Instructional Design Basics


Cool Kids

I use to be a music snob—one of those people that would find an obscure band and tell everyone how cool they were.   Then when the band became popular I would stop listening to them and move on to the next one.

Yes I was annoying then and though I no longer do that, I still have a tendency to disassociate myself from the mainstream.  So today it is with a little trepidation that I am going to talk about QR codes as they are heading that way soon.

What are QR Codes

QR codes are a type of bar code that can be scanned by your mobile device (smartphone, tablet,…) and by scanning these bar codes you can access web pages, documents and other media. Companies are using this technology to market their products—to see examples of these codes, check out some recent print materials (magazines, newspapers, posters, billboards).

Besides marketing though, this technology offers other opportunities, specifically; you can use it to deliver training and performance support content to your users. And this is how I want to use it with my Infection Control project.

Going From Objectives to Content

In previous posts I have made a big deal about creating interesting content and providing a story for your users. So with the Infection Control course I wanted to create a story where users gain experience and items by performing tasks and completing quests.  In this story the student assumes the role of an Infection Control Expert and the training content is pushed to them as they perform their Infection Control tasks.

To see how this was broken out into content, look at the first story element I created in my Table of Specifications, “A Staph colony is somewhere in the building.” Note that this element was associated to objectives 1, 2 and 4 and that the specific content I planned to cover in this element was:

  • What are symptoms of Staph infections;
  • How it is transmitted; and
  • How can hand hygiene and cleaning protocols prevent its spread?

From this guidance I wrote out parts of the content and then placed them in the following web pages:

Staph Colony


I then created additional web pages that carried on this story element and hit the remaining content for it.  Once the web pages were created, I accessed a free QR generator site to have my codes created for each web page.  Then I put it all together in a Word document, printed this document out and set up the codes in various locations. To see the live example of this course you can go to the 2nd floor of the BLI and take the 1st part of it there.

A nice thing about using QR codes in this way is that they provide an opportunity to interface with actual people. This is represented in the course when the student has to track down someone and talk to them about proper Hand Hygiene techniques. And since this is an actual person, this can be a place where you do a formal assessment—in this case, the user is asked to demonstrate proper hand washing techniques.

Still Cool???

As I indicated earlier, QR codes are about to become mainstream and as such may not be cool very long, but that is ok now as I recognize how silly such concepts are.  Mainly though I realize that being cool takes up too much time—it’s much easier to stick with a classic.

….ok so The Pixies never became mainstream—I guess old habits die-hard.


Every Dog

Next year Reservoir Dogs will celebrate its 20th year in release. This movie is pretty awesome and if you haven’t seen it then I suggest you give it a look.

As to why I enjoy it so much, this movie was one of the first films I remember watching that switched between past and present scenes. One moment the characters were in the present and then the next they would be in the past. And it didn’t stop there, as there were multiple instances of the past. For example, once scene would have the characters three weeks in the past and then in the next one they would jump back further in time.

This back and forth in the timeline presented an interesting storyline and allowed for deep character development within the movie. This type of story is something that more movies take advantage of now but back then it was unheard of—movies then were strictly linear.

In many ways our training initiatives follow a like construct; here we often see our training courses as strict linear content. We have topic A, B, and C and before we talk about B or C we have to cover all of topic A. Jumping back and forth between topics is not something we typically do.

Story elements not content chunks

This doesn’t have to be the case though and your first step in breaking this cycle is to stop thinking of your content as separate chunks of information.

Here there is a tendency to organize our information into similar groups—after all we want to help our users find and internalize information. So we come up with topics and present them one at a time. And a typical content outline we us to develop our content looks something like this:

Common infections
Ventilator associated pneumonia (VAP)
• Signs and symptoms
• Prognosis
Staphylococcus aureus
• Signs and symptoms
• Prognosis

Prevention Methods
Hand Hygiene
Personal Protective Equipment
• Gloves
• Gowns
• Masks

By following the above outline you would develop two unique content chunks that would be separate parts of the course.  Here you would have a page or two listing the common infections and their characteristics.  Then later on you would have a couple pages describing infection prevention methods. Such groupings are nice as they provide structure and organization for the student; however, they don’t follow real life or make for an interesting course.

