Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Theory vs. Application in Instructional Design: One Academic's View

A long time ago, I decided I was much better at the practical side of things than the theoretical.

I did great in Calculus AB(?) in high school, which involved solving problems like figuring out the volume of weird spaces. In college, at the urging of my father, I took the next "level up" in Calculus. This turned out to be a big mistake as it was all about proving theorems. I dropped out of that class halfway through the semester and decided I just didn't have the math/technical/scientific nature.

I'm still a really hands-on person. Perhaps this is why I never went back to grad school. Or maybe I'm just too lazy and poor.

Over the past few days, I've been having a back and forth with Dr. John Curry, an Assistant Professor in Educational Technology at Oklahoma State. Now, I'm not linking to John just because he is full of praise of me (which is nice and somewhat embarrassing, I must admit...), but rather because he brings up some interesting points about the disconnect between the theory of instructional design in academia and the actual practice of it.

See what John has to say in Instructional Design and Academia -- Where Theory and Practice RARELY Meet.

John asks,
"So does it matter if Cammy knows (and I have no idea if she does) what the Dick/Carey, Smith/Ragan, or Morrison/Ross/Kemp models are? What about Component Display Theory, Elaboration Theory, the Conditions of Learning, Learning Hierarchies, the ARCS model, 4C/ID, ADDIE, ASSURE, Schema theory, Cognitive apprenticeship, Social Learning theory, or Cognitive flexibility? Does she need to know those?"
Well. My truthful answer is that I've heard of some of these theories and theoreticians. I've even read about some of them. I actually have some books on my shelf that cover these topics. Admittedly, I may not have read all of the books.

Do you think it matters?

Photo Credit: Integral Calculus DSC00163 by Mr. ToHa


Wendy said...

How I use theory - selling my instructional design ideas.

People respond to jargon. And, interestingly, people love learning other people's jargon. I had never seen such an excited group of people as the day I introduced ADDIE to the Project Management group and related that process to how they do business.

Do I use ADDIE? Not always - but it does seem to be a nice way to keep track of the status of my ID projects.

Citing academic theory makes it sound like you are putting more effort into it than "I dunno - this just made sense. Whadya think?"

Do I need my MS in Instructional Technology to practice? No. The theoretical ammunition I received in that program helps.

Cammy Bean said...

I completely agree that this stuff impresses clients. I use it all the time.

But one can learn the jargon without going to grad school. And one can cite the academic theory by reading and staying informed.

Perhaps the (somewhat cynical) question to ask is -- what's the right amount of jargon needed to get by? Do I need to know all of the things on John's list?

Personally, I don't think so. I've gotten by well enough without most of those theories, it seems.

This comes back to my quest from last year of getting an informal masters in ID.

If one were to construct an informal, self-paced, DIY instructional design curriculum, what content would you include?

Maria Hlas said...

I guess I am in the same boat as you. I have almost 20 years of experience and at this point, I don't know how much a master's degree would help me. I have considered some certificate programs in areas of specialization that I haven't had as much experience in (HPI comes to mind). I know enough about the profession and have read enough that I get along pretty well.

I am also very practical and find it hard to slog through books on ISD theory (or any theoretical books). And I can't imagine when in a project I would need to recite the definition of constructivist theory.

The only time I had an issue as a consultant was when I ran into a couple of organizations that highly regarded and mostly hired IDs who had master's. They went along with having me work on their projects because I came highly regarded but I know they were skeptical because I didn't have that master's. When the first project was done well, on time and within budget they never brought up the lack of a master's again.

As for a curriculum for a DIY degree, I think there are some great books you base it on and then add in some good blogs to read.

Cammy Bean said...

I'm with you, Maria! So what are your favorite ID books?

Anonymous said...

My Masters in ID was very project-driven. Everything I worked on was directly related to something I was working on in the real world. It put me light years ahead of those around me. Theory, taught in an application-based way vs. a knowledge-based way allowed me to apply what I was reading (in some cases) and helped me understand our field as a whole. Does my husband the engineer need to know about metallurgy if he is not working with metals? Probably not but he is aware of his field as a whole and can have intelligent conversations about metallurgy with others.

People pursue advanced degrees for many reasons. Some, to gain a promotion, others to impress others, still others, like me, to support a habit of lifelong learning and even earn the right (based on society) to be an expert. Formal education is just one way I do that.

An inquiry class I'm taking takes me into the mind of Sherlock Holmes. I notice myself looking at workplace problems differently - I am seeing what I previously did not know I couldn't see. So for me, it's this type of stimulation that pushes me down the formal education path.

