• Theories and Models in the Real World

    In as many job descriptions for instructional designers I have come across, one thing was common; thorough knowledge of learning theories. But more and more instructional designers can’t apply these to the elearning courses they create today. Why? What goes wrong in the transition from theories and models to practice that is so hard to implement? Here are some some reasons that ring true given the modern elearning industry scenario.

    1. Client is boss

    That’s the basic rule today. Most companies rarely are concerned about training. They find ways to utilize the training budget and are happy with any solution at hand. Secondly, they are not aware of the intricacies involved in the putting ID models or ISD model into practice. Some of them agree to what ‘looks good’ on screen. But what looks good may not be the effective or absolute solution.

    Thirdly, all specifications come from the client with no learner and ID in the picture, which nullifies the very first and basic step of the ISD, the Analysis of ADDIE.

    2. Sales pitch is not made by IDs (of course)

    Clients are approached by a company’s sales team who may set unrealistic standards with respect to what is instructionally possible in a given time frame for a particular budget. There is a whole set of factors that are to be considered here. Do we know the audience/learners? Whether we have the right people for this task? Can we finish this in the given time frame? Can we deliver the best possible solution for the given budget? Often these questions are ignored because the focus is only on bagging projects.

    3. Planning issues and Time constraints

    IDs mostly fail to implement theories/models mostly due to impractical project plan timelines. Analysis and design phase are shrunk to a much shorter time frame which is usually an impediment when one tries to incorporate instructional methodologies to produce the most instructionally sound training course.  This is one area project managers should improvise and come up with viable solutions to provide IDs with more time initially than going back and correcting mistakes at the later stages of the projects.

    4. AGILE and ADDIE

    More and more IDs are now working with the technology teams and most companies may not have an entire team of instructional designers for their projects but on contract/ad hoc appointments. Sometimes it is difficult to be able to match the timing and be able to do justice to the methodologies of ISD.

    http://thefourthplane.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/theory-vs-practice.jpgThe FLIP Side

    There is also a flip side to why most ID theories are not implemented in practice. All projects are unique, all solutions are unique. There may be times when the whole process may not be applicable to one but may prove indispensable for another. For example, for many small companies who are building their clientele, clients do not come back and request an evaluation of the effectiveness of the training. Some trainings may just not require evaluation, specially those that only disseminate information and are not directed towards changing behavior.

    Another scenario which most companies may have faced at the advent of mlearning is re-purposing WBTs, particularly developed in flash to HTML. This kind of a project may not require analysis and evaluation because it has already been done before.

    Thirdly, the change and constant improvisation of technology may give the liberty to IDs to go a notch ahead of the ISD guidelines. So why stick to something redundant when you can create something better.

    And fourthly, and this is something I always answer when posed with the practicality of theories and models is that, they are models, that’s exactly what they are. They are a skeletal base not a foolproof solution. They may work sometimes, and sometimes may not. The essence is in understanding that we can’t go applying something somewhere, when it’s clearly not applicable.

  • Instructional Design: Where it all began…

    Never does anything good come out of wars. It would be ironic yet not far from truth to say otherwise about World War II. Amidst all the killing and bombings of WWII, the only good thing that came about was the shaping of the concept now commonly known as Instructional System Design or ISD as we know it today.

    The inordinate loss of life and property and the relentless need for personnel at war during World War II led many civilians to war fronts as a desperate measure by countries like US. These civilians needed elementary training to help them perform technical tasks. These included basic infantry, carbine field stripping, navigation, etc. which depended on the division and role. Since behaviourism influences the learner to a great extent, most of these training programs were based on operant conditioning which postulates that behaviour can be modified by its consequence, which could be positive or negative hence altering behaviour.



    Also known as Instrumental conditioning, this learning methodology was first studied by neurophysiologist Jerzy Konorski (1903-1973) but was later propagated by behaviourist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) to whom we will dedicate more than a few articles (he is well deserving of that).

    Coming back to military training, promotion to a higher rank (positive reinforcer) for strategically managing the division is operant conditioning through positive outcome and increase in the hours of guard duty (negative reinforcer) for disregard for rules is operant conditioning by negative outcome. Who could exemplify it better than the military?

    Why this is so important an event in the evolution of ISD is because it was the first time chunking and the use of learning objects to acquire a particular behavioural competency was implemented. This concept of measurable learning objectives formed the basis of many learning theories and models that would be propounded in the near future.

    This team led by Dr. Benjamin Bloom in 1956 defined the three learning domains (Cognitive, Psychomotor, and Affective) and representing their levels through a vocabulary of measurable and quantifiable verbs. The Cognitive domain was later revised in the 1990’s.

    Thereafter, Robert Mager asserted on the importance of objectives and defined the constituents of a quality objective, opining that objectives should be clear and attainable for the learner. Robert Gagne propounded the nine events of learning which actually touched on all the stages in a teaching process.

