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Can Design Thinking Advance Our Jobs as Instructional Designers?

By , senior instructional strategist | @LearnerAdvocate
Angel Green senior instructional strategist

Like many people I know, I am a huge fan of Ted Talks. Recently, however, I heard a TedX talk that very much frightened me. It wasn’t a talk about a health issue, an environmental concern, or even our failing schools. In fact, the topic itself wasn’t likely intended to instill fear as a motivator for action. But, at timestamp 3:10 a chill went down my spine.

In the Ted talk, Are droids taking our jobs?, Andrew McAfee speaks about non-industrial jobs being replaced by computers, or droids. The first example he provided stopped me in my tracks, which is a bit frightening considering I was driving when I heard the talk!

Here is a snippet of what he said.

Throughout all of history, if you wanted something written, a report or an article, you had to involve a person. Not anymore. This [showing a newspaper clipping] is an article that appeared in Forbes online awhile back about Apple's earnings. It was written by an algorithm. And it's not decent, it's perfect.

I did a little research and found that a company called Narrative Science released this particular article, and thousands like it. They use a technology called Quill, which according to their website is “an artificial intelligence platform that applies Narrative Analytics to give voice to ideas as it discovers them in the data.”

Now, I studied public relations as an undergraduate. I wrote press releases as an intern. My professors never said my press releases were perfect. Maybe 98%, but never 100%. But this one, written by an inanimate object—an algorithm and some lines of software code―was able to achieve the mark of perfection. 

The reason this Ted Talk sent chills down my spine was not because of my undergraduate study, but rather what a service like Narrative Science could potentially do for the world of corporate learning and development. Specifically for e-learning.

On Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, etc. I continually see posts for checklists or guides on how to make e-learning. There seems to be a series of “rules” to make an e-learning course “instructionally sound,” for example:

  • Begin the course with the list of objectives.
  • On every third slide/screen, give the learner an opportunity to interact with the course, for example a drag and drop, a multiple choice, or a true/false question.
  • When teaching software, present the learners with the Show Me, Guide Me, Test Me model.

The list goes on and on―until what you wind up with is an almost formulaic method to develop training from content. The Ted Talk discussed the concept that any time there is a formula, even a loose one, there is a way a computer program can do this work. In other words, courses that follow a set of rules could be created by a droid, potentially removing the need for an instructional designer altogether.

Provocative as this statement might be, when I evaluate courses created by many, many different companies and clients with which I’ve worked, I can see how this could be a real possibility. The e-learning courses I have seen, and taken, often feel like they were created by a droid. They are void of emotion, void of context, void of anything remotely connecting to me, the learner. 

Design Thinking | Are Droids Taking Our Jobs?

The good news is, the droids haven’t taken our jobs yet. In his Ted Talk, Andrew McAfee states, and I agree with him, that the thing we can bring to the table is what makes us uniquely human—our creativity, our innovation, our spark! In other words, it’s time for instructional designers to embrace the fact that we are, at least by our titles, designers.

There is a movement called design thinking, which is not new, but might be new to the world of instructional design. The basic principles of design thinking revolve around an empathetic design generated by a hybrid group of people who come together to brainstorm a lot concepts before landing on one that sticks, and prototyping that design before moving into development.

A lot of the instructional designers I speak with at conferences, in organizations with which I work, and through social media interactions, say they don’t feel they are the “creative type.” They feel anxious when I mention they should start sketching and brainstorming. Their comfort zone is in analyzing data and organizing content.

I recognize that I’m asking a lot of people to step into a world in which they may feel like a fish out of water. But, through harnessing the techniques and the principles of design thinking in the world of instructional design, perhaps we can separate ourselves from the formulas.


For a deeper discussion on this topic and for some techniques and tools on how to foster creativity, spark innovation, and move to a more empathetic design, join me for my upcoming premiere two-hour training webinar, Design Thinking for the Instructional Designer

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