Demystifying Instructional Design

Arthur Harrington - Detectives and Problem Solvers

October 19, 2021 Rebecca J. Hogue Season 1 Episode 7
Demystifying Instructional Design
Arthur Harrington - Detectives and Problem Solvers
Show Notes Transcript

Arthur is a Learning and Development professional who has been in the instructional design field for over 20 years. He started his career training radiologists at mass general hospital in Boston. Arthur earned a masters in education at UMass Boston and returned to his alma mater to earn an MBA. Arthur has led the training operations for several high tech organizations and currently leads a team of technical trainers and writers.  

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Welcome to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview various instructional designers to figure out what it is instructional designers do. I'm Rebecca Hogue, your podcast host. 


Hi, Arthur. Welcome to demystifying instructional design. To begin, please introduce yourself.



Hi, my name is Arthur Harrington. I am the senior director of learning and knowledge at a company called SONIFI. I have been involved in instructional design and managing and leading teams of instructional designers for about the last 20, 25 years or so.



How did you get to where you are now?



A long time ago? I was working at Mass General Hospital in Boston as a training assistant, and my role at that time was essentially to bring soda and cookies to the classroom and schedule things hand out booklets and class materials and so forth. One of the things I wanted to do to develop was to eventually become a trainer. Myself and my manager suggested I take an eight-week program called Train the Trainer. And that was, I think it was called ASTD at the time, the American Society of Training and Development. Now it's ATD. So I took this eight week program. It was every Friday. I think it was for the full day. It was offsite. The hospital was paying for it and I was very interested in everything about training, right? So we did presentation skills and where they recorded us and then played it back.


And one of the speakers that came was Margaret Driscoll, who was a professor at UMass Boston. And she did a couple of hours on instructional design. And when I saw that, I was like, Oh my goodness, there's actually a science behind designing training because my experience to date had been, OK, get Microsoft Word, and let's just start writing what people need to know. And once I learned about instructional design and found out that it was part science, part art all together, I really got interested in instructional design and started to look at different programs. And UMass Boston had a program I registered and took. I think it took me two years to finish the program and absolutely loved it. I love the whole science and the art behind designing training, and then I got a position as an instructional designer at a company in Boston and basically was creating online training modules. These were training modules for folks who are out in the field installing software. And so we were building we had a whole team of folks instructional designers who were building consents at the time. I think we're using Dreamweaver, and so I did that for a few years, also worked at a company where I was designing and delivering training for radiology systems. I was in charge of building, actually design, develop and delivering training, as well as managing a team of trainers for a health care software company.


And then through the years, I took on different positions that were leadership or management positions, typically managing teams of instructional designers, of course, developers, trainers who actually did live stand up training on site and remote training, blended training. And so for the last several years, I've been leading teams like that, and that's currently what I'm doing. I have a team of tech writers, instructional designers and we are focused on building training content for employees. A lot of it is technical training, but we're also getting involved a lot in learning and development for employee and leadership development.



You mentioned that you have teams and you mentioned two roles technical writers and instructional designers. What different skills do you need on your team?



Well, I think over the years that has shifted a little bit. So early on, we had instructional designers who would build out what the content would look like, right? They would do storyboards they would do that needs analysis. They would do all of that work and then hand it off to a course developer who would actually use some platform to build the course. 


What I've found over the years is that those roles have sort of blended together. So now it's become easier to use a lot of these tools a storyline, for example, almost anyone can sit down and use storyline, but you still need to do all of that instructional design before, during and after to ensure that you're actually building content that is useful. I think the skills are the tech writing part is important. 


Typically, what happens is we have an engineering department, product development department, and they're rolling out new features, functionality, products and whatnot. And the tech writers will take what the engineers create, and they will pretty much describe what a product is, how it works, how to troubleshoot it and so forth. And then the instructional designers can take that documentation, and with that documentation, they can start to build out training materials. So I think those two work pretty closely together. 


I think some of the other key skills that I look for in someone on a team like this listening and negotiating. One of the most important things I've found to do is to listen to your customer, internal, external, whatever. Listen to what they're saying. And try to determine if training is going to solve the problem. Oftentimes, I find that training is not really the solution, but people may think it is.


Hey, people are having an issue answering emails on time. Let's give them training on how to more effectively write emails. Well, maybe the problem is a systemic problem with the email server, and training isn't really going to make a difference. So really listening, I think, and listen for understanding, which is listen and then repeat back what you heard, because what I've seen happen many times is a project is underway and it's somewhere down the line. Hey, I thought I told you I wanted red and blue and everything is green and yellow.


