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On Messy Instructional Design by Dr. Wood (Program Chair - IDPT @ Franklin U)

28 Feb 2016 8:56 AM | Jeff Zoller

“Instructional design is both science and art; it is systematic and elegant. And, most importantly, instructional design is messy!” I wrote those words a couple of years ago to introduce graduate students in the Instructional Design and Performance Technology (IDPT) program to the idea of iterative instructional design. It is the process of continually working through the entire design process to achieve meaningful, relevant instruction – but that can be messy work. And that’s because instructional design is rarely as straightforward or as pure as it might appear to be.

I have been playing in this instructional design “sandbox” for close to 28 years, and I can tell you confidently – it’s still a very messy affair. For almost any design project, myriad ideas flit through my mind like bats refusing to roost.

Seemingly inspired learning strategies turn out to be pedestrian, mundane; wonderful, engaging assignments flop, and activities intended to encourage learning succeed only in raising eyebrows. And that’s just during the analysis process!

Messy instructional design is about the confluence of streams of creativity, uncertainty, experience, change, and ambiguity – the not-easy-to-define intangibles of instructional design that allow me to creatively bend – even break – the rules. It is not simply about applying learning theories or the latest instructional strategies and technologies (i.e., just knowing and applying the rules). Those are the things that keep me engaged and interested, or, as my wife would say, that keep me out of the pool hall.

Now, let me be clear – messy instructional design does not connote unorganized, undisciplined, or haphazard work. On the contrary, engaging with the process and trusting it in all its systematic messiness requires organization, strategy, and planning. Without those, the entire enterprise, whether I’m developing a training seminar, designing a course, or creating a job aid, will quickly descend into chaos. And that benefits no one.

Organization, strategy, and planning complement creativity, uncertainty, change, and ambiguity. And experience ties everything together. Out of the messiness, order begins to emerge. The bats find their roosts, the learning strategies become inspired, the assignments and activities take shape and become engaging.

On another level, it is the messiness of instructional design that I want my graduate students to experience in the IDPT program – to dig down beneath the models, the procedures, and the analyses and get to the heart of the discipline – the intangibles that I mentioned earlier. I want to help my students make the transition from being an instructional design technician to being an instructional design craftsperson. In order for that to happen, they need to embrace the struggles, rejoice in the moments of discovery and clarity, work through the “iterative panic attacks” (as one student put it not long ago) and painful paradigm shifts that mark immersion into messy instructional design.

My own journey to become an instructional design craftsperson began a long time ago, but I’ve not forgotten what brought me to this time and place: I discovered messy instructional design, embraced it, and learned to work within its malleable boundaries and wonderfully bendable rules. I think I’ll give it another few years and see how it works out.

Originally published Dec. 17, 2015 for the i4 blog by the International Institute for Innovative Instruction [LINK TO:].

Author bio: Dr. Wood has worked as an instructional designer for over 27 years. He is the Program Chair for the Master of Science in Instructional Design and Performance Technology (IDPT) program [LINK TO:] , as well as a full- time design faculty at the International Institute for Innovative Instruction, at Franklin University in Columbus, OH, where he has served for over 16 years.


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