Mentorship is a powerful teaching tool. As an instructional designer (ID), I’ve recognized that ideas from mentors and peers have been a catalyst for my professional growth. With this in mind, I created a session for DevLearn 2011 that would give session participants insights into the thought processes of skilled instructional designers.

The session title was “One Learning Challenge: Three Designers Put Their Skills to the Test.” Informally, I called it the Great ID Challenge.

Three of my colleagues agreed enthusiastically to participate in the session with me. The IDs were: Carol Ann Amico, Senior Manager, Instructional Systems Design, AICPA; Judy Unrein, Instructional Designer, Artisan E-Learning; and Amanda Warner, Freelance Instructional Designer. Each of these panelists brought unique theoretical approaches, inspirations, mentors, and experiences.

The challenge

Six weeks prior to DevLearn, I presented these instructional designers with a single learning challenge: to create an instructional design approach as if they would be pitching it to the client, and then to present that pitch in the DevLearn session. I had already designed and developed a course from this challenge for one of our clients, so session attendees were later able to see the completed course at DemoFest. I included my approach in this article.


The client, the Door Security & Safety Foundation, provides programs that enhance the safety and security of existing buildings. The Foundation had recently concluded that many fire door inspectors aren’t thoroughly inspecting fire-rated openings in commercial buildings due to limited understanding of complex fire door assemblies and the detailed inspection report form. Together with the Foundation, I determined the performance objectives, analyzed the target audience, and defined the design parameters. I presented this information to the panel.

Performance objectives

By the end of this course, learners must be able to:

  • Describe the high-level functionality of fire door assembly components
  • Read and understand an inspection report
  • Perform visual inspections and functional testing of basic-level fire door assemblies

Audience and assessment

The audience for this online course is largely male and has a good understanding of code requirements. Their age range is late 20s to 60s and they may have little or no prior eLearning experience. Job roles such as fire marshals, code enforcement officers, and insurance executives are the target groups. The client’s goal is to encourage the audience to willingly take the course, as it is not a requirement. As such, the client does not want the learners scored.


Ten weeks of development time is allowed, with a budget of $20,000. The client would like the course to be 45-60 minutes in duration, and highly interactive and engaging.

Approach 1: Carol Ann Amico

Carol Ann’s approach was first to brainstorm instructional strategies, and then to align those strategies to each of the performance objectives and develop a course outline. The course would begin with an introduction and pre-test. The learner would receive detailed feedback on incorrect pre-test responses. After this, the course would introduce the following scenario. (Figure 1)

Scenario: You enter a large office building. You approach the fire door and perform an inspection. As part of the inspection, you complete a form on the screen and click “Let Me Check” to see if you’ve identified all of the items in violation.

Figure 1. In the scenario, the fire door inspector identifies items in violation.

For each correct response, the learner receives a closed door, indicating that they’ve prevented the spread of fire. For each incorrect response, the learner receives an open door and a flame.

Navigation will be exploratory rather than linear. She’ll use 3-D images with zoom-in functionality to enhance realism, voice narration to support auditory learners, and various included “Help” options. On course completion, the learner can print a certificate and receive access to a PDF file of the top-10 deficiencies, tips, inspection steps, manuals, and images.

Approach 2: Judy Unrein

Judy began by researching the target audience. Because the course isn’t required, motivation is particularly important. One motivational strategy is to show photos of both sides of a compliant opening that had survived a ravaging fire. (Figure 2) This clearly illustrates the importance of a thoroughly inspected door in preventing the spread of fire throughout a building.


 Figure 2. In this version of the course, photos of the benefits of compliant openings provide motivation for the learner.


Another motivational strategy is a promotional campaign with the theme “The Fire Stops Here.” An advertisement video would introduce the theme and the campaign’s relatable cast of characters. (Figure 3)


Figure 3. A Flash-based advertisement is part of the promotional campaign.

Within the course, the learner would follow the characters through real-world inspection activities. (Figure 4) Included resources serve as aids throughout. (Figure 5)


Figure 4. The learner follows characters through real-world inspection activities.


Figure 5. Included resources serve as aids throughout the course.

Approach 3: Amanda Warner

Amanda proposed a performance-focused online course paired with a mobile-accessible performance aid. She suggested opening the course by having a fire captain – acting as mentor – introduce the user’s role and situational details. (Figure 6)


Figure 6. A mentor introduces the learner’s role and the details of the situation.

As part of the introduction, the mentor would introduce the challenge of inspecting three buildings. (Figure 7)

Figure 7. The mentor introduces the challenge: inspect three buildings.

Users would click each floor of each building for a closer view. They would identify and inspect all fire doors, and, mimicking on-the-job activities and thought processes, complete an inspection form for each. (Figure 8) Users can zoom in and out, open and close doors, and view both the front and back of each door. 


Figure 8. Learners identify and inspect all fire doors, completing an inspection form for each.

The amount of mentor support would decrease as the learner progresses through the course. In the first level, the mentor offers frequent feedback to help guide the learner. The second two levels would provide feedback only after the learner completes the inspection activities.

The designer would develop an HTML performance aid. (Figure 9) In addition to checklists, it would contain diagrams and photos of common inspection trouble areas.

Figure 9. Mobile performance aid


ID inspirations

The three IDs included in their presentations lists of resources they use for design and inspiration. Their lists are in the Great ID Challenge presentation slide deck.

My approach

My approach was to make the course as practice-based as possible to ensure transfer of proper inspection behaviors. I created an acronym to help the learner remember which components of the opening to inspect (F.I.E.L.D.: Frame, Inspect hardware, Edges, Label, Door).

When the scenario opens, the learner assumes the role of a fire inspector who has learned of a massive fire in town. (Figure 10) He has one opportunity to go back in time and prevent casualties by properly inspecting fire-rated openings in three buildings.


Figure 10. The scenario opens with the story of a huge fire disaster.

The rest of the course provides practice activities. The learner selects a building, and then inspects an opening by zooming in on different areas. (Figures 11, 12, and 13)


Figure 11. Within the scenario, the learner inspects areas within the buildings.

Figure 12. The inspection proceeds within the selected building.


Figure 13. The learner uses an on-screen inspection form to identify areas in violation.


The learner selects items on an inspection form that are in violation. The course provides guided feedback once the learner submits the form. The course includes five inspection activities, and the modular design allows for addition of other activities. The course also includes mobile-accessible resources.


All four designs have commonalities such as compelling story lines, practice-based activities, resources, and performance support solutions. What I find most inspiring is the individuality brought to each solution. The unique ideas shared in this challenge – a pre-test, a motivating campaign, varying levels of scaffolding, and an acronym for easy recall – demonstrate that other viewpoints can enhance instructional designs. The session was well received, and many conference participants came to see the completed course at DemoFest. An online community of practice, the Great ID Challenge, is in development to allow IDs to present their own challenges, receive input and ideas, and share resources.

Collectively, instructional designers have a broad knowledge base and a wide range of experiences. When we share our perspectives, and genuinely consider other ideas, the learner ultimately benefits.

[Editor’s Note: Tracy showed her course, “Fire Door Inspections: Understanding the Fire-Rated Opening,” at DemoFest during DevLearn 2011 in Las Vegas, and attendees voted it Best of Show: Non-Vendor.]