Well, early on is the time to have those conversations where you repeat back to people. OK, so what I'm hearing is this is the deadline. These are the stakeholders. This is what we're using for color palette and so forth. So I think the communication part is really important.


My assumption is that if someone's coming in as an instructional designer, they have the chops to be able to build training. But it's all that other stuff that you have to do around it that I find is really important.



That's very interesting. The ability to effectively listen comes up quite frequently. As a hiring manager, how do you know that the instructional designer that you're interviewing can do that skill?



Part of it is just having that one on one conversation with people. The first part is looking for the resume. Do they have the requisite skills and education, if that's important?


And then I typically would like to see some sort of portfolio doesn't have to be huge, but I want to see some examples of their work just to see how does it look right? Esthetically pleasing? Does it get to the point? Does it really meet the need? Is it engaging, right? Is it something that was lean back training or is it lean in training right where I'm engaged and I'm interested in it in addition to a portfolio? What I will sometimes do is give people a topic or even it can be broad and say you have 15 minutes to train me on something and just take the time to teach me something and that could be live via a Zoom call. You could build something and storyline or some other tool. It could be a web page. It could be a PDF. But what I'd like to do is see how, and typically I would give people time to do that, right? That's not a hey on the fly. Teach me how to do something in an interview.


What I like to see is what their thinking process is. When you were given this assignment, how did you approach it? Because my assumption is that they can build great looking training. What I really want to know is, did they ask me any follow up questions? Did they put together a prototype? Some of the things that I would expect a problem solver to do because instructional design is really solving problems. 


What I've encountered is organizations have business problems, and they often think that training is the solution and as an instructional designer, rather than just take that order. I like to enable people to first dig into the problem and determine is training going to solve the problem? 


I've been invited to meetings where folks said, Hey, we need you to build an online training program. OK, what's it on? Well, we've got this inventory system and we're changing one of the modules, so the screens that people see are going to be different and we need something built within a month. Can your team do that? I said, Well, hold on. Who's the audience? Well, it's five people who work in accounting. OK, so there's five people. Do we really need to build an online e-learning course or would a PDF suffice? Well, you know, we thought that you could build a course, Mike. Well, you've got five people to train. How many screens are changing? Three. 


Is it all new information?


No, it just goes in different boxes. Hmm. Sounds to me like a job aid is the solution. So I like to hire people who are not afraid to do a little Sherlock Holmes. Dig around and find out what is the outcome. What would you like to see at the end of this? And then sort of back into what are the appropriate tools?


So just to recap, I think what's important is when hiring instructional designers confirm that the work that they can build is good. And really, I like to dig into how did you figure this out? So if someone gives me an example of a beautiful portfolio with some great e-learning in it, I want to know what went into that, what was going on in your head when you were building all of this? Because as I mentioned, I feel like instructional design as part detective and part problem solver.



When somebody asks you a friend or somebody who knows nothing about it, how do you describe what an instructional designer is?



I would describe an instructional designer as someone who solves problems using training. It's also the design, the development and the delivery of training. I know that when I first started, I attended some training programs and you know, it might have been on Microsoft Word or Excel. And basically. The instruction or the instructor will go to the file menu, say, OK, under file, you have this, you have this, you have this, you have this and very linear, very much broad covered everything and what instructional designers do. Instead of just creating that, 


I feel like instructional designers help you solve a problem. So rather than start with file home menu, whatever I would see an instructional designer might start with, let's write a letter or let's write a term paper or something like that where instead of going through all of the features and functionality of what you could possibly do, I think instructional designers focus more on I'm going to teach you a skill that you can actually use when early on I'd say, Oh, I'm an instructional designer, and they say, Oh, do you design buildings? I'm like, No, that's that's a different type of designer. 


My definition of instructional design is you figure out what people need to be able to do or what they need to know. And then you figure out what they already know or can do and then teach them the difference. And that's really the challenge is that oftentimes people try to teach everything. But if it's something I don't need to know or it's something I already know, then I don't need to be taught that.



