Instructional Design Basics


Max Comes Home

I’m a new dad and it wasn’t too long ago that I was leaving the hospital for the first time with my son.  And as I pulled away from the hospital I remember feeling like I got away with something—that at any moment someone would stop me and take it all away.  Surely being a parent wasn’t this easy, there had to be more to it then that and there must be some course, some test or other requirement that I needed to take/pass before I could take on this responsibility.

No one stopped me on that day; nor have they stopped me or my wife since.  We are learning as we go and “Winging it” seems to be ok when it comes to parenting.

This benefit of the doubt—“it will be ok” or “they will figure it out”—isn’t something that I experience much in the working world.  Here I have to continually justify my positions and needs.  And the group that I most often have to work with in this regard is my subject matter experts (SMEs).   Today I’ll talk about some of my experiences here.

Follow the White Line

On a project I worked on a few years ago it became time for the SMEs to complete their initial reviews of some Captivate movies I had been developing. Now since it was their first review, I didn’t worry about perfecting the timing of the captions.

My reason for this were quite sound—I knew that the SMEs would have a lot of content issues to report and each resulting fix would throw off the caption timing.  So spending a lot of effort here wouldn’t really solve much, in fact, it would only double my work as I would have to readjust the timing again when the fixes were applied.  In addition timing is a functional issue and not something that the SMEs should worry about—they are content experts and should hit that with their reviews.

Imagine my surprise though when the comments from the SMEs came in, “The caption on frame six needs to display a little longer,” and “The timing is off on frame 2 of 32 …” What I got was a bunch of comments about the timing rather than content fixes.

Now in their defense, the SMEs were fine—they saw something that was obviously wrong and reported it.  Giving me the benefit of the doubt probably didn’t make a lot of sense to them as they didn’t know the reasons for the timing being off. If I had communicated this information earlier I could have prevented them from reporting these timing issues and kept them focused on the content.

Communication in this regard is important as you need to guide your SMEs on what they should expect and focus on with their reviews.   Following this level of communication will help you with other common review issues.  For instance, proofing and editing is similar to timing in that it is functional and is usually one of the last things that are performed with online content.  With SMEs, it is not uncommon to find one or two grammar kings/queens, so make sure to keep them on task and focused on content rather than editing.

As you work on these projects you will find that guiding and focusing your SMEs is important throughout your project development cycle.  Here you may need to continue to define the roles within the project as well as outline specific activities and expectations of these roles.  Doing this will keep everyone on track and help you avoid unneeded time delays.

It’s All Good

Sometimes receiving the benefit of the doubt can be a bad thing and the SMEs should be checking your activities.  This was the case on a project I worked on several years ago—here the SME loved everything I did. And his response to the chunking and sequencing of the content I did was, “… that’s great—it is exactly what I wanted.”  Later I developed the interface and content flow for a drag and drop interaction and his response was, “that’s perfect.  You rock!” In these and the other reviews, the SME failed to provide meaningful feedback on the course content and according to his reviews the course was ready for publishing.

I knew though that my sequencing, the drag and drop interaction and the other content I worked on probably wasn’t perfect.  I knew this because there are subtle distinctions, thoughts and ideas that only a SME knows about with their content.   When these clarifications are missed then the learners may have a more difficult time internalizing the information.

So if you find yourself in a situation where the SME isn’t providing you with feedback in the reviews make sure to dig deeper.  Set up some time to meet with them and go over the content and audience with them.  Ask them “is there anything else that needs to be hit here—will this group understand this or …”

You may need to revisit the course goals and objectives with them, as this documentation will highlight course needs.  In addition accessing the information about your users will help highlight any specific needs each group may have concerning your course.

Types of SMEs

As you work on your projects you will find that there are many Types of SMEs and that their willingness to give you the benefit of the doubt may differ. Some of them may send you on your way and let you figure it out while others may give you a harder time.  Regardless of which type you work with just remember that everything will be ok, after all, it’s just a course you are building and not something truly important like a baby.




How to Play Nice

In previous posts I’ve talked about several things that geeks, nerds and dorks across the globe love.  And one thing that many of these folks like to talk about is the Alien verse Predator question. Here we have two species that have been fighting for millennia and some people have opinions on which is the toughest or which would win in a real one-on-one fight.  To me, this debate has always been silly as the Predator obviously wins—seriously the guy has a nuclear device attached to his arm.

