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Purnima Valiathan

Insights into Subject Matter Expert - Instructional Designer interaction and current trends in learning design

Instructional Design plays an important role in any training and technology-based learning program. Sound design comprises an appropriate instructional strategy that helps learners meet their learning and performance goals. Hence, instructional designers not only facilitate engaging and enjoyable learning experiences, they also understand the big picture of learning by enhancing the learnability of the content. While writing my book, 
I referred to several books and articles for interpreting the field of design (both instructional and visual - see chapters 5, 6 and 7), Purnima Valiathan's articles and white papers proved to be of great value in some areas of design such as interacting with the SME, creating assessments and so on. Purnima is an e-learning and training consultant based in Delhi (NCR). I got in touch with her to know more about her experience while interacting with the SMEs and how she perceives the present trends in the e-learning domain.

Learning designers, especially instructional designers need interaction and negotiation skills, convincing the stakeholders about the design. They also need to keep the learners’ characteristics and preferences in mind while designing the content. How do you achieve these goals while creating sound learning experiences? Could you share some tips for preparing for meetings with key stakeholders like the client representatives and the SMEs?

Most often, I find that instructional designers ask SMEs questions related to the content - such as: what does the term XYZ mean, How is XYZ used and so on. This is not a very good use of SME time. Basically IDs should quiz the SME about “tacit” information, such as audience characteristics, what is difficult in teaching the subject (motivation, difficult content etc.), how does the SME address these challenges, and so on. One framework that I find useful when interviewing SMEs is this:

  •  What the ID knows
  •  What the SME knows
  •  What the ID and SME know
  • What the ID and SME both do not know
Details of this framework can be found in my paper –
Interfacing with SMEs: Structured Interaction Approach

Often, we attribute the role of a designer to a facilitator of learning. How do we deal with an SME who is not open to the design principles and has some strong views on how learning happens through the new media. (How can we interact and learn more about the content from SMEs while patiently 'educating' them about designing for new media)? Would you like to share any interesting incident?

1. I think that any good SME is open to the idea of change if we give/explain the rationale for using a certain methodology/technology. I have always had positive interactions with SMEs. If you have done your homework, learnt all there is to learn about the content, and then come up with suggestions, you will be able to explain the rationale. When you do that, the SME understands your point of view. Sometimes, there is merit in what the SME says as well (if he/she is dissenting), and IDs must try to understand that. Not every situation benefits through delivery by new media. One has to understand the context thoroughly – the content, the audience and the learning outcomes.

2. Also, I think for SMEs, the design is in the “structure” - what we IDs call the Content Outline, while IDs think of design as only the “delivery procedure/strategy”, so role-play, scenario-based learning etc. become the design. If the ID gets the structure right, then the SME has faith in him/her, and if the ID proposes strategies within this structure, the SME usually sees value.

3. Most IDs also have this approach: “I do not know the content…it is up to the SME to help me understand.” This approach does not go well with SMEs who think how can someone teach something without knowing it? IDs have to become quasi SMEs first, they must know and understand the content to a certain extent, this is what will help them understand the challenges of learning the content and suggest strategies to simplify it (to the SME).

Moving on to evolving technology and design... please share your views and inputs in the area of designing for mobile learning. Is there a conscious need to make a transition from designing for desktop PC to handheld devices?

Given that every second person in the new generation is using hand-held devices, yes, we need to consciously transition to this. The reach of hand-held devices is far more than PC/desktops, it is actually anytime, anywhere learning. I think the major design aspect that needs to be kept in mind when designing for hand-held devices is the user-interface. Designing small/modular learning objects has been the focus in e-learning for a while now, and this works well for hand-held devices. However, most people are conditioned to use hand-held devices for entertainment (apart from its main use) -  playing games, accessing social networking sites etc., and a challenge for IDs will be to figure out ways to deliver content through fun-filled means.


Do you think use of social media and its integration in online courses will help build the much-needed ‘human’ element (virtually though). What would be the challenges in sustaining participation through social media?

To some extent, yes. I think that the challenges are fairly similar to the challenges that any trainer or teacher faces in a real classroom. For instance, in a classroom there are students who like to participate actively, and others who are passive. Similarly, while we may use collaborative learning tools to ensure student participation, there will always be a set of learners who need to be constantly prodded and encouraged to participate. The key is not to think that collaborative tools will make all learners participate on their own. We have to design mechanism into the learning program to encourage the non-participating students, just like we encourage the passive students in a classroom.

Instructional designers are in constant interaction with decision makers and key stakeholders - right from the Proof of Concept (POC) or demo stage to actual project win - ID plays an important role in any e-learning project - how can he or she ensure that the project is completed on time, within budget, making proper use of all resources?

Yes, an ID has to be a Jack or Jill-of-all-trades! IDs have to not only design but also monitor schedules, use resources optimally and ensure that the project stays within budget. The maximum attention must be paid at the start - project scoping is the most important phase – if that is done right, then the rest will all automatically fall in place.

What is your opinion on design re-use? Can we have generic designs or templates that can be used across certain types of content? Could you share some examples?

Generic designs and templates, especially those that are time-tested such as Gagne’s Events, Hunter’s Model, Kolb’s Model etc. are quite useful – especially when organizations are creating content in volumes. However, just as with any other field, there are times when you cannot stick to one generic model. IDs have to analyse models and templates with the context in mind, and then determine reuse. I have also personally found Ruth Clarke’s Content Types model quite useful (Procedure, Process, Principle, Concept and Fact).

Can authoring tools replace designers? For example, rapid development tools like Captivate and Articulate come with ready-to-use templates that do not necessarily require knowledge about Instructional design?

No. I do not think so. Companies are using SMEs to create content using these templates, but the fact is that the SMEs are first trained to understand ID. So, they are replacing IDs with SMEs – but the SMEs are trained in ID and e-learning technologies first.

Quality and consistency of design has a tremendous impact on learning. How can we ensure that we evaluate the content, take learners’ feedback and follow it up systematically, especially in scenarios where we don’t directly have access to learners?

Evaluation is a very important factor in making any training effective, and the much used ADDIE model does have Evaluation as a stage. Where it is difficult to take learners’ feedback directly, we must ensure that we put in place systems (technology and non-technology based) to capture such feedback. Feedback modules/forms can be built into learning programs and mechanisms created for getting the feedback to the designers.

There’s a misconception that Instructional Design is all about writing and storyboarding (we know, this is only a part of it). This is typically the case when there is limited exposure to design, mostly in ‘outsourced’ content development scenarios where ‘design’ happens in a different location. How can we change this perception and create more awareness about the significance of design. Would you like to share any interesting incident?

I think that this is the perception in India. Most people in India think of Instructional Design as just a storyboarding or content development exercise. The initial exposure to ID in India was when companies abroad outsourced content development to us – so they designed the stuff and we had to script as per the design. So, companies and organizations asked/advertised for people with a flair for writing to fill up ID posts. And, I think the practice just continued. Until such time that companies demand for and recruit professionally qualified people, the perception will remain. I think that the first step to correcting this, is to recruit candidates with professional qualifications, such as a degree in education OR instructional design Or Educational technology.

What would be your advice to Instructional Design professionals? How they can learn from their projects, collaborate and share their knowledge and experience?

One advice – do NOT think that ID requires only good writing skills. Think beyond the “Instructional Clarity”, “Instructional Flow” and “Crisp Language standards” – which has been beaten to death anyway. Communities and forums are a good way to share knowledge and collaborate. I would also advise the ID community to read some books on education, cognition and learning! It will help them evolve from content developers to true learning designers.