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The ID Journey: A is for Ask

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A scavenger hunt map
The ID Journey: A is for Ask

They say that every journey begins with a first step. But I'd correct that to say every journey begins with the question, "where do you want to go?"

As an instructional designer, or ID, I like to think of myself as a seasoned navigator in the educational realm. I take the complex information from subject matter experts (SMEs) and transform it into a well-charted map for learners to follow. To succeed at that, I have to know where the learner is trying to go. And to know that I must start with questions. A lot of questions. Questions about the learners who will take the course. Questions about the skills and knowledge they may already have and those they don't. Questions about the processes the learners will need to master. All these questions begin in the analysis phase of the ID journey.

This week, I ventured into the familiar territories of learner analysis, needs analysis, and task analysis. Having charted these waters in both the corporate world and academia, I can tell you, these analyses are more than routine – they are the key to setting a course correctly.

However, in our fast-paced world, I often find that I and other IDs breeze through the analysis phase. It's as if we think we already have a detailed picture of our learners and their needs, and as if we trust our SMEs as infallible guides. But that's kind of like saying we know a city we've never visited, just because we've seen a postcard!

Many postcards are scattered about
A postcard doesn't make you a traveler

I think one of the reasons we don't always take is as seriously as we should is because there are almost always way more questions than answers. Analysis in instructional design is like using a GPS with only the latitude. Imagine designing a course for students you haven’t met yet. Your GPS shows you're north of Main Street, but are you east or west of Elm? In the ID world, we rely on historical data and educated guesses, and draw a map based on probable learner profiles.

But here’s where it gets really interesting – our learners’ actual skills and knowledge often remain hidden until they're engaged in the course. It's like setting off on a journey with a map that reveals its details as you travel.

hands holding a map
A map that only shows where you are is no map

So, you might be wondering why we should even bother with the analysis phase, since a lot of it is guesswork. What I've come to learn is that the success of our instructional journey hinges on the accuracy of our initial map. The assumptions we make during the analysis phase are the coordinates we input into our GPS. They guide every decision we make thereafter. Designing a course for undergraduates versus graduates, for native versus non-native English speakers, or for different age groups or skill levels, requires distinct routes on our map.

Let’s bring this to life with an example. Imagine a 40-year-old mechanic enrolled in an online course about electric vehicle battery systems. If the course design feels like a mismatch – say, it’s adorned with childlike graphics or uses overly complex jargon – it’s akin to following a GPS that leads you off-course. It’s not just about reaching the destination; it’s about ensuring the journey is relevant, engaging, and tailored to the traveler.

two travelers hold maps and a compass
A map, a compass, and somewhere to go

Understanding our learners – their needs, their existing knowledge, and their aspirations – is like setting sail with a detailed map, a calibrated compass, and a clear destination in mind. It’s about creating a journey that’s not only informative but also enjoyable and on point. To be a good ID, we must embrace the art of asking the right questions and charting the course meticulously. After all, every great expedition begins with a sense of discovery and the right tools to navigate the journey.


All images contained within this post are courtesy of Media from Wix, unless otherwise noted.

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