    And later can David Merrill with his Component Display Theory in which he explained that the instructional strategies highly depend on the nature of the content being taught. It was a two dimensional model of content and performance and defined primary and secondary presentations forms and the higher the number of primary and secondary presentations forms used, the more effective the instruction. Simply put, though it addressed the cognitive domain which in itself is a complicated domain involving different types of memory responding to different instructional strategy, it lays more emphasis on presentation and that’s why is deemed as the Bible of ID by many instructional designers.

    And that brings us to the web based instruction which we know as elearning today. The coming up of authoring tools and the limitless options that come with it, sky is the limit.


  • Graphics in eLearning

    Researchers have time and again been involved in studies that identify patterns on learning in various groups of people. Whether it’s a group of children or adult learners, one explanation holds true for all. It has been observed that learners understand better when instruction is presented in the form of text and images compared to text alone.  An even better concoction is less text accompanied with elaborate narration and graphics. Let’s take a look at the diagram below:

    Hydrologic Cycle

    Hydrologic Cycle


    This graphical representation alone will be easier for students to understand how precipitation takes place and will be retained for a longer duration than a two-page write-up on the hydrologic cycle which will most probably be forgotten the very next day.

    The main principle of conveying a concept, principle or procedure through visual representation is that the learner may not experience cognitive load which may defeat the goal of instruction altogether. Use of graphics is not enough; a visual representation should be effective and fulfill the objectives by being logically and aesthetically sound for any e-learning course content. Astonishingly, many instructional designers falter in this area. The choice of multimedia will largely depend on the learner group characteristics, the complexity of content, and the goal of instruction.

    Here is a list of simple points that instructional designers should keep in mind while working with graphic developers.

    1. Choosing an image or graphical representation also depends on the role or function the graphic is going to play in a course and the level of importance that graphic play in aiding text to enhance retention. For example, an image may just be used for aesthetic purpose only and may not contribute much to the content. Other functions of graphics may be as follows:

    • Depiction of something, illustration of how an object might look in real life
    • Show relationship between two objects or show workflows; e.g., flowcharts
    • Showing change in an object, structure or person over time.
    • Illustrate a cause and effect relation; i.e. depiction of a principle like demand and supply

    2. Learner’s characteristics and age group is a major factor of consideration while choosing/creating appropriate graphics.  For e.g., a course for 20-25 yrs sales reps in the automobile sector can use a lot of bright colors and trendier design than that produced for a more mature audience.

    3. Type of content is yet another importance deciding factor. Graphics are mainly used to communicate something to the learner. If a graphic representation does not complement the text with it, it may be futile to use it in the first place. For e.g., entirely different sets of graphics will be used to teach processes (flowcharts/workflows) and causal relationship (graphs).

    4. While communicating complex learning objects, the simplicity of graphics should also be kept in mind. For example, a difficult and lengthy procedure can be shown with the help of numbered image for each step which will help the learner to understand them in sequence and also what needs to be done at each step.

    There are many more technical aspects to creation and application of graphics when considered from a developer’s point of view. We hope to cover those in another article. The mentioned points should be used as checkboxes to see whether each of these areas have been given enough though before involving resources and getting into production.


  • Design Estimation

    One of the major problems that baffle project managers/planners in the present day e-learning scenario is that of estimating time and resource effort in developing e-learning courseware. Though estimation techniques may vary depending on the type of training being produced (ILT, CBT or WBT), the basic objective is to precisely calculate the time needed in designing courseware and appropriately dividing this time between the design and development phases without compromising on quality. However, there is always room for uncertainty. An estimate will never be accurate else it wouldn’t be an estimate.

    Nowadays companies devise their personal estimation ratios for ease. For example, according to Langevin Leaning Services follow 25-60 to 1 ratio when designing ILT, i.e. 25-60 days of effort and time required for designing a one-day instruction; and 75-500 to 1 ratio for a one hour WBT/CBT tutorial, i.e. 75-500 hours of design time for a 1 hour course. However, these ratios cannot be generally applied to all courses.


    Estimation may depend on various factors mentioned as under:

    Scope of technical complexity in a project

    It is important to ascertain whether making a course technically advanced within the financial scope of the project. It is advisable to discuss these points during project kick-offs. There may be times when as a vender, an e-learning firm may want to deliver a course with a number of animations but what actually a client may want is plain instruction with minimal interactivity. This is an important aspect, because the more the complexity in the course, more time and resources (ids and developers) will be required for a company to be able to deliver quality product in time.

    Need for documentation and learner base analysis (if required)

    Some clients leave it to the designers to ascertain what kind of instruction will best suit their employees/learners. To minimize error in such a situation, a lot of analysis and documentation is required on the part of the vender firm and hence requires additional time and effort.

