Monday, March 03, 2008

Metaphors of Instructional Design

In the exciting and sometimes heated recent debate on the role of instructional designers (The Value of Instructional Designers, Karl Kapp's We Need a Degree in Instructional Design, Learning Circuits Big Question for Feb) I've seen instructional design compared to:
  • brain surgery
  • interior design
  • carpentry
I certainly don't think it's rocket science nor do I think it's brain surgery.

I like the analogy Michele Martin uses: instructional design as cooking.

Most of us can cook a little something. Perhaps you're best at opening a box of frozen fish sticks and laying them on the cookie sheet and dumping a bag of frozen peas in a pot. In recent years, I've resorted to this meal quite often. Hey, I've got small kids and I know my audience. Which is critical in both cooking and instructional design.

Not all meals are created equal. Just like training experiences. Some might require that you simply follow the recipe; others may demand a five star experience:

Just Follow the Recipe

A lot of people out there can create a great meal by following a recipe to a T.

Of course, you need the right tools -- accurate measuring spoons and cups, and the right ingredients.

Muffins, spaghetti sauce, cookies, yum. There are still those who follow the recipe and end up with burnt yuck.

The Dump and Pray Method

My Granny followed the dump and pray method of cooking.

Admittedly, I never had the pleasure or displeasure of sampling her menus, so I can't say if this method worked for her, but I've found it works for me in the kitchen.

Granted, I've read a lot of cookbooks. I watch an occasional cooking show, but not as a rule. (I don't have cable, so I don't know from Rachel Ray). And I've cooked a lot. Generally, I know what works. I know how to carmelize a mean onion and have a good sense of my herb cabinet.

I've taken many a cookbook recipe and improvised, creating something new and innovative. I can step out of the box.

Many self taught cooks achieve culinary perfection through this type of of experimention. Can you replicate the meal the next time? Maybe yes. But maybe it's slightly different the next time 'cuz you've used more garlic.

The dump and pray method works best when you understand your audience. Do you know who's going to be eating this particular meal? And it works best when you know your tools and your ingredients.

Creating a Five Star Meal

I don't know much about the starring system for restaurants, but my limited understanding knows that it has to do with the complete experience. The right napkins and place settings must be used or you lose a star.

I was once making an omelete with a professional chef who showed me how to make the red pepper we were cutting up five star: each piece had to be the exact same size, all the white trimmed off, all the edges perfectly square.

I rarely see the worth in that. But then, I tend to prefer thick chunky, even in an omelete.

But there may be times when a five star meal is exactly what's required. In which case you need a five star chef who probably went to a high-end Culinary Institute of Learning and has the knife sharpening skills to prove it.

Instructional Designers as Chefs

Different eating experiences require different expertise. And I would argue that different training experiences also require different expertise. Back to Instructional Design as a Spectrum.

Sometimes we may just dump and pray -- and if you're good, you come up with something great. Sometimes you just follow the recipe -- perhaps using a rapid eLearning Template tool and a solid ISD model. Sometimes you need a five star chef.

If you've seen the recent animated feature, Ratotouille (I watched it twice while home sick a few weeks ago) then you know that "Anyone can cook." Even a rat.

Now I'm not saying that SMEs are rats, or instructional designers are rats....

So what are you cooking up these days?

Photo credits:
The Last Happy Chef by Mykl Roventine
Open Onion by Darwin Bell
Mouse Spaghetti Tastes Better When Cooked by Jannes Pockele


Michele Martin said...

I like how you really extended the metaphor, Cammy, and I most definitely agree that instructional design isn't brain surgery. This isn't to make less of it, but to point to the reality that there are people who can do great instructional design without an advanced degree, while no one can perform brain surgery without advanced training.

I do feel like there's a certain art to good instructional design--a "feel" that you get that is partially based on knowledge and experience and one that's simply an intuition that exists. I can tell the difference in cooking between people who have to follow a recipe and those who have a feel for the food. Even though following a recipe makes meals consistent and tasty, those meals usually don't reach the inspired heights of those who have a more instinctive feel for what does and doesn't work. I think it's the same thing with instructional design.

Great post!

Dave Ferguson said...

Another way of looking at this same analogy: the reason for the meal.

I'm thinking of Chesterton's remark that there's a big difference between a man who wants to read a book and a man who wants a book to read.

Instructional design, to me, is rooted in the organizational training frame of mind (with a ladle or two of academia for flavor). As a result, ISD tends in terms of its product toward the hierarchical, the group requirement, the predictable.

I'm not condemning these things, but I think that decision-makers in particular follow those tendencies and expect/seek/demand a class/course model.

When you have a large amount of relatively straightforward knowledge and skills -- say, working with Amtrak's reservation system -- then a fairly structured approach makes sense. There are a hell of a lot of interactions in that system, but it's essentially closed and purposeful, unlike, say, "using a word processor" or "providing tech support."

Both the latter require thought about who'll do what and why, and the what and why may only emerge on the job.

Cammy Bean said...

Yes -- the reason for the meal, the audience, the occasion.

You cook differently if you're cooking for a wedding or a barbecue or a weeknight meal. Is it buffet or sit-down? Will there be waiters or is it self-serve? A cafeteria? Pre-wrapped sandwiches? Made to order?