As learning leaders, it’s important to understand how learning happens. That means having a strong grasp of concepts in instructional design, regardless of whether or not this is part of your daily work.
Julie Dirksen, author of Design for How People Learn, is a learning strategy consultant and instructional designer with more than 15 years of experience creating highly interactive e-learning experiences for a wide range of clients. Her work is focused on helping others have a better understanding of effective instructional design as well as the science behind behavior changes and how they can improve learning.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa talks with Julie about the primary responsibilities of instructional design, the various gaps that exist for learning, and what she sees as the biggest game changer on the horizon related to the design of learning.
Note: Julie Dirksen has returned to the Leading Learning Podcast since this interview aired. Be sure to check out her more recent episode, “Design Learning for Behavior Change with Julie Dirksen.”
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Read the Show Notes
[00:20] – Thank you to Castle, the sponsor of the Leading Learning podcast for the second quarter of 2017. Castle is an accomplished full-service certification and licensure testing company that also offers its clients a variety of learning solutions capabilities. With an expert team of testing and instructional design professionals and a thirty year history of excellence in it’s field, Castle understands what it takes to develop and deliver quality learning and certification programs.
[01:09] – The recordings from our recent Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) virtual conference (held March 1–3, 2017), are available through the end of May, and you can purchase access through May 15. We created LTD specifically for professionals in the business of continuing education and professional development and you can get access to all of the great content delivered at the live online event. Find out more at ltd.leadinglearning.com.
[02:12] –A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Celisa interviews learning strategy consultant and instructional design expert, Julie Dirksen.
[03:38] – Introduction to Julie and some information about her work and background.
Julie describes herself as “format agnostic” saying she helps with instructional design in all different formats and mediums. Her work the past few years is focused on two areas:
- Trying to help other people understand how to do instructional design well.
- Trying to better understand the science of behavior change and trying to figure out how to bring that back into learning and development efforts.
How Instructional Designers Add Value
[07:31] – You’ve asserted that “one of the primary responsibilities of instructional design is the ruthless management of cognitive load.” Would you unpack that statement and explain what you mean by it?
Julie explains that one of the challenges for instructional designers is that everybody thinks they know what good learning looks like but the magic of what makes something good is harder to come up with than people realize. Instructional designers add value in the following areas:
- Helping people understand the problem and making sure they are solving the right problem.
- Helping subject matter experts (SME’s) to better share knowledge in a way that isn’t overwhelming for a learner. Julie recommends asking the SME to think back to what it was like for them when they were first learning about that subject to help remind them of what it was like before they became an expert so they can better relate to the learner.
Making the Learning Experience as Effective as Possible
[13:14] – What other advice would you offer to folks working with SME’s to develop learning that might help them with the process so the learning experience be as effective as possible?
Julie says that a lot of it starts at the beginning with being able to define what it is they want people to learn.
Regarding learning objectives, the two questions she usually asks to evaluate them are:
- Can you tell if they’ve done it?
- Could it happen in the real world?
Making learning objectives actually more focused on the task learners are going to perform has a remarkable effect on clarifying what the learning experience should be. The other way she describes this is as the “smart phone test” – if you took a photo or a video of them doing it, what would it look like? Julie adds that when the focus of the instructional design effort is professional training the learners typically already have strong knowledge in the content area. So, they are more likely to know “what it will look like.”
Types of Learning Gaps
[17:46] – You use the learning-as-journey metaphor in your book and talk about the gap between where learners are and where they need to be. What are the kinds of gaps that might exist for learning to address and what might the implication be for learning?
Julie talks about the different types of gaps that might exist, including:
- Information/knowledge gaps – somebody doesn’t have the knowledge they need but once they do, they are fine.
- Procedural gaps – something where there’s a pretty explicit, well-defined rule set for what the task is.
- Skills – start by asking, “Is it reasonable to think that somebody could be proficient without practice?” – If the answer is no, it’s probably a skill. Within skills, Julie usually asks the following questions:
- What level of proficiency do people need to get to do the right thing automatically?
- Is it a skill they use frequently or infrequently?
- Is it something that people learn explicitly or tacitly?
- Variability of outcomes – If there’s a high degree of variability of outcome in what a right answer could be or look like, that points to the idea that you need to look at a lot of case examples.
- Motivation issues – The learner knows what to do but they’re still not doing it.
- Habit development – Even when all of the above gaps aren’t an issue, if it’s not a habit, it still won’t happen. When dealing with habits, you’re either turning something into an automatic behavior or undoing an automatic behavior (both of which are challenging to do). There is some good research coming out about habit development, particularly in the U.K. (Ben Gardner). The term habit is usually defined as an automatic or near-automatic behavior that happens in response to a stimulus in the environment.
- Environmental gaps – the idea that sometimes it’s easier to fix the environment than it is to fix the person.
How the Learning Design Landscape is Evolving
[33:20] – In the time you’ve been working in the design of learning, what changes have you seen in the last decade or so?
Julie admits that in some ways she feels like we haven’t seen enough changes. One of the big challenges she sees (in any kind of learning endeavor) is getting effective feedback on what’s working and what’s not working. She makes the point that a lot of instructional technology/e-learning doesn’t look that different now than it did 10-15 years ago because we seem to be stuck in a cycle of primarily information delivery.
If you think of the primary building blocks of learning as things such as trying new things and getting feedback or being able to see examples of good instances (rather than information), all of a sudden your learning design changes.
[36:58] – If you look ahead, what do you see on the horizon for the design of learning? Do you think there are some big things coming that are going to impact how we learn and how we teach learning?
Julie points out that microlearning has unquestionably been the buzz word that past year or so. She admits she’s pretty cynical about it and she doesn’t like the notion that people’s attention spans are getting shorter because she thinks if something is genuinely interesting/useful to people, they can pay attention.
Julie adds that gamification also has a lot of problems so you shouldn’t be doing it unless you can apply it at an expert level. The one thing she does think is going to be a game changer is virtual reality (VR) and we’re on the cusp of it being both practical and affordable. She thinks we are probably 3-4 years away from VR getting wide spread adoption but that it’s going to make a massive difference in how we learn.
[41:42] – A further discussion about VR and how it offers hands-on practice and real-world simulation of the environment.
Julie also talks about the research they’re doing at the Stanford Virtual Reality lab (primary researcher is Jeremy Bailenson) – they are looking at whether having the experience has a bigger impact on people’s behavior than just being given cognitive knowledge about it (knowing vs. believing).
[44:49] – How do you approach your own lifelong learning?
Julie explains that when you’ve been in a career long enough (top 20% of levels/years of experience in your field), events and conferences aren’t really about you anymore. Most of her development comes through online communities and what she calls “nerdy shop talk”. She notes the main place formal learning is helpful to her is when she gets outside of her strict discipline.
[47:48] – How to connect with Julie:
- Website: https://usablelearning.com/
- Twitter: @usablelearning
- Facebook group for book: Design for How People Learn – anyone can join who is interested in learning more about instructional design topics
[48:45] – Wrap Up
Thanks again to Castle, a full service certification and licensure testing company that also offers its clients a variety of learning solutions capabilities, for sponsoring this episode of the Leading Learning podcast.
A reminder that recordings from Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD), our virtual conference we held specifically for professionals in the business of continuing education and professional development, are now available. You can get all the details and register for access to those recordings at ltd.leadinglearning.com.
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[50:39] – Sign off
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