I certainly don't go around talking about social learning theory but am able to carry on a conversation with someone who's work is in that area. And, I generally learn a lot more.

I don't think you need a degree to be successful in the field. I think the majority of people working in the field do not have a degree in ID. For me it's important. So I'm pissing away my kids education at $1000 a credit hour ; )

Cammy Bean said...

Janet, I was thinking about just that subject last night: the perpetual student and how some individuals are simply drawn to that role in a formal setting and really thrive in it.

I used to think that was me, but I'd rather take a class in pottery or massage therapy these days. Although, I don't even have time for that!

Perhaps a practical, application-based program would draw me in. For the time being, I'm content to learn this stuff informally. I may not be able to converse at the same level of theory as some, but I'm ok with that. In the meantime, I just want to keep doing good work in the field.

Anonymous said...

Cammy, I've long remembered a presentation by the late Marianne Hoffman, a strong proponent of HPT. The question she tried to answer: how do you know what corners to cut?

Her answer, in part, was that you need a solid, research-based approach to performance problems, so that when you do take shortcuts, you know which baggage you can best afford to throw overboard.

I have Dick & Carey on my bookshelf, in part because lots of people talked about it. I suspect D&C is read mainly by people in academic programs, and that otherwise it's a ritual object, like the stele with the Code of Hammurabi on it.

Far more valuable for many people I've worked with is Mager's What Every Manager Should Know about Training. No, it doesn't talk about good interaction, but it helps a client see that you can't sensibly train your way out of bad job design.

Cammy Bean said...

Dick & Carey is on my bookshelf (a loan from a colleague who is in a Master's program). Have cracked it, but it's not too enticing, I must admit.

I'll add Mager to my reading list. That sounds more up my alley.

John H. Curry said...


I've posted How to get an Instructional Design education without paying tuition on my blog for you. It's my must-have reading list.


Unknown said...

From my experience I like having a decent understanding of the theories that support my practices. I am one of those seeking a Masters in ID after several years at the school of hard knocks (I think I have a PhD by now!) Where knowledge of basic theory comes into practice is when confronted by a client who is an ID wanna-be. You know the ones ...those that can't quite understand technology so they fall back on their "gut-feelings" about what works in e-learning. Ugh! Its the "client" who nit-picks your technique based on how they feel about it vs. your well developed practice, knowledge of the user, and the nature of the content. The moment I can call on Malcolm Knowles, Gagne, ADDIE ...and Cognitive Load ... I win! And rightly so. I am working on Masters #2 in ID ...not Educational technology as many do ...Ed tech changes ...sound theory and principles do not.

Cammy Bean said...

Dr. John...many thanks for the reading list. I have my work cut out for me for YEARS to come!

MBritz...I agree with you that it's good to have the theory to fall back on, especially with some clients. Per Wendy's comment, it's often the jargon that puts people at ease. "Oh, you must know what you're talking about then..." I always try to put it back into practical terms -- what it means for the learner who will be taking this particular course.

Clark said...

Cammy, I’ve found this post interesting enough to blog it. In short, , I think you need to know some of the underlying learning theories to fill in gaps where principle clashes with pragmatics. You, I’ll suggest, ‘get it’ because you're continually reflecting, and I can’t say I see that in a lot of ID out there. So I’ll put my money on either a reflective practitioner OR someone schooled with the theories (NB: where they *apply* it, not just recite it). Good topic!

John H. Curry said...

OK, Cammy, if I have to cut it down to the MOST important information and MINIMAL theory, here's what I'd go with:

The Conditions of Learning, by Robert Gagné;

Training Complex Cognitive Skills, by Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer;

The First Principles of Instruction, by M. David Merrill;

and The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman.

I think these are practical, accessible, and immediately useful.

Cammy Bean said...

Clark...thanks for the vote of confidence in my reflective skills. Your post was great -- my only comment is that it doesn't really matter if you can say whose theory it is, or even the name of the theory itself -- but rather that you know the basic principals behind it and why that theory, when applied to eLearning in this case, makes for a better learning experience.

Dr. John...that's just what I wanted! The essentials...

Erik Wallen said...

Richard Clark and Fred Estes wrote an interesting series of articles around this topic (the first is "Technology or Craft: What are we doing?" available at:

They argue that the "craft" of producing instruction (which might be thought of more as production skills) is different than the "technology" used for producing instruction (which are theories based on theories of how people learn and interact with each other).

They believe that good instruction often requires a team approach because any one person is unlikely to have developed both kinds of expertise.