So the important thing is sort of teaching that delta figure out what people already know, what they need to know and teach them the difference and then measure, measure, measure and improve every course that I do if I'm delivering it or my teams delivering it. We have feedback forms, and those feedback forms are really designed for us to improve the training. Once it's done, it's delivered and it's, you know, delivered the first time, it should change. After that, we should collect feedback. What went well, what could we have done differently and then evolve that over time? If I could share a story, I worked at a company once and I was coming in, you know, I was an instructional designer slash technical trainer doing delivery. And so there was a course that we taught to our customers and it was four days long. It was held at an offsite, at one of our company buildings. 


And so the idea was that someone else was teaching this course and I would attend it a couple of times. Then I would deliver parts of it. Then eventually I would deliver it with this other person there. And then I would take it over. And so one of these courses, we delivered it and it was Thursday afternoon. We're wrapping up and we handed out, believe it or not paper, we handed out paper smile sheets to everyone in the class to find out what they thought. And so after everyone left, I collected them up and put them in and in a folder, and I asked the other trainer, I said, What do I do with this?


And he said, Just put them in the cabinet over there. He said, you'll see a whole bunch of them just put them in the cabinet. And I said, Don't you read them? He said, No, I just have to keep those in case we get audited. And so he was not an instructional designer. He was a technical guy delivering a class.


I was like, This is a goldmine.


I'm trying to redesign this class to deliver it. I'm like, This is a gold mine. I said, Can I take some of these home with me? He's like, Yeah, sure, take as many as you want. I took about a year's worth of those reviews and went through them, and basically it helped me completely redesign the class things like, please don't turn off the lights. It makes us sleepy. The room is too hot. The room is too cold. It's just little things like that that were themes throughout the whole year. And had he been in instructional design or maybe had he taken the time to review, those could have really improved the program. So that's why I feel that doing the measurement piece and there's all kinds of different measurement.


Did it make a difference? But the very basic level one, did we deliver what you expected? Was it worth it? I tend to ask a few questions. What went well? What could we have done differently? What did you learn that you're going to apply at your job? And what did we teach you that you're probably not going to use? Because what we found is that sometimes what we deliver might not be what the audience is expecting. So I tend to do those kinds of reviews for all of the training that we deliver.



I really like the question of what do we teach you that you're not going to use getting to that efficiency instructional design isn't just about creating content, it's creating the right content. Exactly. And just the right amount. What are one of the biggest challenges that you face?



I think one of the biggest challenges as an instructional design or training or learning organization is getting people to understand that training is not always the answer. What I tend to do is if someone brings up, Hey, we need training for something. I like to set up some time where we can sit and we can talk through it and really understand what the problem is. A root cause analysis. Ask the question why over and over again?


Because I think that's one of the biggest challenges is really getting people to understand that training is not always the answer. I think some of the other challenges are measurement. How do you measure the effectiveness of training? Lately, I've been doing a lot of leadership development training at the organization that I'm at now. And one of the toughest things is measuring did it make a difference? So there are certain things we're teaching some Franklin Covey training, and one of the best practices is regularly scheduled one on one meetings. And I was amazed to find that nearly half of the organization were not having regular one on one meetings with their managers and or with their employees. And what I've been able to do is over time I've been surveying people and finding out that we're now more than 70 or 80 percent of folks do have one on one scheduled. So that's something that's a tangible thing that you can measure. What gets more difficult is has this training had an impact on the culture of the organization? That's something that's not always easily measurable. I think that's another big challenge as an instructional designer is you can build the best training in the world, but then how do you actually measure it? I think another challenge as an instructional designer is explaining instructional design to people who have no instructional design background. I've had managers who literally said to me, it's not that hard. You just have to put butts in seats. And I was like, Well, no, it is that hard because if we put butts and seats, but we don't know what we're supposed to teach them, then maybe we're teaching them the wrong thing. Maybe we're actually wasting their time. That's a challenge to be able to effectively explain instructional design to folks who may be leaders in the organization. They might be a manager in another department who doesn't really understand the value of a needs analysis. If you say, well, hold on, why don't you give me two weeks to start to interview people and figure out what the root causes? It's not that they don't want to hear that, but they don't understand, Well, what do you mean? Don't you just have to build training?


It's like, no, there's like four or five steps before


that. I think that's another challenge that instructional designers face.



What do you wish you had learned sooner?



I think the fact that instructional design existed before I took the instructional design master's degree program at UMass, I was building content based on what I had seen in the past. I was actually building some training content for radiology online reading system. It's the system that radiologists would use to look at X-rays and cat scans and whatnot online. 


