A Quantum of Learning Design – ISD on the precipice of a crossroads

Here’s a question that’s exercising me right now: “For a given project, how do you determine if, when and how much an instructional designer and instructional design is needed?”

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the following scenario? A PowerPoint presentation and demonstration script for some end-user training on a certain process arrived in my inbox the other day. The content was created by one of our “rock star” Subject Matter Experts who has an unrivalled amount of domain expertise in the particular area under investigation, but has a rudimentary understanding of how to communicate their knowledge, not extending much beyond presenting at user conferences and assisting the Sales team in driving application demos, as well as a small amount of experience in using content authoring tools (mainly to support the above).

The demo script is a beautiful piece of work – a two-column table outlining the process being described on the left hand side, with a breakdown of the onscreen interactions and a voice-over narration script describing what’s happening onscreen on the right. In the VO script, the text also discusses why the process works the way it does, and includes references to the legislation underlying the process and links to where the user may find out more about the guidelines surrounding the process. The demo is about 25 minutes in duration.

The PowerPoint presentation is 93 slides in length, a mixture of bullet points, images and animations, with an average of three animated media elements per slide. The voice-over narration script provided with the PPT runs to about 200 words per slide – in all, nearly 150 minutes of content. Added to the 25-minute demo, it’s the best part of three hours of content, all to be delivered over the Web.

A request in the accompanying e-mail asks “By the way, can you make it so the user can jump into the appropriate part of the demo (if they wish) from the relevant slide in the PPT?”

From an instructional design perspective, this is the “precipice of the crossroads” as The Soprano’s Little Carmine Lupertazzi would say. Without access to instructional design expertise at some level, SMEs cannot transfer their knowledge effectively. Similarly, can we expect e-learning professionals to create high-quality courseware from the content and media assets that they are provided with if there is no instructional design to map the course?

By nature and practise, I am a strong advocate of Ted Cocheu’s Disintermediation in Learning principle. Like a lot of e-learning practitioners however, I am constrained by the realities of delivering courseware and all this entails, from delivery channel bandwidth considerations, through structuring the content according to certain pedagogical principles, to ensuring end-users / learners’ are tracked on an LMS.

I am suggesting that the formal role of “Instructional Designer” as we knew it a decade ago is becoming redundant. The ISD skillset is – except in certain cases – being subsumed into the skills possessed by most learning professionals. I would further assert we are moving towards a time where being an expert “in” ISD, or digital media, or EPSS development (or whatever), and working in a team to create courseware is being superseded by the learning professional acting more as a consultant, providing strategic and operational guidance to individuals who occasionally contribute to learning projects, but whose professional competence lies elsewhere.

The table below is an example of how this approach manifests itself, where the e-learning professional specifies all aspects of the course; I typically use this type of outline at the planning stage of courseware development. The key aspect of this model is that the learning practitioner needs to have a broad and deep understanding of all aspects of the courseware lifecycle.

Table 1 Typology of a course



Theoretical Framework

Social-Constructivist Model

High level ISD Process



Based on Blooms Taxonomy of Educational Objectives


Based on Gagné’s Conditions of Learning


Uses a multimedia mix of text, slides, images, animation, Flash and video demonstrations


The events are hosted as live Subject Matter Expert (SME)-led events, presented in the following format



Live audience participate in mentoring event

On-demand after live event

Synchronously streamed on the web

DVD-ROMs available to Knowledge Workers. Each DVD-ROM contains one series of 10±2 lessons

Having made such a statement (and before instructional designers sputter, outraged, into their beverage of choice), I must now temper it by saying that I believe the primary exception to what I have just outlined is the COTS courseware industry, which will continue to produce content according to the proven production model that has worked so effectively for the creation of generic training content for the last 20 years or so.

Returning to my SME and his demo and PPT – I worked with him to develop an appropriate instructional design that met the end-users’ needs, without doing a ‘rip and replace’ on the hard work he had already put in to developing the content.

We didn’t need an instructional designer.

But someone had to know about instructional design.