No Perfect Courses

One truth I have learned about instructional design is that I will never create a “perfect” course; there’s always something that could be better if I had more time or more resources or more skills.

When I interviewed for my first ID job, I asked my soon-to-be-peers the hardest part of their job. One answer stuck with me all these years. He said the hardest thing was knowing when to let go of a course. There’s always something more you could do, but at some point, you have to stop fiddling and launch it.

Handwritten word "imperfect" with doodles

When I go back to my old courses, I always find something I could improve—tightening up my language, tweaking the visual design to improve clarity, making an interaction more effective. Partly that’s because I always find something to revise in my writing after I’ve had time away from it. Partly that’s because I’m always learning, so I know how to do something now that I didn’t know when I created the course. I can make courses free of errors (typos, factual errors, etc.), but “perfect” is a goal that doesn’t really exist.

It’s hard for someone with perfectionist tendencies like me to admit that perfection isn’t attainable. This is, perhaps, an argument for rapid prototyping or agile development like SAM. If you release a minimum viable product to your audience, then you can keep iterating closer and closer to the ideal. You can let go of trying to be perfect at the start because you know you have lots of opportunities to fix it.

This is also an argument for planning to review and revise courses on a regular basis. I admit I haven’t been doing enough of this, especially since I’ve been consulting and not working as an internal ID. Too often, I hand off a course to a client and never even find out what happens after launching. I could do a better job selling clients on the idea of reviewing a course 60 or 90 days after launch and making improvements if needed.

Do you agree that there are no “perfect” courses? How do you handle it in your own work?

16 thoughts on “No Perfect Courses

  1. This post hits home! There are times I struggle with ‘letting go’ and tend to go back to a course and fiddle. And then there are courses that I never want to look at again!🙂 But I do realize nothing is perfect and if my employer/client is satisfied with the work then I need to let it go and move on.

    1. I try to keep the Pareto principle in mind too–80% of the total problems are caused by 20% of the root causes. If I do a good job on the 20%, I can have a lot of impact. While it’s nice to address the other problems too, all that fiddling has rapidly diminishing returns.

      That said, when I was a salaried ID, I always kept a “wish list” for long term projects. When work was slow or I was waiting on things for other courses, I sometimes went back to those “nice to have” improvements on my old courses. It’s one thing I miss being freelance; I never really get that opportunity to go back and improve my old courses anymore.

  2. When I first began working in ISD, a manager told me about ‘Every increasing approximations of perfection.’ I love that term and have kept his advise close to my heart for 30+ years.

  3. Let’s hear it for Pareto. It’s the only way to stay sane. That and knowing when NOT building a course makes sense. If we talk to the people using what we build, we often find that good enough and in a format totally unlike what we envision will do just fine. I can’t believe all the negative comments I’ve heard about what I would consider amazing. People just want what they need to get the job done or to get back to their work. Imagine that…

    1. I need to remind myself of Pareto sometimes. The point about not creating courses is an important one too. If we can do quick job aids when those will solve the problem, we’ll have more time and resources for building better courses when those are the right solutions.

  4. I don’t worry about perfection because, as I am realist about what I can do and the obstacles that I face. But when I add something new to one of my courses, like a different type of interaction, then I feel like I have advanced my capabilities and what I can offer all my customers going forward.

  5. I started training without a background in instructional design, so I have done a lot of revisions. As I have learned more I think my initial products have gotten better, but I still find myself noting something that I can improve each time I finish a round of instruction. Glad to know I’m not alone.

  6. I am new to instructional design, and I never considered this aspect of it. It is definitely important to make sure that you create an outstanding product, but how do you determine when to leave a course alone? What criteria do you use to determine if the course is ready?

    1. The quick answer is that the course is ready when you hit the deadline for delivering it.🙂 In practical terms, that often will be the determining factor. You do as much as you can in the time allotted. You prioritize what needs to be done and focus on the highest impact features first.

      In an ideal world, you would adjust the timeline based on what what you need and want to get done. In the real world, you often have to create things in less time than ideal. You still have to prioritize, but sometimes you can’t do everything you want.

      Sometimes you also have to tell people no, you can’t create something in as short a turnaround as they want. Sometimes people will ask you to create courses in ridiculously short timelines. In those situations, you can show them the industry benchmarks for how long courses take to create and try to adjust either the timeline or the scope. As a consultant, sometimes that means I turn down jobs. If a prospective client expects that one hour of e-learning can be created in fifteen hours, it’s not worth me spending much time educating them when they’re so far removed from reality.

  7. Are there any videos on YouTube that shows the process of designing an eLearning project? I seem to find a lot of theory but no “nuts and bolts”of the actual process from concept to finish.

    1. I’m sure you can find explanations of ADDIE and SAM on both YouTube and Slideshare (even without audio, Slideshare can be a good source of visual information). If you want nuts and bolts, you’re looking for a book rather than a quick video. Saul Carliner’s Training Basics is more focused on classroom training than elearning, but it has tons of nitty gritty details for beginners. William Horton’s e-Learning by Design is the other one I recommend, especially if you’re specifically focused on elearning and not the broader look at training.

  8. I’m curious about people’s thoughts on ‘messy’ training sessions. I’ve been training in the university sector for many years, and have spent a lot of time crafting searching in specific databases that will show my students the capabilities of that database. Now I’m wondering if these carefully curated searches are resulting in fairly shallow learning – when the students leave the lab, I suspect the vast majority of them fall back on old habits (eg google, or only using one set of search terms before quitting).

    What I’m considering is encouraging them to be more ‘free range’ in the class, doing what they would normally do, and then working with them to point out options that would improve their results. I want to encourage them to *think* about their searches, rather than just reflexively start typing when they see a search box.

    Does anyone have any thoughts/research on this?

    1. I think it’s hard to improve critical thinking skills without practicing some of that critical thinking. What if you provided some scaffolding at the beginning by practicing with one of your carefully curated searches, but then allowed something more “free range” that required more discernment? You could also do a bit of cognitive modeling by explaining the thought process for how you determine your searches. When the students do their own searches, you could have them narrate or document their thought process and how they responded to insufficient results. Maybe one student volunteer could do a search as they’d normally do it, then the class could suggest other alternatives. Students could work in pairs to help each other when they get stuck with a search. You could provide a list of search terms and the students could explain why those searches are ineffective and suggest better options.

      Think about it as a continuum from the most help you can provide (carefully curated searches where they copy exact steps) to the least help you can provide (students doing their own searches and only getting suggestions from you if they’re completely stuck). You can structure the activities so you gradually remove that support and they have to do more and more of the thinking themselves. Each step might be pretty quick; they might do a single search at each level, with diminishing support every time.

      Teaching good search skills is challenging, partly because people have so much to unlearn. We’re all used to doing a quick Google search, and for many casual searches that’s enough. Most people are pretty terrible at search though. If you want to break those bad habits, you need some messy practice where you can’t precisely predict the results.

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