Instructional Designers Work with Any Type of Content
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 doubting look yet, you probably will. It happens when a course sponsor is 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.
What Does Content Neutral Mean?
Most instructional designers are not specialists in one field. Content neutral means that we can work in any industry or field without having much pre-existing knowledge. Rather, we use techniques to decompose skills and knowledge to understand new material. We typically work with subject matter experts during this process. Content neutrality allows us to provide learning design services to a range of industries. It also helps us see the world through the eyes of the novice learner.
Although working with the same content for years can turn you into a mini-SME, we have ways to wrap our arms around all types of content and skills. Here are some approaches instructional designers 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.
Content Neutrality Through Instructional Analysis
Conducting an instructional analysis helps us decompose skills and associated content. An instructional analysis refers to a procedure that identifies the learning steps required to reach an instructional goal. Examples include the Dick & Carey instructional Analysis or action mapping.
The outcome of an instructional analysis is a learning diagram showing the skills, subordinate skills and knowledge necessary to achieve a new performance capability. This is another way instructional designers analyze and work with content that’s unfamiliar. See Types of Analysis for eLearning.
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. A task analysis helps instructional designers develop courses for a wide range of workplace skills.
Conducting Research To Fill in Gaps
There will be times when course sponsors cannot provide the information you need to help employees improve performance. After conducting an instructional or task analysis, you will have the framework for moving forward. Because you are content neutral, you can find many ways to find the missing information.
One is to observe and interview people who are most competent in the skill. Information from books and academic and trade journals can provide the latest approaches to a subject, including trends and an idea of what’s pertinent today. See Google Scholar, then search for the PDF versions of the articles. Always check that your sources are reliable and respected. Research 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 you don’t have access to a SME, 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. See Your Guide to Doing a SME Interview for Course Development.
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.
Other Articles about Instructional Designers:
If Instructional Designers Ran The World
Motivating The Instructional Designer
35 More Qualities Of The Ideal Instructional Designer
Tonie Miller says
Great article! The information here can provide good talking points during initial meetings with clients.
Thanks for sharing.
Connie Malamed says
Ha ha. You’re a better woman than I 🙂
Patty Myers says
This article is a great summary of key points to study because most instructional designers eventually face a SME skeptic. BTW, a while ago I designed a course on safely using fluoroscopic medical equipment and one of the SMEs was a nuclear physicist. It was a challenge!
Connie Malamed says
I see what you mean Sherri. Very similar.
Sherri Sagers says
I think this is similar to a common idea I heard frequently when I taught English as a second language to adults from all around the world. People always asked me how I could teach without knowing my students’ languages.
Connie Malamed says
Thanks for the kind words Jan. And you’re welcome 🙂
Jan McNeil says
Thank you so much, Connie: very helpful as are all of your posts.
Maha Khatib says
Could not agree more with you Connie and could not be better articulated. Love the process not the topic.
Thank you Connie
Dr. Michael Sutton says
Excellent advice about instructional analysis and task analysis!
Carolina Gavilanes says
Great post! So clear! I just got a new project and your suggestions have provided me with ways to a manage this.
Connie Malamed says
This is a very difficult concept for some people to get. But for us, it seems so natural! Thanks for writing.
I really enjoyed reading this post! My former employer was very adamant that I could only work with certain topics based on my teaching certificate; however, I explained the essence of instructional design to her. I don’t know if she got what I was saying, but this article could have helped her to understand.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge,