Scene 15: Jack, Paloma, and Ilya

In which three design managers at the Federal Education agency review data from a Social Studies lesson.

The power of instructional design is realized and is supported with resources commensurate with its power.

"See? No one is picking the 'wasteful medical services' choice. For the state health care budget question. No, no, that one: 'too much, because so many medical services are wasteful'…"

Jack Paloma Ilya

"Well, not 'no one'," muttered Paloma. Though admittedly this did point to an issue. With five choices, a possible revision would be to simply delete the neglected choice, since five was a lot to ingest and so any noise was mentally taxing.

Paloma and Jack were Learning Designers, working for Fed Ed. Both had had positions in Social Studies, Grade 4-6 for a couple years. Both were young and eager for career advancement, and thus brought much energy to the job. It was analyzing minutiae, to be sure; but thousands of kids had gone through this activity in just the past week, and both of the designers savored the cognitive drama that unfolded as the kids struggled to determine what they knew and what they felt.

Their manager, Ilya, did not bring as much energy to this challenge. "I think we're getting into the weeds a little," he said. "Jack, why don't you look at it later and make a recommendation."

"Sure," said Jack. "I'll do some clustering on the kids who do pick it, and I'll look at the subsequent short-term persistence after each of the five… and, of course, a look at the meta comments."

"Great," said Ilya. More information than he wanted. "So, can we go back to the question the Director asked: do we know if our health policy activity is supporting the new 'Governor's Challenge'?"

Paloma rolled her eyes. "How could we know?" The Challenge was one of many, many celebrity-sponsored contests aimed at motivating student effort.

"I  think so," asserted Jack. "The content points are perfectly aligned, and the kids are moving through it pretty smoothly. All we've got to do is do some spot checking."

In general, Ilya liked Paloma's skeptical nature, because it rarely permitted half-baked propositions. He wanted her take. "Paloma?"

Paloma paused. Then, scowling, she said, "Why can't the Director push back on the Challenge? She keeps complaining that we don't have enough resources for the kid-tracking, and she's right. The way things are going, a lot of these kids are going to forget everything by next year!"

I think of learning design as analogous to the invention of writing in our civilization.  Not joking!   It is starting to play out now, though certainly it will be a while before it reaches full fruition.

Writing was invented to record and to inform, not to educate.  Now, though, we have an understanding of how the mind works, and we have the computer medium, and we are using these to create an increasingly optimal learning experience.   Can we not see how revolutionary that is?

May I now introduce, the instructional designer's perspective! The cognitive science practitioner. The learner's advocate. The wizard behind the curtain.  (You'll have to forgive my enthusiasm… I just remembered that instructional design is uninteresting. Well, those of you who can no longer stomach it, goodbye, we wish you well!)

Just a couple words for any of you unsure what design consists of.  Part of it is simply writing or “scripting” content.  Unlike the writing done by professors and reviewed by other scholars or writers, though, design is carefully targeted at a non-expert (and often quite ignorant) learner group.   Design is often a combined effort of a trained instructional designer and “subject-matter expert.”  The aim is always to define and narrow the target concept or mental model—often itself a very challenging part of the effort—and then to develop the best ways to ensure that learners will really get it.

Instructional design is generally invisible to learners, except when it is done badly.  When it is done well, the learner is deeply engrossed in the subject-matter, is never weighed down by confusion, and everything in the experience seems as it should be.  I sometimes colloquially refer to such a highly-concentrated learning experience as “getting meat.”

I think it’s also worth pointing out that the quality of a learning experience is proportional to the amount of instructional designer labor applied.  As with anything, there is a point of diminishing marginal returns to the labor, though in today’s society that point is almost never reached.  So, at least for educational materials that will have large audiences or that have critical societal value, more instructional design work is merited.  More generally, I expect that, over time, the role of learning design in our society will attain a much higher level of prominence.

Imagine a world where (you’ll have to excuse the imagery) we are all surrounded by high-quality “meat.”  Political ignorance would become scarce.  Political will would emerge—to reform government, to improve society, to tackle hard problems.  For our civilization, thanks to Learning Design, it will be a different ballgame.


cast of characters