And so I just started with what does a radiologist do and went through basically the tasks that they would do. So they need to retrieve an image. They have to look at it, they have to measure it, they have to magnify zoom and so forth. And so it took me quite a while to build that training because I didn't have a scaffolding on which to stand. And most of the people in the organization also didn't. That was the put butts in seats thinking.


So I feel like if I had known that instructional design existed earlier, I probably would have enrolled in the program a couple of years earlier and saved a lot of time and effort building content that I had.



I can appreciate that one, not a whole other career before I did instructional design, so what would vice would you give to new instructional designers?



So I think a couple of the things for new instructional design are some of the advice I would give is make sure that you understand the full scope of of a project. So if you're an instructional designer, you know, maybe coming in new to an organization, you might be assigned to a project. Hey, I need you to build this one piece of such and such. I think it's very important to ask a lot of questions of, well, how does this fit into the bigger picture? What are we trying to solve here? Oh, well, we're trying to increase customer engagement, and we feel that if we build these training programs, that will help really dig in to the what and the why behind the work that you're doing.


I think that's some good advice. The other thing is, don't skip the hard work. I used to do painting for a living, and the hardest work is the preparation, the sanding, the taping, the patching, the priming. All of that is the hard work. The easier part is putting on the fresh coat of new paint, and that's where you get the wow factor. And I feel like an instructional design. You can't just jump into building flashy, cool animated training if you don't do the steps, the effective preparation leading up to that, the needs analysis, building out a project, understanding who are the stakeholders, who are your subject matter. 


Experts really get to know those subject matter experts and hang out with them. What I used to do is I had a subject matter expert on one of the projects and we were in an office together and every Friday morning for two hours, we would have coffee together up at her desk. I would show what I was creating and she would go through and she would explain to me, Hey, this looks good. But one of the concepts behind it is that the screen has to come before that one or whatever it might be. Part of that is also showing people what you're building along the way because it's a lot easier to change plans earlier on than it is later down the line once you've got something in the can. Going back to edit that is going to cause a lot of frustration and also time, because typically when that rolls around, you're already up against the deadline and now you have to go back and fix things if you can fix those things earlier on. And part of that is making sure your stakeholders are involved. Now, whether it's your boss or their boss or someone in another department makes sure that they are not only getting updates but are involved. There's a difference between shooting out an email to a leader in an organization and saying, 


Hey, your projects coming along fine, we should hit the deadline to sending them or inviting them to a meeting where you show them what you're building.


Because if you show them, that's their opportunity to say, looks good or Hey, I don't like this or hey, marketing could probably help you with the color scheme on this. There's a lot that you want to have those stakeholders actively involved in a project. I've had occasions in the past where gets to the to the big shot and they say, Hey, this isn't what I was expecting.


Then everyone's like, oh, either we made a big mistake or they made a big mistake, and so I think advice for new instructional designers make sure that you know what the project is and how it fits into the big scheme of things.


Don't skip on the prep work and make sure that all of your stakeholders are involved all along the way.



Excellent advice. And so the last question I have for you is a question I ask everybody is what's your prediction for the future of instructional design?



My prediction for the future of instructional design. So one of the things I've found with instructional design or let me more precisely call it content development, is the tools have become very easy so anyone can build content. Just take a look at YouTube, for example. There is tons and tons of content out there, but just because you have the tools doesn't necessarily mean that people know how to use them. It's still going to be vitally important for instructional designers to do all of that prep work. Help people understand what is the problem we're solving. Is training going to make a difference? How are we going to measure it? Because in the end, that's really the value that instructional designers bring to the table. I feel like when anyone could open up Microsoft Word and they could say, Oh, let me just type out all this content on hand out a book and we'll put people in seats and we'll just regurgitate what's on here.


That is, the old fashioned pre instructional design and instructional designers came along and said, No, no, no, that's not the way to do it.


Let's focus on the learners. Let's focus on the skills they need and the knowledge they need, and let's teach them that. I think similarly, what's happened now is the tools have just changed. I mentioned YouTube. I mentioned storyline earlier. There's a lot of tools that are easy to use now, but you still have to do all of that prep work. And so if an organization wants to create effective training, whether it's internally for employees or externally for customers or vendors or whatnot, I think it's imperative to have instructional designers who are focused on helping the organization realize that there is a lot of preparation work that goes into it. It's not just open up an application and start to create training on the fly.



Thank you very much for coming and being my guest today on this podcast. You've added a lot of insight into what it means to be an instructional designer.



Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me today.



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