But this post isn’t about that debate; rather it’s about playing nice and how that is needed in your course development projects. Here issues like people missing their deadlines, having problems communicating, having unclear roles/responsibilities and other factors can quickly throw a wrench into your project.   You need people to play nice in this regard and a good project manager (PM) can help out here. So much so in fact that a skilled project manager could even get the Alien and the Predator to play nice for a bit.

Today I’ll talk about some of my experiences where a skilled PM was needed.

Playing Nice—Keeping Your Deadlines
As an Instructional Designer I often work with content that I don’t know much about.  In these instances I work with a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to ensure that the content is accurate. Often these SMEs are assigned this task because they are the best at what they do—they have demonstrated mastery on a skill and as such are valued. Because of this knowledge they are often quite busy and don’t have a lot of time to devote to side tasks. This is unfortunate for me and other training developers as their role as a SME is often looked on as a side task.

This was the case on one project I worked on a few years ago. Here the SMEs had numerous assignments that took precedence over their role as SME and this translated into them missing deadlines. This happened so often that the project schedule became meaningless.

Now if I or the other project team members were only working a couple of projects at a time this might not have been a big deal; however, this wasn’t the case.  Here it was common for team member to have 5 or 6 active projects at one time.  So when these SMEs missed their deadlines, we often didn’t have the time available to work on that task when it finally got to us, that is, our other project work had us allocated to other tasks.

The PM on the project was aware of these conflicts but refused to alter the schedule to account for the missed deadlines. Because of this, I and the other team members had to find a way to make up for the lost time.  Here we worked extra hours, shifted other project work and cut corners—these measures negatively impacted the quality of the projects we were on.

The PM in this instance should have stepped in and adjusted the schedule to meet the missed deadlines. In addition they should have worked with the SMEs to identify more realistic durations for their work tasks.  Duration is an important concept with projects, as it doesn’t necessarily equal work effort.  Here a task may only take five hours to complete but because of your work schedule, you may need two days in order to work those 5 hours. These two days is what is known as the duration and this is what should set the timeframes of the tasks within your projects.

A weekly status meeting could have also helped with this project.  Here the PM could have worked with the SME to identify possible conflicts with their deadlines—if the PM knew the SME was likely to miss a deadline then they could have communicated that to the team ahead of time.  This advance notice could have provided the team time to prepare for the missed dates.

Playing Nice—Understanding Your Role
On another project I worked on awhile back, I experienced a different issue; here the SME didn’t fully understand their role in the project. As I indicated above I often don’t have the content expertise for the courses I am developing.  When this is the case it is crucial to have an active collaboration between the ID and the SME.  Here the ID should be working with the SME to expand and or rework the course content into sound instructional strategies. The SME needs to provide content and be available for questions and clarification needs.

As I was working on this project I needed to create some scenarios to use for the various interactions within the course.  I contacted the SME several times through voice and email indicating my need and why this was important.  Here I basically wanted the SME to give me some real world situations that they had encountered in their job.  From this I was going to develop my scenarios and interactions.

To say that this SME was less then responsive in this instance would be an understatement—I got nothing here.  So to meet my need, I researched information about the job and created some scenarios based on my notes here.  My notes though were not entirely correct as the organization had unique requirements for that job. This meant that the scenarios I developed from my notes didn’t really fit into what users would experience on the job.  So in essence, I wasted 20 hours researching content and developing scenarios that couldn’t be used.

The PM on this project was aware of the situation from the start, but choose to keep out of it. Here they missed a good opportunity to interact with the SME and explain the various roles within the team. When the SME still refused to demonstrate appropriate behaviors for that role then the PM should have contacted the project sponsor to find another SME.

This problem should have been addressed upfront though by explaining the role and responsibilities of the team members before the project started.  Here it is always a good idea to have a kick-off meeting where the PM can define each person’s role in the project and what is require from each role.  In addition weekly status meetings could have strengthened this need as these meetings illustrate the bigger picture—who’s doing what; what does everyone need...

When Do I Need a Project Manager
It is probable that many projects you work on will not have a dedicated project manager. This can be nice if it is a small project or one that has a few close people working on it.  With the bigger and more complex projects you will need someone in this role as many things can cause problems in a project.

To help you get started on what to expect from project managers I’ve put together a short table of Types of Project Managers you may encounter.  As you read it you can see that some PMs will be much better at getting people to play nice.  If you have encountered other types of PMs please add comments to this post describing them.