Instructional design is a deep, respected practice that is rich in history, theory, and research-based methodologies, yet it holds a significant amount of grey area and is complicated enough to result in a lot of misinterpretation. It is not an easy discipline and requires research and evaluation on a regular basis.
There can be more that one successful or "best" approach to design for any given project. There are necessary pieces for learning, and there's nice-to-have pieces. Flashier does not necessarily mean better, and simple does not always mean boring. But learner engagement is paramount and modern attention spans are a battle. There are many factors to consider with each new project: complexity, audience, budget, expectations, safety, accessibility, and so much more.
What is clear and easy to understand is that projects benefit from a well thought-out instructional design vision and approach, and that often the exact methodology and training tools depend on a number of things. Because design requires a lot of analysis and planning, it can start off as a slow process with not much to show at first. It can even send you in reverse sometimes when a direction needs to be re-evaluated and that can "look" inefficient but tends to save you in the end by avoiding too much re-work or effort to maintain.
But the larger the project the more difficult it can be to get buy-in from everyone you need it from and ensure the whole team understands why it is important—a slow pace or pauses in workflow can be hard to accept. More than that, though, it requires resources from many different backgrounds to see the vision through, and when you need many resources you cannot guarantee they will all have a background in instructional design. In fact, you can all but guarantee they won't.
So, how do we get there? How do we get large teams to see a vision through and understand enough of the purpose behind the approach to motivate them to be—just like we want the end students to be—engaged in the whole process?
In my decade-long experience on projects of varying and increasing size, there are the key components I think you need to invest in helping your teams and management understand. And here they are:
- Significance of learning objectives, and in particular the importance of action verbs and how they apply to your project. Correctly worded and effectively chosen objectives can stand on their own to help others identify the expectations in terms of level of interaction and media type, appropriate assessments, level of detail, and breakdown of content. The difference between a learner being able to describe versus perform a task requires significantly different approaches, and if your content and media developers understand your expectations and the meaning behind the choice of action verb, they will more effectively be able to realize your vision.
- Learning audience, including existing knowledge, background(s), and even personalities, can impact decisions such as instructor-led versus self-paced, where you need to start, the pace you need to set, and the specific information you need to provide on any given subject. If those working on content do not understand your learning audience, you run the risk of dangerously over or under estimating how much information and assistance needs to be provided. The potential for going over budget, or perhaps worse producing a product that fails to teach, increases when the people doing the work do not know and remember well the target audience.
- Concepts of cognitive load and scaffolding. I'm not suggesting you need to have people sift through theory papers and spend weeks learning about these concepts but your whole team understanding that unnecessary razzle dazzle, a ton of secondary information, and teaching too much at once or too quickly, can have a negative impact on memory. Motivation will serve you well. It will mean having built-in checkpoints where any of the people involved in the process of developing each lesson can identify when it may be too much. At minimum this should include content developers and multimedia teams, but the people making decisions and reviewing courseware need to understand it, too.
- Instructional design is not always linear. Sometimes you start down a path that needs to be corrected if new insights come to light, such as new information about your audience or a new learning objective that requires a different approach. ADDIE itself was not built to be linear. Evaluation can be both the final and first stage, or even somewhere in the middle. Teams need to understand this from the beginning so it is not a surprise if processes, standards, or approach change...and change again. This should not be anyone's excuse to change as often as they want carte blanche (which can hurt team dynamics), but helping people recognize that sometimes it really does need to happen will be beneficial.
Finally, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to programs, courses, or even individual lessons. This one in particular is important for management to understand, and understand early. Sure, there needs to be templates and standards but lessons cannot be built on an assembly line. They need oversight and insight, and to be seen through by the same person or team. It takes many months (with good feedback loops and exposure to different training scenarios) to learn how to write good lessons, request appropriate media, and create effective assessments with all the complicating factors—all the grey area—of instructional design in mind. Schedules matter, but building a team that really is prepared and capable of getting it right the first time takes time and effort that needs to be considered before the schedule is even built.