    Type and complexity of content

    Instructional designers are not required to be domain experts, therefore it is mandatory for them to first go through raw content, understand it and then chunk it into logical learning objects. The time required to go this will vary according to the content being dealt with. For example, the treatment of a simple course on spreading awareness about a new company policy among the employees will be way different from a medically heavy course no diabetes meant for medical representatives.

    Availability of resources

    Two resources can finish a project in half the time compared with the efforts of only one resource. Further, the estimation of effort and time for those two resources may also vary.

    Design requirements

    It is important to determine the treatment of a course first. There may be content that can be best explained via an animation or without a simulation the course may not be able to fulfill its objective.


    All these factors not only hold true for the instructional design team but also for other teams involved in courseware production. Estimates should always be made for small tasks in a phase and then all should be clubbed up. This compilation from various departments gives a much clearer picture of how much time a project is going to be completed in. Lastly, it’s important to take the human factor into consideration and understand that no two resources will yield the same work in the same time and even their efforts are bound to vary.

  • Constructing Knowledge in E-learning

    Constructivism is an age old concept of pedagogy but constructivist learning has recently been defined, studied and implemented in the field of learning. No two learners are exactly the same. Each learner is different, with different orientations and different way of interpreting his/her environment. This difference plays a major role in their learning process. Two people may observe a situation, may have very different perspectives, interpret it in different ways and imbibe completely different learning. This exactly what constructivism is. People build knowledge on their past experiences and these experiences can be varied. Therefore, it is learner centric and we wouldn’t be wrong if we say that it’s very much a concept of andragogy.

    Learning process is constant and constructivism is a learning theory that helps the learner develop practical skills. One of the most common area where the constructivist learning theory is implemented is management science. All concepts in management are:

    • taught holistically and not in smaller chunks
    • taught in relation to other concepts
    • case based study material helping learners develop the problem solving ability
    • have multiple solutions to a problem so through the process learners encounter new knowledge and new solutions
    • have team based learning activities; so learners are a part of a bigger group

    All these characteristics also define the theory of constructivism. Management students are also expected to go research or write a dissertation on any chosen topic. This task integrates all the past learning and hence is a good assessment of their skills.


    Constructivism and ID

    All the characteristics of the constructivist learning approach make it the most effective teaching learning theory. However, it has limited applicability in the present e-learning instructional design scenario. Modern day instruction is designed keeping the learner at the core. Mostly courseware is self-paced and interactive but they lack instructor inputs as is one of the characteristics in constructivism. Secondly, since we are talking about construction of knowledge and problem solving practical skills, it is very difficult to assess through close ended questionnaires. Thirdly, customizing content for each learner according to their learning styles also poses a problem in implementing this learning theory in e-learning.

    The best way to apply the constructivist learning theory in e-learning courses is through blended learning. The assessment of knowledge gained from the training course can be assessment by a combination of self paced assessments and instructor led/team discussions. This will also serve the purpose of reinforcing learning objects and will help the learners create new knowledge by sharing in the experiences of fellow learners or the instructor and will retain this created knowledge for a longer duration.

    Since constructivism heavily relies on reflection of experiences for creating knowledge, it can be helpful to provide learners with open ended job aid handouts for further reading and reflection. Lastly, a case based approach where learners are given a feel of a real world situation and asked to come up with solutions would be an ideal assessment.

    Assessment of learners on an LMS when using these methods is next to impossible reason being difficulty in customization of content. Such assessments will always lack objectivity hence the involvement of a facilitator is mandatory.

    Though, constructivism is only a few decades old, it is already the subject of great research potential in educational psychology. It has already been applied in schools and colleges that have discarded the old lecture (one-way) method and adopted a more interactive (two-way) approach towards teaching. Therefore it is only a matter of time when this learning theory will be applicable in elearning with extraordinary results.


  • Navigation Aids for eLearning

    In the modern corporate scenario, many companies are deploying online training courses for their employees to enhance their skill set. When it comes to corporate giants, it is almost impossible to customize e-learning courses keeping each employee in mind. The learner base may involve a range of employees, from first-time users to veterans. Therefore, it is important to design courses that answer all possible queries the learner might have about going about a course.

    No matter how instructionally and aesthetically well designed a course is; giving too many navigation instructions would only make the users feel intimidated. Some may even opt out of actually going through the course at all. However, giving no instructions for the user to go about the course and explore other information like the menu, job aids or glossary section isn’t a solution to that. In elearning, it’s hard to predict who will view the course and how comfortable they would be while viewing one. Therefore, navigational instructions should be such that they provide the necessary information precisely and yet be user friendly.

