Learning by Design: An Interview with Instructional Designer and Author Julie Dirksen

In eLearning, instructional designers play a critical role. They help define a course’s goals and work to ensure that the knowledge or skills being taught are presented in a way to maximize learning.

Book cover of Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen

In a field that can often be quite technical, it’s refreshing to come across a book on eLearning design that doesn’t read like a doctoral dissertation. Instead, Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn, published in November, offers an apposite approach to learning design. Dirksen uses her knowledge and experience in instructional design to walk us through the ways people absorb information, writing with a style that actually practices what she preaches. Last month, Monarch Media sat down with Dirksen to discuss effective instructional design.

Monarch Media: What inspired you to write this book? Was something missing from the traditional learning design conversation?

Julie Dirksen: Yes, I think so. They say that you should write the book you want to read but that you can’t find or hasn’t been written.

I was seeing a lot of dissatisfaction with the way people talk about instructional design. There’s no question there are good instructional designers out there, but too often we focus on technology or process. There isn’t a ton of guidance around the actual design component.

During my graduate program in instructional design, we learned a lot about analysis and evaluation, but then you get to the actual design part and it’s treated as, “And the magic happens here!” I picked up an instructional design textbook at a conference last year and in 280 pages only four were about the design.

MM: How has research into the ways people learn, coming from fields like cognitive psychology, contributed to instructional design?

JD: One of the motivations behind writing my book is to help people understand the background behind the decisions they’re making. In the education and training field, we have this notion that we should create training that looks like other trainings we’ve seen, because then they will seem professional and competent. There are a lot of things done because they’re traditional, not necessarily because they’re effective.

“When you have unlimited access to knowledge, the key issue is to find ways to provide value around it.”

So if we can understand the underlying principles behind how people think and learn, we can make better judgments about the types of training and courses we create. We can focus on who will be using them and the best and most effective ways to reach those learners.

MM: The way that we think and absorb information changes throughout our lives. In your book, you talk about how young children learn naturally by gleaning information from their environment. Somewhere along the way we lose that ability to learn organically. Within that context, what is the role of instructional designers?

JD: As instructional designers, we need to think of ourselves as facilitators of behavior change rather than as imparters of information. We can get better at pushing out information into the world, but that doesn’t necessarily get us closer to organizations’ bigger goals, such as having happier customers, more sales, or fewer errors.

We know that simply gaining new knowledge doesn’t change people’s behavior. So if you want to change the behavior of people providing customer service, for example, having them know more about customer service is not necessarily going to help you.

I make a big distinction between a knowledge gap versus a skills gap. Often, the audience you’re trying to reach has the knowledge, but doesn’t have the skills critical for applying it. So, one of the first issues we face in our jobs is figuring out what the learners need to meet the training goals.

If skills development is the critical need, we need to give learners the time and get them participating in it. We may need to be doing something differently from the traditional one-hour eLearning course.

MM: That speaks to some of the larger goals and challenges of eLearning design. What’s the biggest mistake you see people make in developing trainings and courses?

Julie Dirksen

JD: The biggest mistake I see involves training that solves the wrong problem. If your objective is something like helping your sales team identify your product’s keys features, that’s not the right focus. The objective should be, “The sales team should be able to sell the heck out of this and be total rock stars!” So, you shouldn’t think of your course as imparting information, but as something that motivates and helps learners develop skills to be a sales rock star or a customer service rock star or an auto repair rock star, for example.

You should ask yourself, “What can I do to help learners improve? Can I engage them more and provide them with more resources? Can I make sure they have plenty of opportunities to practice, with good feedback and coaching? Can I create an environment that better aligns their goals with the goals of the organization?”

Focusing on what can we do in the environment is important. We tend to think about trying to change the information people carry around in their heads, but that will only accomplish so much. We need to move beyond that and focus on actually making learners more successful.

MM: We know from our experience that it’s important to find ways to engage learners. One of the trends these days is employing social media technology in eLearning courses to create social learning opportunities. What’s your perspective on the benefits and challenges of using social media tools in an eLearning context?

JD: One of the challenges is getting past this attitude of, “If you build it, they will come.” And then there’s a lot of attention on the technology itself; for example, whether it’s best to use a forum here or something else. But the focus shouldn’t be on the technology; it should be on the behavior you want from the learner and how you can best support it. So the point isn’t that people need to be able to tweet. The point is they need to be able to have conversations.

There are a lot of interesting things about social media. People tend to pay better attention when there are others involved.

But there are challenges, too. In corporate training settings, there’s a management issue. The organization may need to recruit team leaders to become social media champions so there’s someone creating value and providing guidance. You also have to provide activities that help people get used to using the social media and make it part of their routine. You have to figure out how to integrate people.

MM: What is your opinion about learning styles? Are they a necessary consideration for eLearning course design?

JD: People like the idea of learning styles but the research basis is weak and applying the idea is where things get really tricky. You can assess people’s conscious preferences, but that doesn’t really indicate their “learning style.”

What does it really mean to be a visual learner? Unless you have some kind of visual impairment, you are indeed a visual learner. But we don’t have the ability to measure how strong an impact that has. Nothing has convinced me that we’ve cracked the code to figuring out someone’s learning style versus preference. And even if we do know someone’s learning style, we’re not terribly good at customizing learning for a particular style.

Aside from that, we’re more similar than we’re different. The degree to which you’re a visual learner is less significant than the fact that—unless you have a visual impairment—basically everyone is a visual learner. So, one of the few things you can take away from the notion of learning styles is that you should mix it up. Don’t have a single learning channel—you should have visual, audio, all of the different pieces, so you can provide your learners with a uniform experience. The variety also usually helps retain learners’ interest and you’re covering all the bases.

MM: What current trends in instructional design do you find interesting?

JD: I do like the trends in social learning and performance support. Look at our situation: we have these smart phones and we can carry around all the world’s knowledge in our pockets. When you have unlimited access to knowledge, the key issue is to find ways to provide value around it.

Another area I’m passionate about includes game design in learning development. At the moment, too many learning games are things that look game-like but aren’t actually any fun at all. What I find fascinating is figuring out what rules and mechanics behind the game create its experience. Can we use that in a learning situation? What makes Tetris so addictive? There’s a huge science and art to game design and game designers think about it as much as we think about education technology. Everything I’ve learned about game design has had a huge impact on the way I think about creating engaging eLearning experiences.

Julie Dirksen is an independent consultant and instructional designer with more than 15 years of experience creating interactive eLearning experiences for clients from Fortune 500 companies and technology startups to grant-funded research initiatives. She has been an adjunct faculty member in the Visualization Department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she created and taught courses in project management, instructional design, and cognitive psychology.  She gets ridiculously excited about things like learning applications of behavioral economics and she’s happiest whenever she gets to learn something new.  You can find her online at usablelearning.com.

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