To break this you should think about your content from a story perspective and instead of the standard content outline, you should be developing a storyline that the user experiences.

While developing a storyline you can use a Table of Specification to help you keep track of your story and content needs.  Here you can list your story ideas and match them up to your course objectives.

Story Elements Objectives Content
A Staph colony is somewhere in the building 1,2,4 Symptoms


Transmission routes—Contact

Hand Hygiene


The user needs to research MRSA 1,3 PPE—lab coats, gloves

Patient risk factors—weaken immune systems

A patient has Tuberculosis 2,4 Symptoms


Transmission routes—Droplet


Once you have these story elements documented you can start to develop a storyline that users will experience in the course.  And if you are careful with you documentation you will be able to ensure that all of your needed content is addressed.

In the next couple of posts I will show you some informal ways that the above content could be delivered. Hopefully this will help you develop your next course and while it might not be another Reservoir Dogs it will be better then your typical A then B then C course everyone else is doing.


Starting in the Middle

My wife has many rules with varying levels of consistency—figuring out these levels is an adventure. One rule that she has always enforced though is the Starting in the Middle rule. Here I can’t ask her what is going on in a show/movie if it has been playing for five minutes or longer AND I was not there watching it from the start.

This rule causes me a lot of problems as many shows have complicated plotlines and character interactions. Missing small parts of these shows can greatly hinder one’s ability to figure out what is going on within the story.

This is true with training interventions, that is, these are complicated endeavors and starting in the middle can make it hard for someone to determine what is going on or what needs to be done.

This is why Instructional Designers (IDs) are so dogmatic about developing objectives. These key components define the outcomes within the project. This level of definition comes in handy for people (developers, graphic artist, other IDs, …) that may start in the middle of the project.

In my Brining in the New Year post I described some initiatives I want to explore this year. And to do this right I know I need to start with objectives, after all, I want everyone to know what is going on and where I am headed. So….

Infection Control

The first initiative I want to work on this year centers on a need to create informal training on Infection Control principals. As to the specifics:

Upon completion of this training, students will have an understanding of common infection control issues in healthcare.

They will demonstrate this understanding by:
• Identifying common nosocomial infections
• Describing transmission routes
• Identifying patient risk factors
• Discussing common prevention methods and
• Describing consequences of poor infection control.

As I continue to work on this initiative, these objectives will become a little more refined, but for now they should point to the content I want to hit and the outcomes I want to achieve. So you shouldn’t have to break the Starting in the Middle rule with me.

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Being Lost Isn’t Always Bad

A couple of months ago I went to Chicago and while there decided to meet some family friends. I’ve only been to Chicago a couple of times so this was a great occasion to break out my GPS unit and let it guide me to my destination.  So I plugged in the address and proceeded to drive.

Now you may not know this, but these units are not always 100% right as often there is construction or an odd street that will throw off your planned route. This is ok though as you can jump on a side street or take some other detour and the GPS will automatically recalculate your route.  If you do this enough times you will eventually get to your destination.

Well it just so happened that this trip had some unplanned construction located near the end of my route.  So as I neared my friend’s house, I ran into the construction and was forced to take a detour, a detour that made the trip much more meaningful.  You see the original route was all highways and main roads—it was the most efficient route to my friend’s house.

Fortunately for me though, this detour forced me into my friend’s neighborhood.  Here I got to drive around and see the fun little shops, restaurants and houses that made up their experience in Chicago.  I would have missed this with the original route and wouldn’t have understood why they liked living there so much.

From this experience, I learned that sometimes it is nice to jump off the planned route; especially if you have a tool that will eventually guide you back to your destination.  This is a lesson I can apply to my e-learning projects as well as I have been doing these for a long time and have identified some direct/efficient routes to follow.

