Instructional Design Basics


Invisible Cats

Please click here to learn about an important topic.

Now what did you learn, was it something like this?

If you learned that, then you experienced a type of learning strategy for teaching concepts.  Specifically you encountered the Concept Attainment model.

Here examples and non-examples of a concept are presented to a learner.  This presentation helps users identify the attributes of a concept and from this, form an understanding of it. This process can be used for simple concepts like “Invisible Cats” as well as more complex concepts.

Today I’ll talk about some additional strategies for teaching concepts.

RSA—The Good

Many of you may have seen the RSA videos and if not I suggest you take a look at them. These videos are rather interesting and use a good approach to teaching conceptual information.

Here they use analogies, metaphors and images to help users visualize the concepts that are being discussed.  And what emerges from this discussion is a detailed graphic organizer of the key ideas and attributes of the concept.

This approach is also nice in that it hits multiple learning styles (auditory and visual) and having multiple inputs here, can help students form stronger connections to the content.  If you liked this approach you can check out Prezi, which is an application that allows you to create whiteboard presentations like the RSA videos.

RSA—The Bad

Now before you go out and copy this approach, I do want to cover some of the bad things introduced in these videos.  Some of these are:

Passive Activity—Video is a passive activity and on its own does not guarantee transfer.  To ensure success here, include other activities that force the students to interact with the content.

Linear Activity—Video is linear and forces users to sit through all of the content whether they need to or not. Video doesn’t easily allow users the ability to skim, skip ahead or review content.  Help your users out by making your videos short and to the point.  Also include player controls that allow for fast forward and rewind capabilities.

Cognitive Overload—These videos have a lot of things competing for your users attention.  The animations, images and panning can be a distraction to the main message that the speaker is covering.  Users can only attend to a limited amount of content so make sure all of your information is relevant and supports your main content needs.

Other Approaches

Video can be a resource intensive approach and may not be an option available to you.  This is ok though as you can address conceptual information in other ways.   For instance you can include the visuals used in the RSA videos to create static images that act as the graphic organizer.

An added option here would be to make the graphic organizer the main menu for your content.  This option would provide greater control to the user in relation to accessing the content and be more engaging then passively watching a video.  Besides the visual elements presented in the movie, you can also use simple text formatting, tables, charts and graphs to help users identify key attributes within a concept. For instance check out the following document to see how these simple tricks can be used to highlight the main ideas behind Engineering Controls in the Laboratory.

Engineering Controls

Not only does the revised content in this document highlight the main ideas behind the controls, but it also makes a nice handout that users can take away from the course. As such, focusing on a text approach can add some benefits that video can’t match.

Regardless of the approach you take remember to focus on your content—make your content interesting and relevant to your users.  The RSA videos are successful in part because their content is interesting. Here the lecturers have something meaningful to say and they say it well. Your topics probably won’t have the appeal as Invisible Cats but that shouldn’t stop you from keeping your student watching/learning.


Being a Carpenter Part 2

With my last post I may have over simplified things when talking about what can make for a bad course—the truth is there are all kinds of things that can influence this. The point I was trying to highlight though is the importance of content.  Here even if you have the time, tools and resources needed, if your content is bad your course is going to be bad as well.

Today I’ll show you an example that will hopefully give you some ideas on how you can create better content in this regard.  So click on the following link to review this course example:

Wimpy PCT

Writing a Story

In my previous post, I described how you could shape your content around a storyline as a way to make the course more interesting.  With my example, I framed the course content around a new employee that was having trouble communicating. To make the story a little more interesting, I repurposed the Dairy of the Wimpy Kid concept.

The story that developed has a nice flow and is probably something that most can relate to, that is, many of us have worked with someone that doesn’t communicate well. With the story I let internal dialogs and character interactions drive the content forward. These dialogs/conversations focus on the application level content—How to communicate with SBAR—rather then on recall level information.  Here definitions, lists, and other factual content are support elements within the story.

This story treatment creates ties across the content and follows a real world situation. This makes the course more interesting then the typical, I am going to cover topic A first, then B and then Ccontent most of us are use too.

Now Where Did I Put My Hammer

So once I had a story I could move on to my tools. With this example I only wanted to use free and or standard software tools to build my course. Here I wanted to demonstrate that you don’t need expensive tools and resources in order to build a good course.

