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Several years ago I was a member of a rapidly expanding team of instructional designers. Once a month, we would get together to review either our own internal materials, or other outside learning products. My favorite were the external products, because they were either going to be extremely good, or horrifically bad. When confronted with a particularly bad example of e-learning, we would play a game of, “Where did it all go wrong?” Everyone at the table had a wealth of experience with demanding clients, tight budgets, changing requirements, and unrealistic deadlines, but we would all agree on one thing, the training was designed without the learner in mind.

Advocate for the Learner

As an instructional designer, I believe it is crucial to act as the learner’s advocate starting from the needs and task analysis, through design and development, and into implementation. At each step along the way, your stakeholders are going to make requests or changes, and each one can have a positive or negative impact on your learner’s experience. This is to be expected, as with any social dynamic, each stakeholder brings a different motivation or concept of success, but what separates bad training from good training, and good training from great training, is the way it connects and engages with the learner. The coolest tech, flashiest graphics, or most innovative approach is meaningless if along the way it loses touch with the end user. With costs to develop anytime/anywhere mobile learning, augmented and virtual reality training, and detailed simulations falling within reach of current training budgets, we have a tremendous opportunity to advance learner performance like never before.   

Keep the Learner In Mind

How can instructional designers advocate for learners? It is as simple as it sounds; start with the learner in mind. Throughout the process, visualize your learner interacting with your end product. Along with adopting a learner-focus as a core element of a design approach, an important function of learner advocacy is relationship building. The relationships you create with the stakeholders and the time spent assisting and educating them about their audience’s needs builds trust, comfort, and baseline knowledge that brings you closer to achieving success. When it comes time to protect the learner’s experience, you’ll be thankful for the strong relationships with your stakeholders.  

3 Ways to Make Training Relatable to the Learner

1) Put yourself in the shoes of your learner. Empathize with the challenges they face. When I work on projects with a broad and diverse audience, I like to recall my experiences teaching my parents to use their Mac SE in 1987, and imagine them as my audience behind the screen. My mom liked to know every step, and then have every step written down on a 3x5 card for reference. Turning on the computer, opening the word processor, creating a new file, saving the file, printing, changing fonts, exiting, turning off the computer, all had their own detailed note cards. Meanwhile, my dad just wanted me to show him, once, watch him do it himself, once, then go rake the leaves. We all have different learning styles, and that is a good thing.

2) Know what success looks like to you, and then achieve it. A project may change a 1000 times from design to implementation. At each step along the way, remember your audience, and remain focused on their performance outcomes.

3) Commit to a learner-centric focus. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while ... you don’t do things right once in a while … you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.”

About the author

Douglas Hutchings

Mr. Doug Hutchings is a Senior Instructional Designer at Fors Marsh Group with more than 18 years of experience in web-based course design and development for both business and academic applications, and more than 15 years of experience working on the design and development of award-winning performance and leadership solutions for the General Services Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, and US Army projects. 

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