Today I’ll talk about one type of project in particular that I have had a lot of experience with. Here I’ll share with you a route that will quickly get you to your destination. However, while using this route, don’t be afraid of the occasional detour as they can offer valuable experiences.  Also remember that your projects are unique and this uniqueness may require a detour as well.

Software Training Initiatives

We live in a technical environment and a common training need is software training—there is always a new piece of software or a new website that is designed to make our lives easier.  And if you are in a training/education role, you will probably have to develop a solution for this one day.

Fortunately, screen capturing software has made it easier to develop rich training content for software training initiatives. With relative ease a person can create demonstration movies of software procedures and functionality. Additional capabilities (tutorials and simulations) are included with many of these screen capturing tools and with them you can create powerful interactive environments for your users.

So with screen capturing software you have a tool for your solution but what about your content—what do you need to do here in order to get to your destination?

Knowledge Types

In previous posts I’ve talked about knowledge types, which are basically categorizations of the content you will develop in your course.  These categories are based on the objectives you have defined for your solution. You use these objectives and your knowledge type categorizations to guide you on what and how to develop your course.

And with software training initiatives you will need to address 4 key knowledge types:

A small but important part of your training should focus around selling the software. In this type of solution you are trying to get your users to buy into the idea of using the new software. Here you are trying to change their attitude—you want them to accept the new method of doing things.

Now this may not seem like a big need as users often don’t have a choice—the software is being implemented so they have to use it regardless if they like it or not. This may be true but with training you should think of potential stallers.

Phrases like “This software sucks” and “The old system was better…” are not uncommon with software implementations and if not addressed this attitude can derail your training.  Simply put, your users are not going to learn your content unless they have been sold the need for it or you have answered the “What’s in it for me” question. Failing to answer this may mean higher numbers of help desk calls once the software is implemented or that your users fail to use the software to its full potential

A significant percentage of your overall course objectives will be conceptual knowledge types; however, this will not transfer into a large percentage of your course content.  With this knowledge type you are basically describing the purpose of the various forms, pages, and reports that the user will use within the software. This is important information as it can be used to help sell the software being implemented and focus users on key values to use in the system.

For significant upgrades or new system implementations, cross tables can help users organize this information. Here you will want to indentify the old form/page that users used for a particular purpose and what the new form/page is in the software.

This knowledge type will probably be the bulk of your content and with it you will need to define the fields within the software as well as the data/values used within the fields.  Key values such as what not to enter or codes that trigger specific events need to be highlighted and noted with this content.

Since this is a large chunk of factual content, performance support tools can help your users transfer this knowledge once they complete their online training. To address this you should create additional materials that users can access after training is complete. Materials that users can print like job-aids and manuals can be useful in this regard.  Help files are an additional option that can be used here.  These files can be an especially useful as you can connect your content directly with the software by using context sensitive help functions.

This knowledge type will represent a large percentage of your overall course objectives and content. This content is where you define the specific steps and procedures users need to follow in order to use the new software.

As you create materials for this knowledge type you need to highlight the steps within the procedures. This information should list the specific forms, fields and values users need to process within the system.  As with the factual information, job aids and help files can be useful support tools for this type of content. Such treatments can be especially useful for complex procedures and for procedures that users do not encounter often.

With your procedural content, you should take care to develop realistic scenarios and make sure that any screen shots or simulations do not have junk or sensitive data displayed.

Getting to Your Destination

The following table will help you develop content for each of the above knowledge types:

Knowledge Types for Software Training Initiatives

Addressing the 4 knowledge types should provide you with the content you need to create effective training for software training initiatives. In essence this guide is your quick route to get you to your destination. And as you use it, just remember to keep an eye out for detours.


Straight Out of Compton

My wife bought me a GPS navigation system awhile back and I must say that it is the perfect gift. Perfect, not because I wanted one, but perfect because it is exactly what I needed.

My wife is a smart lady and she has figured out that I freak out when I don’t know where I am.  She learned this early on in our relationship when we took a trip to LA.

