I got a call from a prospective client. She and I spoke briefly once when she was looking for a pool of instructional designers to call on for specific projects, but we haven’t worked together yet. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s never worked with any instructional designers before.
“Hi, Christy, it’s Lynn. I need some help finishing up an e-learning course. The PowerPoint slides just need to be tweaked—editing the onscreen text, adding some animation, prepping the script for voice over recording, and syncing everything together. Are you available?”
“Your timing is good, Lynn. I’m just wrapping up some other projects and have some time now. Tell me some more about this project.”
“It’s about 200 slides. Here, let me email them to you now so you can take a look. The content is basically finished, and it just needs some polish. Can you do that?”
“OK, I’m looking over the slides now.” Some parts of the presentation have good visuals, but large sections are text obviously copied word-for-word from the employee handbook. Often, the same text is in the voice over notes as on screen. The slides contain no practice activities or assessments. “Is this a face-to-face course that you want to convert to online?” I ask.
She responds, “Yes, this used to be taught in a classroom. It’s part of the new employee orientation. We have a lot of new employees coming in, and we don’t always have a trainer available. Frankly, some of the trainers are better than others. We want to make sure everyone has the same experience. I had the best trainer write the script out in the slide notes for the narration so it would be just like what he teaches in class.”
“Well, I could do proofreading and animation to just tweak the slides, but I’m not sure that would be really effective. I don’t know what your budget is, but I think this course could benefit from some actual analysis and instructional design.”
“What do you mean by ‘actual analysis and instructional design’?”
“As an instructional designer, I don’t usually do projects where I’m just brought on at the end to tweak slides. I’m typically brought on board shortly after a client decides, ‘We need a course!’ Starting right from the beginning, I work with you to analyze the need, design the instruction, develop the multimedia, and manage the project until launch. I do a kick-off call with you to find out your needs. We talk about what business problem we’re trying to solve; needing a course isn’t a true business problem, so I work to uncover WHY you decided you need a course. For example, for an orientation like this, I’d want to know what’s working and not working in your current orientation. What do people leave orientation and still have problems with? What questions keep coming up over and over to HR?”
Lynn replies, “There are tons of questions with the benefits plan. People just don’t understand it, even after they read the handbook. HR ends up spending a lot of time walking people through all the options.”
“If people don’t understand it right now from reading the handbook, do you think they’ll understand it any better by having someone read it to them?”
“Hmm. I guess not.”
“Right now, you would probably get about the same results from having your new employees read the handbook on their own and take a quiz afterward. The slides are basically a pretty version of your handbook. Reading the handbook and taking a quiz wouldn’t only be cheaper to develop; it would be faster for employees to complete. People read faster than they can listen to voice over, so they can consume the same amount of content in less time by reading the document rather than watching and listening to the same thing online.”
“I see your point. But we don’t really have the budget to do a course from scratch.”
“You know, you probably will spend more upfront to do analysis and develop a more effective course. However, the final orientation would probably be half its current length because it would be focused on what employees need on day one to get started. That means employees would spend less time in orientation and be ready to do real work faster. We could also focus on the problems you really need to solve. If we can reduce the number of questions and problems HR has to deal with, we can free them up to do other work. That can save your company money in the long run even though the initial costs are higher.”
“You know, I might be able to justify that. Cutting down the time for new employees to get up and running is a big deal right now, so if we can help with that, I might be able to find some more budget. I need to talk to HR some more to find out if they have any other issues with new employees. I really thought instructional designers just did a little multimedia work at the end of the process. I didn’t realize you did so much.”
“Instructional design is more about being a partner to help you solve problems than just making slides pretty. You asked me to be a handyman and touch up some peeling paint, but I’m really an architect who can design you a house that better meets your needs.”
“Let me work on the budget and get back to you in a few days so we can talk about scope, OK? I’m not sure I can get enough to do everything you’d usually design, but maybe we can get something to do more analysis.”
“Sound good. I’ll look forward to hearing from you soon.”
This conversation is fictionalized, but it’s based on several real experiences. How do you handle it when someone asks you to just “tweak the slides”? How do you shift the conversation from just being an order taker to doing real instructional design work?
Jane Hart is collecting her eighth annual list of top tools for learning. You can vote for your top tools until September 19, 2014. I haven’t done my list in a few years, but you can see my past lists from 2011, 2009, 2008, and 2007.
My list is divided into personal learning and course design/development.
Feedly is my RSS reader of choice since the demise of Google Reader. I read on my smartphone much more in the past, and Feedly’s mobile app fits in my workflow.
Diigo is my social bookmarking option. Diigo automatically generates my ID and e-Learning bookmarks posts. People are sometimes amazed at how quickly I can find resources for various topics; Diigo is what lets me put my hands on links from my library in a hurry.
LinkedIn, especially LinkedIn groups, is a source for many useful conversations and resources.
Google Search is one of the first places I go when I need to learn something specific or am researching courses and clients.
WordPress is my blog host. Even when I’m sporadic in posting, WordPress is a great tool for personal reflection. I appreciate the active community and constant improvements to the platform. My business website and portfolio were also built with WordPress.
Microsoft Word isn’t exactly the most glamorous tool here, but it is a tool I use regularly for design documents, storyboards, and other projects for clients.
Microsoft PowerPoint isn’t particularly exciting either, but it’s still a tool I use for storyboard, mockups, simple graphics, flowcharts, and more. Once in a while I actually use it for presentations too.
Moodle is the LMS used by several of my clients. Although my primary freelance work is designing courses, I do some LMS consulting as well. Almost all of that is helping clients use Moodle more effectively. The active community for this open source tool and the numerous free tutorials and resources are a huge benefit for me when I’m working in Moodle or Totara (a corporate version of Moodle).
Skype is one of my primary tools for keeping in touch with clients. If I have a question for them or they have one for me, a quick message on Skype can often keep a project moving. I use video calls and screen sharing regularly as well.
On one of my recent projects, I had a series of videos to intersperse throughout a course. I had an outline in the design document, but when I started actually developing it, I realized the structure wasn’t quite right. I was struggling a bit to figure out how to organize the pieces.
I ended up putting all the “chunks” of content into boxes on a PowerPoint slide and dragging and dropping until I was happy with it. The orange blocks are videos; the blue blocks are content pieces. The one white box was an optional piece I debated whether to cut. (Note that the specific content labels here are unlikely to make much sense, since I removed a number of identifying details for this post. Ignore the specific content and just think about the development process.)
This worked really well for me, and got me “un-stuck.” I could have done the same sort of organization with index cards, but PowerPoint was handy. It also has the advantage of being easily saved and edited at a later date. I suppose with index cards you could take a picture or just transcribe everything, but that seems like too much hassle to me. This was quick and dirty, but it got the job done. I have also found this technique useful when working remotely with SMEs. Bring up a PowerPoint slide in your web conferencing software and drag and drop live while you’re on the phone.
However, I know sometimes the tactile experience can be helpful. When I wrote the branching video at the end of the above plan, I ended up writing my first draft in a notebook instead of on the computer. I’m very comfortable composing at the keyboard, but sometimes for creative writing like that storyline, I still want that physical sensation of a pen in my hand. I know a local author who recently tried and then abandoned software for planning a novel. She has returned to organizing her work with sticky notes on a large storyboard. That tactile work is part of her process.
I’m curious what other instructional designers do to organize content. Do you just reorder the text in Word? Do you use something visual like PowerPoint or a mind map? Do you use something physical like index cards? Is there another method for this process that I haven’t thought of? Please take a few seconds and answer this one-question poll. (If you’re reading this in email or RSS, you may need to visit my site to answer the poll.) If you have another process, please share!