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What is good instruction? Is it a PowerPoint deck with audio? How about a podcast, or maybe a YouTube video? The truth is that it all depends on what you are trying to teach.

/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/traindevelop_374270.jpgAccording to Wikipedia, Instructional Design is the practice of creating “instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective, and appealing”. In the training industry and practice, a big part of instructional design is picking the appropriate medium to deliver your training and then measuring the results in a meaningful way. Personally, I wouldn’t want my tooth pulled by a dentist who learned on YouTube, even if they did pass a multiple choice test. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to look on YouTube for a how-to video on assembling my latest home gadget. In this case, less is more. When you’re looking for a quick and easy answer to a problem, you don’t want to end up taking a 1-hour course when a simple paragraph or diagram would do just fine.

Picking a single medium and company standard for all training is one of the biggest and most common mistakes companies make today. If a narrated PowerPoint were the ideal medium for teaching, then filmstrips with cassette audio from the 1970s would have been used in every company instead of classroom instruction.

So what is the right answer? It’s picking the right tool for the job, because skimping here will inevitably cost you more money. Computers today can simulate almost any type of instruction and can be more effective than one-on-one in-person instruction. Therefore the cost of developing computer based instructions should not be thought of as a one to one comparison with a traditional method of instruction. Budget is the most common reason I hear for not doing instruction right. Budget is almost never a good reason. The opportunity cost alone of having people take ineffective training usually far exceeds the cost of doing it right the first time. In addition, every time you deliver poor instruction, your training department loses credibility with the learners. This results in employees that approach training with a poor attitude and pay less attention to the next piece of content.

Lack of skills is the second most common reason given for not delivering quality instruction. I blame this on the training industry and what I call the magic bullet of authoring tools. During the ’70s, ’80s, and most of the ’90s the industry was full of high-quality authoring tools designed for creating all kinds of interactions, simulations, and instruction. Unfortunately, the majority of those tools died as the Web browser became the delivery medium. Capabilities were lost; you really couldn’t achieve the same level of interactivity in the browser as you could on the desktop. As a result, the bar for what was considered interactive content went through the floor, and everyone started turning out simplistic, page-turner, narrated instruction. With the promise of easy to use authoring tools, most companies eliminated the professional authors and decided to let the SME create the content. Just like with bad PowerPoint presentations, the industry ended up with people who could operate the software, however they had no concept of good screen design, interactions or even screen layout.

As is good practice with instructional design, I’ll summarize what I hope you learned in this post:

•      No one tool is right for every subject and audience.

•      Using budget as a reason for not developing the right type of training is almost always a false economy.

•      Good instructional design and authoring capability are almost never found in the same individual. Don’t constrain your  designer with lousy tools, add an author to the team


Ed Cohen is VP Learning Product Management at SuccessFactors, an SAP company

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