So with my limited toolset, I asked the following question:

“How can I use my available tools to support my story?”

Course Pages
The main tool I used for the course was the Knowledge Kit, which is an internal BJC application that allows you to create online courses.  This form-based tool has a simple interface that allows you to create basic text pages.  Here you can add images, glossary links, hyperlinks and normal formatting elements to your pages.   The tool is pretty limited but with some creativity you can create a fun little course that is ready for the Learning Management System (LMS).

The tool forces a linear navigation structure to your content, which supports the storyline format of the course. In addition the glossary and link functionality allowed me to capture the recall level information (definitions, links for more information, job-aids,…) without shifting the focus from the story.

For the images I used standard clipart as the backgrounds and drew stick figures on them as needed. Now I must admit I did cheat a little in this regard. For these figures I used Flash’s drawing tools, but you could get a similar effect using standard drawing programs.  If you don’t have any drawing tools you can access some free graphic applications here.  You could also find cheap stock art of stick figures that would work as well.

As I indicated the background images were from standard clipart; however, you could stage and capture these images yourself with a regular digital camera. Stock art sites can also be an additional source of cheap backgrounds. With these images you may want to apply some simple effects to further support you story.  Effects like blur, cropping and zooming can add subtle changes to the emotional context of the story.

I wanted my course to have some audio in it as it conveys extra information that isn’t easily translated with straight text.  Here tone and inflections can provide information that text simply can’t do.  This audio use is perfect to setup events or to model a role playing activity. In my course I used the audio to set up my Knowledge Check questions.

To create my audio files I used a basic recording tool that was pre-loaded on my computer. If you do not have any recording software on your computer you can use Audacity, which is a free tool for this purpose.

I also wanted to use multimedia in my course to break up the text and engage another set of learners.  Multimedia adds multiple layers of information that simple text does not convey. Besides the audio input, users can see body language and facial expressions, which will offer a whole range of information for the user to pick up and evaluate. In my example though the stick figures are a bit lacking in this regard!

As with simple audio, multimedia can also be used to set up interactions or to model behaviors.  In my course I used it to demonstrate how Jane could have gotten more information about Mr. Winkler during the hand-off.

To create the movie I used Jing, which is a free tool that you can use to capture screen interactions.  Screen capturing software is typically used to create demonstrations for software applications and websites.  However; with a little help from PowerPoint I was able to use Jing to create the Jane and Joe two-way communication movie.

To do this I inserted a series of images on several PowerPoint slides. Then I selected the size of the capture window and started recording the movie on slide one.  As the movie recorded I read the audio portions and advanced the slides as appropriate.  This took a couple of tries to get a decent version but wasn’t much work in the end. Here I was able to create a still image movie that you could easily replicate. To do this you could use standard clipart; stock art; or even stage and capture a series of images yourself.

An alternative to the still image movie is to film an actual movie using a camera.  There are all kinds of digital cameras out there that will produce content for your course. Some of these cameras are cheap and produce high quality video in a ready format for your course.  Once you film the movie you can drop it into your course.

Other Content
It is often useful to provide materials that users can access after the training is completed as this will help with transfer.  In addition the factual and procedural nature of the SBAR content lent itself well to job-aids. Here I used Microsoft Word to create the materials and then converted them to a pdf.  Once I had the pdf ready I saved the file to a web site and established a link to it in the course.

Practice Makes Perfect

Developing content around a story can take some time and practice. In addition learning some of the techniques I demonstrated above can take some experience as well, but don’t give up on your content.

Having interesting content is important and by focusing on your content creation skills you will eventually get better at it. Practice makes perfect in this regard and in others; for instance, if we go back to my poor performance with frisbee golf you will see that I eventually improved as well.  So much so in fact that the last time I played my buddy Joe, I beat him quite soundly.

And Joe’s response to this defeat—no temper tantrum, no lame excuses—he just hasn’t played me again, that is, he’s a big baby and is scared.  Yes, these improvements can be really satisfying and it’s nice to know that your success isn’t because of your tools.


Being a Carpenter

I have a buddy—let’s call him Joe.  Anyway Joe and I like to play frisbee golf and a typical hole goes something like:

  • Joe throws the frisbee and it goes really far and lands in the fairway.
  • I throw the frisbee and it goes 30 feet before it hits a tree.

