5 Deadly Sins of Do-It-Yourself Online Instructional Design

When I first started in Instructional Design, the process was pretty top down: instructors gave the designer all of the content and they went to work in their secret bat caves to get it all ready to go online. That model worked for the time, but it took quite a while and instructors were often unable to help students with some issues simply because they were not part of the design process. As time went on, more control was given to instructors in the design phase and the role of instructional designer shifted from producer to guide or teacher. This gave rise to the Do-It-Yourself Designer/Instructor. In some places, this was always the case, but in other places this is becoming more of the norm. But as a trained ID, I see many flavors of DIY IDs committing the same basic design mistakes. Here are my top five – although this list could easily expand past these.

5) Jumping On The Band Wagon Because All The Cool Kids Are

I get it that something is all over the media and it looks fun and you want to try it. But if your first question is: “how can I use this in my class?” then you probably shouldn’t. If you read about some cool tool, website, or idea and don’t immediately get an “A-HA!” moment, chances are it just isn’t for you. Sure, you can try to force it in, but your students will probably see past that and get bored. Because that is where the sin is committed – forcing a cool idea into a class just because it is cool. Make sure you have a solid reason for using it. If you have an activity that you like and you examine all options and find that the cool idea ends up being a great solution, then great – go for it. Just make sure to have a good reason at all times. Experimentation is good – but also remember that the more you experiment with an idea, the further away you should keep that idea from the core of your course. Once you have worked out the kinks and bugs, then move it to being more of the core of your class.

4) Accessibility? Of Course My Students Can Log On. Why Do I Have To Care About Accessibility?

Did I forget to say that all of these are based on real life quotes? So, yeah – there are people out there that don’t get what accessibility is, much less how to design for it. Usually the biggest culprits are things like low font contrast, bright neon colors, no alt tags, no closed captioning, and other easy to fix issues. But a lot of these common issues seem to be rooted in a main source problem: bad graphic design. So here is where you start: if your course looks like it would fit in well with at a 1990’s retro-web museum display, you have probably broken a few accessibility issues on the way to being in trouble with the style police. Did you skip the alt tag box when inserting the cutesy spinning baby gif? Then there is probably no need for it in your class. Does your text move at all? Its not the 70s anymore and disco dancing letters haven’t really been that good of an idea since then. Does the color of your font match the most popular eye shadow colors all the valley girls were wearing in the 80s? Best to leave those colors in the past. And Blackboard headers? If you don’t know how to use modern fonts or how to design banners to blend with the background so that they don’t look like a cheap banner ad, then just step away from the computer. Especially if you want to use Papyrus font.

3) I Have Already Lecture-Captured An Entire Semester, So My Online Class Is Ready To Go.

I am sure that you are the greatest lecturer in the world. I am sure that your students have a blast listening to you in class. But that doesn’t mean it will translate well to lecture capture. The main issue is that you are not talking to the learner sitting at home watching you on a computer. You are talking to a room full of people – who will ask you questions, cause interruptions, fall asleep and cause you to roam off camera to subtlety “refocus” them, etc. Would you be able to sell your lecture capture as an audio book? Probably not – because it is not the right format. We know that students are more satisfied with learning when the instructor engages with them. In lecture capture, you are not engaging the distance learner – you are creating an artifact of you engaging the face-to-face learners. Think of it this way – if you get a video message from your parents, how would you like it if you open up the file and find it was actually a recording of your parents talking to your sibling, and your parents just say “well, we would say the same things to you, so this is good enough.” Create online videos for online learners.

2) These PowerPoints Worked Great In My Lecture, So They Will Be Awesome Online

PowerPoints. Oh, how I wish we would make these illegal online. Mainly because they are not online tools. PowerPoint is basically a program designed to keep people awake in boring presentations. It is not a good tool for communicating content to online students because it was not designed for conveying content. We have this tool for conveying content online called a web page. Most LMS tools have this neat little box where you can enter text and produce a web page faster than you can clean up your PowerPoint files. Oh what’s that? What do I mean by “cleaning up” PowerPoint files? Ummmmm…. well, see…. most PowerPoints tend to be long bullet point lists of short points that serve to remind you what to say next. They usually don’t make sense apart from the accompanying lecture because, well – they rarely contain complete thoughts. And for some reason, even the few complete thoughts that are present get a bullet point stuck in front of them. Ever wonder why your students don’t “get” the lesson when you just give them the PowerPoints from the lecture? It is because they are probably missing everything you share in between those bullet points. Make sure they get all of that – write a flowing narrative that reads like a normal book or article. Your students will thank you for it.

1) ID is Like Bread: Do You Want Stale Stuff From Last Year or Hot New Fresh Stuff?

We probably all remember getting an outdated textbook some point in school – the ones with references to “current” presidents that haven’t been in office for a few terms, or medical advice about sucking poison out of wounds, or blatant racist illustrations that makes everyone squirm. That has always been the problem with printing textbooks – they go out of date quickly. The same happens in online classes all the time – we get them designed, we release them, and then we take it easy for a few semesters. Or even years. The problem is, the world changes from semester to semester. Even from week to week or day to day. Something will go out of date in your course every time it is offered. Many people will spend more time writing update announcements than it would take to just fix the old information. But maybe you should just make it your goal to teach the class differently every time it is offered? Or maybe you should have an active course that relies more on student interaction than your museum content? This is where many so-called “disruptive” technologies get education wrong. They want to capture “good lectures” on video or capture “brilliant minds” in books and turn the course into a museum where you come to watch something that has been recycled for semesters on top of semesters. Some of the best classes I have ever taken as a student were taught by instructors that told us right from the beginning that they taught the course different every time.  Don’t want your students cheating off a roommate that took your course last year? Then make sure its not the same. Don’t want students selling old copies of your assignments? Make them new and fresh every time. Even if your content hasn’t changed, create a theme for the course. Have some fun and make it different every time. Make it more open ended and constructivist so that even you don’t know exactly how it will be taught each time. Move to a student-centered mindset and see how fun (or crazy) it gets. But most of all, don’t be stale.

3 thoughts on “5 Deadly Sins of Do-It-Yourself Online Instructional Design

  1. I don’t know Matt, what you’re suggesting sounds a bit like — dare I say it — work. You have plan for your audience and can’t coast on what you did before. On a more serious note, you’ve captured my frustration with many of the online learning courses that I’ve sampled. It’s one of the reasons I’m a bit gun shy when it comes to shelling out money for online courses. The consistent quality just is not there.

  2. I have had better consistency in quality from online education than from on-site education. But the only truly bad online class that I had was developed by a single instructor without the input of IDs.

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