Taking the Learner-Centric Approach to Instructional Design

I am excited to share that this year’s Human Performance Technology (HPT) Case Competition at the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) conference in Montreal was another great success. Each year I bring together graduate student teams to dig into an authentic business challenge, such as this year’s theme based on the retail food industry. After 14 weeks of client meetings and working sessions, the teams present their findings and solutions onsite during the ISPI conference.

The HPT Case Competition offers valuable, real-life application for graduate students and simultaneously helps them network and make professional connections with other ISPI attendees. Personally, I have enjoyed mentoring teams year after year, and while labor intensive, it’s immensely rewarding to watch them grow and learn over the months leading up to the onsite presentations. Students equally seem to value and appreciate the opportunity. Not only do they work hard to represent their work well, but they also make lasting friendships.

Charlie Piché, one of the graduate students who participated this year, wrote an article about his experience at ISPI, An Emu in the Water: Reflections of an Ed Tech Student at the 2017 ISPI Conference in Montréal. Charlie had the opportunity to sit down with an influential figure connected to the history of instructional design. While he chose to keep their conversation private, Charlie shared, “[I] walked away from both the conversation and the conference wondering just what kind of world [I want] to leave for my future progeny.”

For me this experience has always been energizing; it is a great snapshot of how a learner-centric experience can bring so much more. It renews my gut feeling that this is where we need to be evolving. As a designer, I start out with a simple set of learning objectives for the experience; however, each team took the case in its own direction, applying their own problem-solving approaches. What they learned far surpassed my simple set of objectives. It affirms my belief that if given a challenge, proper motivation, and the space to take it where they need—learners can do wondrous things.

Matt Donovan, VP, Learning Solutions

Matt Donovan, VP, Learning Solutions

Early in life, I found that I had a natural curiosity that not only led to a passion for learning and sharing with others, but it also got me into trouble. Although not a bad kid, I often found overly structured classrooms a challenge. I could be a bit disruptive as I would explore the content and activities in a manner that made sense to me. I found that classes and teachers that nurtured a personalized approach really resonated with me, while those that did not were demotivating and affected my relationship with the content. Too often, the conversation would come to a head where the teacher would ask, “Why can’t you learn it this way?” I would push back with, “Why can’t you teach it in a variety of ways?” The only path for success was when I would deconstruct and reconstruct the lessons in a meaningful way for myself.

I would say that this early experience has shaped my career. I have been blessed with a range of opportunities to work with innovative organizations that advocate for the learner, endeavor to deliver relevance, and look to bend technology to further these goals. For example, while working at Unext.com, I had the opportunity to experience over 3,000 hours of “learnability” testing on my blended learning designs. I could see for my own eyes how learners would react to my designs and how they made meaning of it. Learners asked two common questions: Is it relevant to me? Is it authentic? Through observations of and conversations with learners, I began to sharpen my skills and designed for inclusion and relevance rather than control. This lesson has served me well.

In our industry, we have become overly focused on the volume and arrangement of content, instead of its value. Not surprising—content is static and easier to define. Value (relevance), on the other hand, is fluid and much harder to describe. The real insight is that you can’t really design relevance; you can only design the environment or systems that promote it. Relevance ultimately is in the eye of the learner—not the designer.

So, this is why, when asked for an elevator pitch, I share my passion of being an advocate for the learner and a warrior for relevance.
Matt Donovan, VP, Learning Solutions

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