Apparently, it’s difficult for some people to understand that instructional designers can work with any type of content. If you haven’t come across that puzzled and doubting look yet, you probably will. It happens when internal or external clients are sizing up whether you can handle a job if you’re not familiar with their subject matter. It’s tough for them to see that instructional designers are content neutral. I may soon tattoo this on my forehead.
Although working with the same content for years can turn you into a mini-SME, most instructional designers are not specialists in one field. We have ways to wrap our arms around all types of content. Here are some approaches I use.
Working with Preexisting Content
Many clients provide preexisting content that’s already been organized for a previous course or manual. There is often a common structure that underlies preexisting material, even when its poorly written and produced. There are basic skills one would need to learn first and knowledge to support those skills. After mastering the prerequisites, the content usually offers higher level skills.
The first thing I do is look at the end point—where do we want to go? I’ll see if the current course organization will enable a learner to reach the final goal. Almost certainly, reorganization is required, as well as removing superfluous material and filling in gaps. In most cases, however, a preexisting course will shed enough light on the content to get a sense of it. That’s one of the ways an instructional designer works with an unfamiliar subject.
If the content is dysfunctional or unfamiliar, I conduct an instructional analysis. This refers to a procedure that identifies the learning steps required to reach an instructional goal. The outcome of an instructional analysis is a learning map showing the subordinate skills and knowledge necessary to achieve a new performance capability. It basically identifies the primary and secondary skills and knowledge of the course. This is another way instructional designers analyze and work with content that’s unfamliar.
Task Analysis for Specific Workplace Skills
In addition to an instructional analysis, a task analysis is often necessary to analyze the tasks to be learned. A task analysis examines these specific work activities and identifies the actions and behaviors used to accomplish a goal. Typically, the outcome includes job and task descriptions and an inventory of subtasks or observable steps. Task analysis is a commonly used procedure to help instructional designers develop courses for a wide range of workplace skills.
There will be times when no content is provided. At these times I will research the subject through a variety of means. Books written on a subject will frequently be organized in a helpful way to indicate an appropriate structure or at least a framework. Information from academic and trade journals can provide the latest approaches to a subject, including trends and an idea of what’s pertinent today.
One might also use blogs, industry and vendor websites, professional associations and social media searches for more information or links to valuable content. Of course, checking that the sources are reliable and respected is a condition for use. This is one more way instructional designers manage working with unfamiliar subjects.
Interviews with Experts
In my experience, most clients provide a busy subject matter expert (SME) with their project. This is a key person to interview for an overview of the material, the knowledge required for performing tasks and for otherwise filling in the gaps. If I know the SME has many projects going on, as is typical, I’ll try to get familiar with things on my own first. This way, I can ask intelligent and necessary questions and won’t have to contact the person too often.
If a SME is not provided, it’s possible to hire one or to request interviews with professors, industry experts and those with mid-level experience to get a broad range of perspectives. Interviews are another tool in the instructional designer’s toolbox for gathering content on topics we don’t know about.
Spread the Word
Spread the word. Instructional designers work in the neutral zone and are capable of designing and developing content, instructional strategies, interactions and visuals for any subject. Come on, I dare you to give me a course on nuclear physics.
What’s your experience been? Comment below.
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