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Instructional Design Tips: Sweeping Away the Clouds

I was recently in a meeting in which I asked some of my more experienced colleagues about how to succeed here at Allen, and as an instructional designer in general. I was particularly struck by the advice from one of our project managers. He said that sometimes people have what he called “clouds”: areas where their knowledge of a certain technology or process is dim or fuzzy. Too often they let that fuzziness linger rather than clear it up. He advised me that I should sweep away any of my own clouds because invariably they will turn into thunderheads.

I’ve seen firsthand how easily “clouds” become thunderheads. In high school I loved my literature and history classes but dreaded my math classes. I wasn’t awful at math, but I still found the subject tedious and frustrating. As soon as I finished my last required math class in high school, I decided to never take one again. I convinced myself that math just “wasn’t my thing,” and so it became one of my “clouds.” My math cloud seemed benign enough throughout my college years since I studied English literature. But, when it came time to take the GRE, that seemingly small cloud quickly grew into a giant thunderhead. My years of pretending math didn’t exist came back to bite me when I spent a summer relearning algebra and geometry to prepare for the GRE.

So why do we let these “clouds” form? Often we’re too busy. Acquiring new knowledge and skills takes time, and it is difficult to find that time when juggling multiple instructional design projects and meeting tight deadlines. But perhaps complacency is also to blame. Why try to master a difficult new skill when we can get by comfortably with our existing skills? I suspect there is also an element of self-doubt in our complacency. What if we explore the cloud more deeply and find that we simply aren’t bright enough to sweep it away?

As instructional designer consultants we specialize in helping our clients find and eliminate the “clouds” for their audience, but as we design we need to remember why these clouds form in the first place. Our solutions will be more effective if we ask ourselves the right questions:

• How can we make training solutions flexible enough to fit the time constraints of our audience?
• How can we motivate an audience to change their behaviors?
• How can we create a challenging but safe learning environment where learners can take chances and make mistakes while still having a constructive experience?

What tips do you have for helping learners sweep away their “clouds?”

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