This usually triggers a small temper tantrum on my part and Joe cheerfully reminds me that, “A good carpenter doesn’t blame his tools.” This leads me to say, “Well that’s nice but, I’m not a carpenter.”

I say this, but inside I know Joe is right. My failings at frisbee golf have little to do with the tools I use, in this case my frisbees, and more to do with how I use them.

This same thought can be applied to online courses. Here I see a lot of clients developing their own courses and most of them are rather bad. These clients often do not have access to expensive course building tools or other resources to help them build their courses, but this isn’t why their courses are bad.

With online courses you don’t need expensive course building tools and resources to build good courses. What you need is interesting content, as your content will determine how you use your tools.   Today I’ll talk a little bit about how you can start using your tools better in this regard.

Tell a Story
One of the main problems with the courses I see is that they are boring— again this has nothing to do with the tools that are used.  This is a limitation with the content in the courses and it is a self-enforced limitation, that is, the only thing that made the content boring is the people that developed it.

One problem with many courses is that they approach the content from a purely informational standpoint:

“I have topic A, B, and C that need to be taught. So I am going to talk about A first, then B, and then C.”

Here we may look for the most direct approach to teaching these topics and not worry so much about engaging the user—we just want to get all of the content out there. This direct route may cause us to forget about connecting the pieces within the topics and in essence isolate each topic as a stand alone piece.

Another tendency with this direct approach is its focus on basic facts. Here we may develop our content around simple recall level information and not around how this information is practiced in the working world.  In these instances definitions, lists, and tables are highlighted as the main pieces of content.

However, we know in real life that topics are not separate or simple. So to help our users internalize our information we should be developing our content around a story or a theme.  These stories will create ties across the content and also allow you to develop the content at a deeper level—here definitions, list, and tables are support mechanisms for your content rather then center pieces. A final benefit of a story is that a good story can gain and keep attention.

So with your content, you should start approaching it from a story telling standpoint:

“I have topics A, B, and C that need to be taught.  So I am going to wrap these around a storyline that users might encounter in their work.”

Once you have your story outlined then you can then start worrying about your tools.

How Should I use My Tools
The majority of the online content that our clients are developing is text based. Here we are forcing our users to read page after page of online text. These treatments seldom make for pleasant reading sessions; rather they usually cause our users to quickly lose interest.

So with this in mind you should think about how you can break up your text and cover it in another way.  Here you can use images, audio or movies to lessen the text mass within your courses.

Doing this to support, enhance or replace your normal text content will create a more engaging course. In addition it will help your users internalize the information better as having multiple inputs (visual, audio, …) can help users create stronger connections with the content.  This is important as strong connections will help users process your information when they need it.

What Tools
As I indicated earlier some of you may not have access to expensive course building tools or other resources.  This limitation may cause you to give up on the content, “Yeah that all sounds nice but I don’t have the tools that will allow me to do any of this.”

Well this mentality is simply not true—there are many standard tools available to you that can be used to help you build interesting content for your courses.  In addition there are also many cheap and or free tools you can access which will give you additional abilities here.

In my next post I will show you an example of a course that was built entirely with free and or standard software tools. In addition I will talk a little bit about how each tool was used. So with this post and the one to follow we will no longer be able to blame our tools rather we’ll just have to admit to being a bad carpenter.


1000 Words

The other day I found the formula used to determine the exact number of words a picture is equal to and I must say those math guys are really ingenious:

Image/Word Conversion Formula

Ok so that formula may not be true but most of us are familiar with the saying, “an image is worth a thousand words.” And this is something we can probably relate to, that is, most of us have been in an instance where someone was trying to explain something and we didn’t “get it,” until they drew us a picture.

Visuals like pictures, images and drawings are important to include in your courses because they provide students with another way to internalize your information.  This is useful in that some students prefer a visual learning style—in order to “get it” they need to “see it.”

In addition, having multiple inputs (text, images, audio) allows your students the ability to process your information on multiple levels. These multiple inputs will allow them to form a stronger connection to the content when they store the information into long term memory. And a strong connection here will make it easier for them to retrieve that information when they need to use it.

So in saying this we should expect to see a lot of images in online courses. However, this isn’t the norm, rather a lot of courseware tends to be text heavy and only uses the occasional image.

