Instructional design — pah, who needs it?

The recent turmoil in the financial markets and the resulting chaos in all of our businesses have both intensified our desire to be ‘rapid’. We want things faster and cheaper. We want minimal fuss and we just want to get on with it. We’re practical people, we get things done and we want to prove this to the world. Music to the ears of anyone selling a rapid development tool but what about instructional designers (IDs)? Where do they fit in? Pah, I hear you say. Who needs an ID? Our subject matter experts know all there is to know. If we give them a tool that allows them to put their knowledge online, surely this will be better and more authentic than having a third party develop the material? It will certainly be a lot cheaper and faster!

This is when I get worried. Not because I make my living from bespoke e-learning but because this kind of talk is dangerous. It subjects thousands of people to the tyranny of poorly designed training and holds them accountable for what they should have learnt. When we talk the ‘we don’t need instructional design’ nonsense, we forget that the true cost of training does not lie in the development. The true cost comes when we find out that the training hasn’t worked. For example, if you run a project management course, online or in the classroom, this may cost you a few thousand pounds. However, if the training is not effective and your people still can’t manage projects, the cost may run into the millions. Therefore, it’s critical that you ensure any learning intervention you invest in has the best chance of returning the benefits that your organisation is demanding. Otherwise, why bother at all? This is where instructional design comes in.

You’ll be glad to know that I’m not the only person that holds this view. At a recent presentation, Dr Itiel Dror demonstrated that we can all give knowledge but does this mean that our learners receive it as intended and can apply it? The answer is probably no. He explained that our brain works in a particular way and that when we want to build effective training material, we need to take this into account. For instance, all one hundred of us in the audience were unable to count the number of Fs on a screen, even though they were in front of our eyes in black and white, and we missed a gorilla doing a jig in the middle of a video. It’s all to do with the way the brain works, he explained. Instructional designers know this and build this into their content design.

I’m a big fan of rapid development and think we should do more of it. But, please, don’t sacrifice good learning design in order to meet your desire to be rapid. Appreciate that content development, to be effective, will take some time but this time will be well spent when you measure the benefits.

For a flavour of Dr Dror’s work, go to and click here to see or miss the gorilla.