During this trip we got lost one night driving around. And what may have escalated my normal freaking out tendency occurred when I noticed some of the signs that we were passing, “Crenshaw, Inglewood,…”

Now in reality these areas were fine, but as I was driving, I thought back to the days when I was a fan of gangster rap (yeah I know). Well if you have ever listened to the early west coast gangster raps, then you should recognize these names.

So here I am in the middle of the night, lost and thinking about how Dr. Dre, “… damn near got capped cause his beeper kept beeping.” Needless to say it wasn’t one of my finer moments.

Tools that Help You Find Your Way

Sometimes creating a course or building a curriculum can be a lot like my driving experience.  You might take a wrong turn or two; you might get lost a bit; and you may freak the cuss out.  However, like the GPS unit, there are some tools that can help in your efforts here.

Tables of Specification
One tool that is useful for big projects or for content that you are not sure of is a table of specification. I use this table for two unique purposes:

Scoping: Determining scope within your project is a key step, after all it is within this step that you define the who, what, when and where of your solution.

The what of your solution is defined by the objectives you develop in this stage.  Developing your objectives; however, can be a haphazard process where individuals brainstorm topics, procedures and other content that will need to be covered.

Filtering and organizing these objectives is a necessary step here as not all objectives are equal. Remember objectives are what you will use to develop your content and in your final solution, some content will be more valuable to your users then other content.  This table can provide a way to determine which content you should focus more attention on as you develop your course.

As you build your list of objectives you should rank each objective by how important that content piece is to the overall training solution. A three point scale of Critical, Important, and Nice to Know can allow you to make some decisions here on what content to focus on.

Other rankings that are important to apply are the difficulty of the content and the frequency of use.  These are key rankings as objectives that are difficult to master will require extra attention when developing the content. However, if that content is not used frequently or is only used by a small percentage of your audience it may not make sense to focus a lot of extra attention on it.

By completing these ranking you may identify some objectives that really do not need to be in your solution or the table may lead you to make some design decisions.

Design and Development: With the tables of specifications I use, I always include the knowledge type of each objective.  Once applied these knowledge types can tell you about your course needs.

For instance, if you see a lot of procedures in this table, you should think about adding some performance support measures to your training solution. Activities and materials that your users can access after the training will help them transfer their skills.

To help here you should develop some reference materials and job aids that they can print out and have on hand.  This can be especially important for content that is not used frequently as the time between training and application is a key variable in the transfer of skills.

Or if you see you have a lot of concepts and interpersonal objectives in this table you may want to develop a discovery based approach with your course. Scenario based storylines and simulations may make sense here.

I have seen some tables of specifications where people have included a column for practice and assessment needs. Here these designers add descriptions of their practice and assessment needs, “This objective needs an exercise where …”

This information is useful in that it creates a checklist of development needs with your content.

As I hinted at above, these tables are not always needed.  I generally only develop them when I am working on big projects or on content that I am not very sure about. The following tools may be more useful with your projects though.

Style Guides
I have talked about style guides in a previous post. Basically style guides are documentation that you develop to outline how your content should look.  These guides should be signed off by everyone and should give a detail description of every aspect of your course.  Some areas they should address are:

  • Fonts styles and when to use them;
  • Specific terms, language and phrasing to use; and
  • Heading levels and when to use them.

These guides are especially important when you have multiple people developing content or testing, as they will help ensure that these activities are done in a consistent manner.

Gagne’s Nine Events
Robert Gagne developed his Nine Events of Instruction in the 60’s in order to increase student learning. By incorporating these nine events into your training program you can help ensure your students get the content that they need.

I generally do not follow his events to the letter as I use my scoping information to determine specific content needs. Here, I look at my objectives and for those objectives that I have identified as critical, difficult to learn, or used frequently I follow Gagne’s events to some extent. In this light I find Gage’s events to be a good reference tool to keep me honest.

Was Lost but Now I’m Found
Developing online courses can be a difficult thing and it can be easy to get lost in the details.  Fortunately tools like the Table of Specification, Style Guides, and Gagne’s Nine Events can help you get back on track. Like my GPS unit, these tools can be exactly what you need.