A little over a month ago a reader of one of the articles we published in the eLearning Guild (A Picture is Worth 1000 Words: Visual Design in e-Learning) had this to say:
“I believe the most difficult obstacle that I face as an Instructional Designer is knowing which tools are robust while still being relatively easy to use. Also, the fact that many organizations faced with tight budgets expect designers to also wear the development hat. I personally do not want to be a Flash Programmer - if I did that is the area I would have pursued. I am a fan of Captivate 3, but I have used it from the RoboDemo days, so I may be biased.
Any insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated.”
Her question peaked my interest in that it is asked by many instructional designers (ID) of themselves: “I enjoy instructional design, do I really need to know any programming or develop my technical skills?” Before we answer this question let us make an assumption which I believe rings true for many eLearning practitioners across the globe: elearning is a subset of LEARNING. As such it is not a branch education/training that is exclusive of all other modes of training and/or learning; it is simply learning enhanced and supported by technology in its many forms.
As an elearning practitioner it is inevitable that an ID understand technologies of the trade as these are the medium of that practice. If we want to explore the possibilities of technology enhanced learning we have to know what it is, what it does, and to some degree how it does it.
Here is what I suggest IDs approach technology in their practice relative to their comfort levels in technology.
At the very least learn “tech-speak”
Let us suppose that you, an ID, have a developer at your disposal who is proficient with the software tools used for creating online courses. Your “tech-speak” literacy level will determine how efficiently and clearly you get your requirements across. Take the time to learn about the products feature list and what they are best used for.
If you must wear many hats, you make sure they all fit!
If you are an ID with some technical skills choose software tools that are template-based. Why reinvent the wheel when you already have many to choose from?! There are many tools out there that are designed to be relatively simple to use and at a modest cost even for the most cost-conscious organization. Take advantage of the trial versions they offer to find out for yourself how friendly the tool really is. Template-based tools are great workaround solutions for the moderately technical who are looking for plugging in variables with minimal to no programming required.
For example Adobe Flash has pre-built learning interactions in its library that can be easily manipulated; for the most part the programming necessary is already pre-built and all you need to do is adjust variables and do some minor tweaking.
There is also Articulate and Raptivity both of which offer a variety of game and presentation shells that can easily be manipulated by the “not so technical” IDs among us. The only word of advice I have regarding these products is that you do your homework. Consider your audience first to determine if the templates you want to use are indeed appropriate for target audience. It’s a tedious process, but somebody’s got to do it.
Moreover, whether we like it or technologies have limitations; they can’t do everything we want them to. This is where you as a skilled ID must start thinking out of the box and find a workaround for the limitations of technology. This is how you make your money and your tools work for you, but this requires that you understand their limits and their strengths.
Not for the faint of heart…where even angels fear to tread
IDs who are also capable programmers (by this I mean individuals capable of a variety of scripting languages used for interactive media such as Actionscript, PHP, etc) are hard to come by. Such individuals have the practical advantage from both technical and instructional design point of view as they have full control over how they want the interaction to work and behave. The only word of caution I have is that tech-savvy IDs never lose sight of the learning that needs to take place and that technology is there to support it and not just an afterthought.
“Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”