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Four Instructional Design Lessons Inspired by the Lord of the Rings

Jackson_Kody.pngBy Kody Jackson, MA, Instructional Writer Intern

Instructional design is a lot like The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t the most obvious of comparisons, I’ll admit. Everyone in Middle Earth, after all, rides around on horses. We certainly don’t get to do that here at Allen Interactions...at least not until the Culture Committee puts in that petting zoo I’ve been begging for. We also don’t have swords. The pen may be mightier, but it definitely lacks the same “cool” factor.Maybe I should be more specific with my simile. Instructional design is a lot like being Saruman from The Lord of the Rings (the evil wizard pictured below).


At least that’s what I’ve picked up from people outside the e-learning industry. When I tell my friends and family what I’ve been doing this summer, they fix me with that dreadful, accusatory stare. “You!” their eyes scream silently, “You’re the one who put me through those terrible HR e-learning compliance modules?” A few have even made a move to strangle me! Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but there’s no denying the fact that many people dislike (or even despise) e-learning and those who create it.

I’m pretty sure Saruman could sympathize with our plight. By the end of the 2nd Tolkien book, several main characters (heroes, no less!) are trying to kill him. Admittedly, he had done a little more than the Middle Earth equivalent of creating boring e-learning (i.e., “Page Turners” and “Click-Tells”). Saruman had acted as evil sorcerers typically do, bewitching kings, hatching orcs, and generally plotting to dominate Middle Earth.

Perhaps the most devious of Saruman’s plans involved the Mines of Moria. Take a look at the video here to get a better sense of the scene.

Using his dark powers, the wizard drove the saga’s heroes from the heights of the mountain to the depths of Moria, a place filled with goblins, cave trolls, and a nasty thing called a Balrog. Such a trap was not only despicable, putting Tolkien’s heroes into mortal danger, but also surprisingly applicable, at least to those of us working in instructional design. How many of us have wrestled with the exact same question: how do we change the performance of others?

There are at least four e-learning instructional design lessons we can learn from Saruman, the brilliant, if morally bankrupt, spell-caster.

1. He Focused on Observable Behavior

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Saruman didn’t care one whit about whether or not his enemies “understood” that the mountain was dangerous. He wanted them physically off the mountain; intellectual knowledge had nothing to do with it. This narrow and actionable focus had two effects. It a) made sure his underlying goal was met and b) made it really easy to evaluate if his “teaching” was effective.

The same with instructional design. Our clients’ focus is on achieving observable and measurable changes in performance and business (increasing sales, following safety regulations, etc.), so shouldn’t our e-learning courses and activities be designed with that idea in mind? Saruman might be evil, but, because of his attention to observable behavior, he also might be a good fit for us here at Allen Interactions. HR will be thrilled!

2. He Took Advantage of Intrinsic Feedback

Saruman never said a word to his foes. His biting wind, driving snow, and falling rocks did the talking for him, silently yet strongly emphasizing the dangers of moving forward. And how effective it was! Maybe the sorcerer had one of those social psychologists as his advisorsyou know—one of those experts endlessly reminding us that 93% of communication is nonverbal.

Those experts have made quite the impact here in Minnesota, if not in Middle Earth. At Allen Interactions we design our activities so that the feedback is unstated, yet unambiguous. Take the example of our course for Kaiser Permanente on pediatric weight management. Facial expressions change from contented to confused, while verbal responses range from reasonable (“Oh, you know, I hadn’t thought of that”) to anything but (“So you’re saying I can have cake for breakfast?”). “Right” and “wrong” are implied, but not stated explicitly, just like in real life.


3. He Paid Attention to Learner Motivation

Saruman also understood his “audience,” the Fellowship of the Ring. These men were focused and determined; these were men trying to save the world. The evil wizard took their internal motivation into account. He made his “teaching” instantly applicable to their lives, something more likely to provoke thoughts of concern (“How do I get out of here alive?!?”) than contemplation (“How is this meaningful to my life anyhow?”). Saruman made his work instantly relatable and relevant, even for people preoccupied with flashing steel and flaming eyes.

We need to structure e-learning with a similar understanding of human nature. Our learners lead busy lives. They need clear, convincing reasons to take our training seriously. Show (and don’t just tell) how new procedures will make an employee’s life more pleasant, productive, etc. This e-learning course created for Manhattan Associates below does just that, by placing learners inside a distribution center. There, in the midst of falling inventories and moving forklifts, Manhattan employees could see the value brought by their company’s software solutions, even if they had never set foot on the factory floor. The value is obvious: we use these tools to save time on the job. Read more about this specific solution here or access the demo here!

Sometimes, the value of training can simply be getting out of the training. Most people take the Band-Aid approach to e-learning: they try to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Consider designing your e-learning courses so that “the fastest way out is through.” Have learners justify multiple-choice answers, master all clicks on a software screen to advance, or perform other multi-step tasks. Adding challenges like these encourages people to engage more fully with the content. “If I am going to have to do the work to figure this out eventually anyway,” explains Allen Interactions’ Chief Instructional Strategist, Ethan Edwards, of the learner’s mindset, “I might as well do it now.” It might not be magical, but it’s certainly motivational.

4. He Put Instructional Design First

When you think about it, Saruman could have done so much more with his spell. His was a world, after all, where talking trees roamed the forest and incantations afforded the protections of invisibility. Even smoking a pipe was far from mundane! Magic made almost anything possible. Yet, Saruman made his storm fairly simple. There were no fire-breathing dragons nor undead legions, and no flying broomsticks either. The storm served its purpose, and that was it.

Our world isn’t that much different from Tolkien’s fantasy. We don’t have the words of ancient incantations, admittedly, but we do have even more powerful languages like HTML and Java.  As instructional designers, we can build elaborate branching, scenario-based conversations. The sky is the limit… so long as that sky is within time and budget constraints. Yet, Saruman challenges us to design within reason, not just within budget. In a world with so much potential, we have to concentrate on what is effective, not just what is possible.

And that, I believe, is the key point moving forward. Saruman, despite his evil tendencies, displayed a remarkable depth of understanding of his enemies. He knew what would motivate them to move forward, and the kinds of challenges they would engage in and work to overcome. As instructional designers, we, too, should strive for a similar appreciation of our learners. We should know what matters to them and what motivates them to move forward. Empathy, empathy, empathy…it’s no “abracadabra” or “hocus-pocus,” but it might just be enough to break the spell of bad e-learning…or at least lift the curses of hostile dinner guests.


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