Style vs. Substance in Instructional Design

I’m pretty sure that if you care about actual learning, you have run in to the same problem I have: going to check out the latest award-winning course, program, idea, etc and then coming to the inevitable conclusion that it is pretty much junk.  Some educational awards and accolades do go to great projects… but it seems so many times the attention goes to the slickest, shiniest object in the room and  not necessarily the best.

Clark Quinn has a great blog post about his experiences in this area, which also examines the difficulty in teaching others the difference between what has true quality and what is really just whitewashing a dead, boring lesson to make it look (as we say in Texas) purty.

Sometimes it feels like people think that a good online course only involves the following steps:

  1. Take your lecture notes and edit them well to make them flow beautifully when read
  2. Transfer these edited notes to html and break it all up into decent sized chunks
  3. Slap on a discussion question and a multiple choice quiz at the end
  4. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Never mind that all these skills (editing, copy/paste, chunking, pushing buttons on a website to create things) are all things that your average high school-er can do – this is now considered high level ed tech pedagogy, right?

Um… yeah….

I wish I was only describing some neophyte professor just creating their first online course, but sadly this list pretty much describes what I have seen labeled as “high quality” instructional design by many people with graduate degrees in this stuff.  I have even heard it labeled “active learning.” (!) (?)

I guess since the student does have to read and respond to discussion posts… that counts as active?  I guess as long as they don’t fall asleep….

Now, I realize that the format listed above can work in some situations, especially if a lot of thought is put in to it. But what usually happens is that it is treated like an online course design template used for every course with components rapidly plugged in. Which in some cases might not even be bad – just not the best option that exists out there.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

2 thoughts on “Style vs. Substance in Instructional Design

  1. I’m not going to argue with the general conclusion, “Text –> Discussion –> Quiz format online lessons tend to be bad”, but, as this is the second post I’ve read today critiquing typical practices in online course design I thought I’d point out a couple, admittedly meager, counterpoints:

    1. Most online lessons of this nature are built by faculty who teach f2f the same way, so is the conversion really the source of the problem? Alternatives are too often rejected by faculty unfamiliar with technology or unwilling to expend the extra effort to maintain communication via the tools.

    2. Most “instructional design” shops that crank these out do so because they have to, well, crank them out. Alternatives tend to be more costly to plan and produce.

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