Rules to Follow with Your Images

Some of this is good as there are certain rules you should follow when considering images in your course.  These rules are important as images can interfere with your users ability to learn content. A few simple rules to follow are:

Don’t Obscure Presentation Text
To ensure readability you should size and position your images so that they don’t cover up text in your course. And if you are using an image as a background make sure that your text has a high degree of contrast with it so that it can be read easily.

Use Professional Images
A poorly created image can reflect negatively on your course. To avoid this problem you should use professionally created images.  This may seem like a big limitation; however, you have a large selection of free images you can use at your fingertips.  Microsoft Word and PowerPoint have a large selection of Clipart and Photographs you can use. In addition there are several websites that offer access to free/cheap images you can use.

Support Presentation Styles
Your images should compliment your course design.  Colors that clash will make your pages hard to read and make your course unpleasant to the eye.

To support this need, find a theme or style that fits with your course design and use it consistently.  Consistent use is important, as random images can be a distraction.

Support the Slide Content
Your audience may get confused if your visuals don’t match your course content.  Ensure that your images support the ideas presented in your course.  Here your images should supplement or expand on the content presented.  This is important, as you don’t want to make it hard for your users to internalize your information. Random images can distract their attention—this is bad, as their attention should be focused on meaningful content.

Tricks and Tips With Images

When used correctly, visuals can help your audience internalize the information you are presenting.  Some tips and trick I’ve found over the years with images include the following:

Use Your ClipArt
As I mentioned earlier you have a large selection of ClipArt and Photographs available to you through Microsoft Office. The great thing about these images is that you can edit them to fit your needs.  Here you can use a graphic editor like Photoshop to edit any photographs or you can edit specific ClipArt files directly.

With ClipArt you have the ability to ungroup the objects within a file and edit each piece individually.  You can resize; change colors; delete and add items; and change the orientation of the objects.  With a little work and imagination you can create some nice graphics for your courses.

For instance click on the following links to see some of things you can do here:

Original ClipArt Files
Revised ClipArt File

While working with ClipArt, select files with similar styles—you need images with similar colors and forms.  This is necessary in order to keep a consistent theme and look within your program.

Don’t Forget Tables
Just because tables, flowcharts and graphs are not created with graphic editing software doesn’t mean that they are not considered visuals.  These items can be powerful images and will act as graphic organizers of your content—don’t forget to use them.

Quote Your Content
It may not make sense that you can break up text and or add a nice visual by adding more text to your course, but that is exactly what you can do with pullquotes.  With this technique you can highlight key information, facts/figures, or an interesting piece of content.

To use these effectively you should change your pullquote text formatting and play with the page whitespace. Adding a graphic to act as a background can add an interesting effect to your pullquotes.

Use Simple Filters and Tools
Many graphic editors have simple filters and tools you can use to add specific effects to your photographs.  Some of these like zoom, flashlight, crop and blur can change the emotional effect of your images.

For instance look at the following images and think about what each says:

Original File

Make Your Images Interactive
The great thing about online content is that you are not limited to static content.  With images you can add additional layers to them by making them interactive. Here you can have your users click on your images to trigger certain effects.

Doing this well will make your content more meaningful and engaging to your students.  With relative ease you can use show/hides, pop outs, animations, and other effects to create great menu structures and discovery interactions within you courseware.

Design Your Images for Your Needs
With online content you have a limited amount of space to work with, as you don’t want to force users to scroll a lot.  This can be a problem when you want to use a large detailed image.

Fortunately there are additional effects you can add to your images to address this issue. Panning and Zoom tools will allow you to scale your images down to a manageable size while also allowing your users access to the needed detail.

The following links will show you some of the interactive and sizing effects you can add to your images:

Zoom # 1
Zoom #2
Zoom #3

That’s Cool but How Do I Do That

Editing your images and adding effects can take some specialized skills and software. Fortunately resources like the CLL and Media Services are available to you. With our help, you should be able to develop appropriate images for your courses.

Or if you want to go it alone there are many great tutorials sites for learning graphic editing skills as well as free graphic editing software.  The interactive component might be a little bit more complex so you may need to reach out to that high school kid that lives down the block.

Regardless of how you get them, you should include visuals in your courseware—after all each image is worth 1000 words.


