Friday, December 9, 2011

The Influence of Context on Instructional Design

In one of my first instructional design courses as a graduate student, the professor Dr. Mimi Recker would very often answer questions about instructional design best practices with, "it depends." As I've moved forward in my career as an instructional designer, I have realized how important it is to really understand many of the variables in my work. Truly, in instructional design, context is everything. It affects how we apply our tools, theories, processes, and technologies to design effective instruction.
In my experience, many things influence how the designer carries out his or her work. All instructional design activity takes place within an environment or context, which can have significant and direct influence on the activity of the designer and on the resulting instruction. The following list, taken from an article I wrote previously (Gardner, 2009), demonstrates some general influences that affect the work of the instructional designer:
  • Designer Background – Every instructional designer has a different background that affects the use of instructional design tools. This background also affects how the designer perceives and responds to the other contextual influences below.
  • Community – Instructional designers work within a community, and the norms, culture, communication style, and expectations of community members can strongly influence how a designer works and the instruction they design.
  • Goals and Purposes – The goals and purposes of an organization directly influence many aspects of instructional design. For example, a fast-moving corporation (with goals of gaining profits, developing products and marketing to end-users) places different time and product demands on a designer than a large research university (with semester-long courses and goals of producing researchers).
  • Design Technologies – The kinds of technologies available and used within a context also directly influence the work of a designer. For example, developing instruction with HTML has specific constraints and that an instructional designer must work in. In contrast, using a desktop capturing tool to develop instruction has another set of constraints. Limited or prescribed access to technology can heavily influence design activity and product.
  • Rules and Policies – The rules and policies of an organization can also heavily influence design. For example, if there are design standards or structural requirements, the designer's work is immediately constrained.
  • Division of Labor –the individuals a designer works with and shares design functions with also have a strong influence. In smaller organizations, the designer often takes on development and deployment functions, while a larger organization might have different teams who perform these functions.
Awareness of these factors gives a designer the ability to adapt to any context and even influence that context in meaningful ways. If context is everything, then knowing that context will provide designers with power to design instruction that makes sense.
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