neither is desirable. While scaffolding and refreshers provide healthy repetition, wordiness is not the kind of repetition that is advantageous.
“No sinner is ever saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.” – Mark Twain
“Microlearning” has been sucked dry of its meaning now that any instruction less than 20 minutes long is considered to be microlearning. Much of the time, what’s called microlearning is just a long lecture broken into 20-minute segments. Microlearning should be self-contained. It should have its own center of gravity (expected learning outcome), a story to tell (content), meaningful actions (interactives), and a means of measuring success (assessment). Writing microlearning is an exercise in concision and economy.
“The human heart has hidden treasures.” – Charlotte Brontë
Oh, the topics into which instructional designers are asked to breathe life! Luckily, for every dreaded topic, there is a subject matter expert (SME) who loves that very thing. A learning designer’s mission is to tap into the passion of the subject matter experts. Their passion combined with our love of teaching will bring vitality to the instruction. Fail to capture that passion, and the learner will suffer. Remember, a learner’s boredom can blossom into fascination once they understand a thing well enough to see its hidden treasures.
About the author:
Dr. Julia Miller is a seasoned digital learning professional with extensive experience in both the leadership and operational sides of online learning development and delivery. After receiving her Ph.D. in Irish Studies, she migrated into educational technology. She is currently Director of Learning Design for ansrsource, a learning design company. Dr. Miller’s background features a unique mixture of strategic consulting, curriculum design, program management, and faculty development. She has more than 20 years’ experience as an online and face-to-face instructor and brings together theory and practice in her approach to creating outstanding, transformational learning experiences.
This post was originally published on ATD’s blog page on 8th November, 2018 by Dr. Julia Miller.