Everything is a Nail

Awhile back my boss and I were asked to sit in on a vendor demonstration of some HIPAA courses that were being evaluated for use. After it was over we gave some general input and left.  When we got back to the office my boss asked me what I really thought of the course.

Up until this point I hadn’t figured out my boss— I didn’t know where she stood in the great ID war.  Was she one of the science guys that championed a theory or two or was she a practitioner of a holistic approach?  So I decided to play it safe,

“Well technically it was correct. They followed the Tell, Show, Do model, had some scenario based content and...”

At this my boss sat back and gave me a small frown. She then proceeded to go off on the course, which was a beautiful thing. It was beautiful in that it confirmed where she stood in the war and it clearly identified her as an ally.

Tell, Show, Do

Now it may sound like her and I had different viewpoints on the course.  After all my comments were positive, “…technically it was correct” and I still agree with that statement as there is science to support the strategies used.

The main strategy they used was to develop the content around the Tell, Show, Do model.  And to some extent this is a good model to use, as it is easy to remember; provides an outline for your content development needs; and provides structure and practice. All of which should help a person learn new content.

The basics of the model are that each objective will have the following content:

Tell: This content chunk will tell the user the exact behavior or task they will learn in the course.

Show: This content piece will then demonstrate the behavior or task that the user is expected to learn.

Do: The final piece will provide an opportunity for the user to practice that behavior or task.

Content development in this model is often expanded on or supplemented by Gage’s nine events. And as I said, such a model is a good strategy to employ for a person learning new content. However, the problem with the model and any model for that matter is the tendency to overuse it or the old, “…when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem.

Consider Your Audience

The nail in this course was the audience—here the developers of the course didn’t really know their full audience. Up front the developers should have spent some time defining all of the users that would eventually take the course. By spending time analyzing their audience they would have identified the following concerns:

Knowledge Levels
HIPAA is part of our compliance training which means that our users get some form of it every year. So in essence significant portions of the users taking this course already have some expertise in the content.  Yet the model used to develop the course was based on something for new users. So in this instance a large group of people would be forced to review a bunch of content that they didn’t need or that they already knew.

The impact of this can be highlighted when you break this down into time. This course only covered 5 or 6 objectives and with the Tell, Show, Do model employed, it would take 45 – 50 minutes to complete.  This is a lot of time to force someone to take when all they probably needed was a 15 – 20 minute refresher course.

To address this group the developers could have allowed users to test out of content, or used single source technologies to tailor content to each group’s (novice, intermediate, expert) specific content needs.

Reading Levels
Since HIPAA is required training for all levels of the organization a question that should have been immediately determined was the reading level of the content. When the vendor was asked about this, they indicated that it was written at an 11th grade level.

Generally newspapers try to write at an 8th grade level or below. These papers recognize that many people do not read at a high level.  In our organization we have a significant number of people that have similar needs and in order for them to internalize the information, content should be at a like level (8 or below).

Learning Styles
Because many users have taken this content several times, are required to take the content and may not be highly motivated learners to begin with, engagement is a critical need with our training.  The reality is that many of our students do not want to take this training.

This is typical of learners in all environments—rarely do you find the group that is excited by compliance training.   However, you don’t have to reinforce these feelings by making them take boring content.

A problem with the Tell, Show, Do model is that it can facilitate the creation of boring content. If you examine the model and apply it to an equivalent classroom format you will find it similar to a lecture (Tell and Show). And we all know how boring lectures can be, “Anyone.…”

As a learning style, few people prefer lecture-based content so if you are going to choose it, make sure it is interesting—make it scenario based, add humor, interesting ideas or whatever you need to do to gain and keep attention.

Your Projects Are Unique
Saying all of this, I want to restate that I don’t think the Tell, Show, Do model is a bad thing.  In fact with our user developed content, I would be thrilled to see its use applied to the courses. What I do you want you to take from this post is the need to fully look at your audience and to not let an approach blind you to your needs here.

This thought can be especially important when it comes time to view vendor products as they are typically done with models and templates like this.  Here the vendors may try to hide poorly designed courses behind the science.

“Our basic structure is Tell, Show, Do and we follow Gagne’s nine events…”

Remember your project is unique so when you see someone pull out a template or a model make sure you step back and really analyze your needs. Maybe instead of a nail your course is a peg or some sort of corner joint.