    Studies show that there is higher user satisfaction when navigational instructions/aids are available. A very basic solution is to lay out the course in a linear format, where there user has click on the next button to proceed further. This however, hampers the interactivity and gives the learner less control i.e. he may not be able to return to a topic he thinks he will need to revise. Therefore navigation aids are depicted and not written out, i.e. they are graphical representations. For example,

    Arrows1. Use of a forward and back arrow to show direction of content. Likewise, using play button to prompt the user to play a video, instead of cluttering the page with the instruction to click on the play button to view the video.



    menu_icon2. Using a list icon for showing the menu. This is a very important tab as it gives the learner an overview of the course structure and the ability to return to a topic for revision in case the learner feels so. Area indicators or breadcrumbs are also applied to this pop up i.e. it color of the visited topics should change indicating the learners progress through the course.


    A few pointers to be kept in mind while employing navigation aids are as follows:

    • If buttons are being used, they should be clearly labeled. If signs are used on them, they should not be ambiguous.
    • Contrast is an important factor; navigation aids should be clearly visible.
    • Complimentary colors should be used to highlight button functionality.
    • Placement and use of navigation controls should be consistently throughout all page types in a course.
    • All navigation aids in the course should be tested before it is launched to see whether they are appropriately programmed/linked to the pages they point to and any glitches should be rectified.

    Some instructional designers prefer a mix of textual and graphical representation of navigation aids. This is a good approach as it is a mid-way solution. However, one should be cognizant of the verbiage and that it doesn’t make the pages cluttery with unwanted or redundant information plonked on them. After all, ease of use is inextricably linked with the user/learner satisfaction gained from a well laid out elearning course.

  • Instruction Design Theories

    Every field or science, when conceptualized, builds on the models and theories dedicated to that particular field. General extrapolations are merely documented for the first time by the means of theories (or models). Theories (and models) can be referred to as general guidelines that aid in solving problems occurring in a particular field. They try to provide a holistic view of a situation so that a convoluted problem can be broken down and each aspect can be analyzed in isolation to reach to a summative logical conclusion with cause and effect relationships taken into consideration.

    However, one-size-fits-all is never the case with areas where human intervention is inevitable and so is also the case with instructional design. The discussed theories are merely general predictors and are susceptible to modification any time. All theories that will be discussed have the same underlying perception though, that pedagogy is all in one; the art, craft and science of teaching. Its success heavily depends on how well content is presented, to ensure maximum comprehension and retention.

    We will discuss the relevant theories that led to the shaping up of instructional design in this article and some significant and most commonly applied models in the next.

    1. Behaviourism

    It all began with Pavlov’s experiment of classical conditioning. This Russian psychologist performed an experiment on a dog by conditioning it to an external stimulus, the bell, which was always followed by the dog’s food which inturn caused the dog to salivate. This happened a few times and the conditioning was deemed complete when the dog salivated at the sound of the bell alone.

    The Dog and the Bell

    Other researchers like Thorndike (1874-1949) and Watson (1878-1958) also began conditioning experiments studying animal behavior and Watson then took it to the next level by experimenting with conditioning of human behavior.

    It was BF Skinner (1904-1990) who devised a theory that dealt with the changes in observable behavior. He stressed on voluntary behavior than mere conditioned reflexes and he called it operant conditioning. For example, a reward for exceptional performance at work will reinforce hard work for the same outcome by the employee; the fear of punishment will refrain an employee from committing an ethical or illegal task in his company.

    2. Cognitivism

    Cognitivist learning theories were a development on the behaviourism school of thought. It ruled out the very basic postulate of behavioural theories that humans can be conditioned in any desired way, not taking into account the processes that go on in the human mind. It opined that humans are rational and have a considerable part to play in when learning takes place. It stressed on mental processes like the problem solving ability, emotions and natural reflexes should also be taken into consideration. The best way to differentiate between the two schools is that behaviourism considers external behaviour and cognitivism considers internal processes.

    Cognitivism took over behaviourism gradually from the 1950s to 1970s. The influence of cognitivism on instructional design is quite evident because of due importance given to clearly chunking content for better comprehension, and extensive use of graphics and mnemonics.

    Some noteworthy theories of cognitivism are:

    • David Merrill (1983): the Component Display Theory
    • Reigeluth (1983): Elaboration Theory
    • Gagne, Briggs and Wagner (1988): Events of instruction

    3. Constructivism

    Each learner is unique and that’s exactly what constructivists say. Learners construct new knowledge on the facts already known to them. Therefore, where behaviourism and cognitivism are objective and can predict the outcome (behaviourally or cognitively) of instruction to a certain extent, the same may not be true for constructivism. How the outcome will be depends on the learner themselves, their past experiences and past knowledge. It is rather open-ended and each outcome is unique in nature. It is often argued that constructivism is a learning theory and not a theory of instruction.


    Constructivists stress that a set predictor of instruction (like the previous thought schools) and how learning should take place will bind the learner to specific notions and will restrict him/her to think out-of-the-box to create new knowledge.