When Instructional Design Theory Meets Reality


I ran into a very interesting set of personal case studies in Course Development – one I am currently working on and one that I developed several years back. Both courses were of similar content. They covered entry-level content for new users of our software.

The Courses and Their Development Style

I based the one I developed several years ago on sound instructional design – it is an eLearning course containing scenarios, simulations, and a workbook that interacts with the course. There are also assessments throughout the course.

I designed the current course as a game, in which the learner works through different challenges and earns letters throughout the course. The final assessment was that they could unscramble the letters to create a word that represents the module. Once the learner goes through the modules, the final assessment is for them to enter all the words to create a sentence.

The problem…both concepts missed the mark when we tested them in real environments.

So, how come courses based on the theories we all discuss and strive to meet did not accomplish what we designed it to do?

Understanding Your Learner and Meeting their Needs

The reason is simple – they did not meet the needs of the learner. The learner, in this case, is bankers using our software. In the first example, the customers did not like all the character development and fluff we used to build the scenarios. There was also a lot of content. We chunked the course content as we were supposed to do. However, rather than creating small, independent modules, it was a large course, that took about two hours for the learner to complete.

Gamification and Chunking Elements we Tested

With the newer course, we were testing a few things.  We wanted to know how well the gaming concept worked for our content. Typically, we have a lot of recorded audio in our courses. This time, we wanted to know if we could create content with a minimal amount of recorded audio. The newer course was not even completed and we tested it with some learners.

In the more current course, we learned the first lesson – chunk content into small, digestible segments. The first two modules took about 15-20 minutes in total to complete. However, the concept of a game did not go over the way we expected. The problem is that the customer still wants to get in to the content and get out of it. The game distracted from the challenges presented by the course. When we got to the end of the module, the test learners failed the assessment because they had trouble unscrambling the letters they gathered through completing the challenges presented in the course.

There was an interesting result, however. In both courses, they learned what was expected. When we presented them with the live version of the software and asked them to complete some similar tasks, they were able to complete the tasks.

The Resulting Changes

So, based on the results of these tests, we decided to remove the game…even though the current trends say to include games as part of the design. In the end, we decided on challenges and just a standard quiz with a few key questions based on the content from each module.

Lesson Learned

So, the lesson here seems straight-forward. During your analysis phase of design, make sure you understand your audience. This is just as important as understanding your content. The right content without understanding your audience will miss the mark just as much as if the content was incorrect.

Have you had any experiences with content when you did not fully understand the audience’s needs?


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