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Q&A With Julie Dirksen On What Learning Designers Need to Learn

— by Meghan Bender

Workforce training

How do you design course material for optimal retention, attention, and engagement — at the same time juggling the needs of your “learners,” subject matter experts, and others? It’s a daunting challenge, but one that instructional designer Julie Dirksen believes anyone can master with some clear-eyed guidance. Dirksen, whose new book, Design for How People Learn, is drawing raves in the learning community, spoke to The Daily Mindflash about what most instructional designers still need to learn themselves.

What’s the one big mistake you see in e-learning design — and how do you think it can be solved?

Julie Dirksen: I think that sometimes the conversation is too centered on technology or too much about implementation issues or process things. It kind of spins on “how do we craft those experiences?” One of my big issues right now is ensuring that learners have control. For example, navigation should always be open, to allow the learners to determine their path. Forcing the sequence is a little more forgivable for truly novice learners, but in my opinion, you should always respect adult learners enough to give them control over their learning environment.

What other design rules are most important?

One is considering the learner, what their situation is, and what the real barriers are to learning. That’s a big piece of it — what are the real circumstances and situation facing the learners? Another one is really considering whether or not it’s an information problem or a skill problem. The big issue with skills is that you don’t develop them in one sitting; you have to have multiple exposures to things.

There are other things that influence behavior, and a real focus on changing behavior rather than focusing on delivering information. You have to look at how do we help people change their behavior or do the right thing, and in the right circumstances.

In your book you use lots of visual cues — bullets, images, illustrations. What other tools can designers master to help students retain information?

Understanding visual design, even if you aren’t the one doing the graphic design, can help make you a better instructional designer. Some resources include: The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams, The Rapid e-learning Blog, Connie Malamed’s Visual Language for Designers and Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell, Holden, and Butler. Also, Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics can be a great way to learn about principles of visual communication.

Is course design mostly up to instructors, or are there tools that can help you design from scratch?

That has always the challenge, because there are shortcuts for building stuff, but I don’t think there are shortcuts around the design process. I tend to think that you need to have [in mind] — and really think about — what is really going to work for your learner population, support them, and what’s going to really help them move along the path to being able to do the right skills.

If you short-change that, you’re probably not building the most effective solution. It’s unlikely that you’re going to fix that by having cool technology.

What do you hope e-learning instructors take away from your book?

I wanted Design for How People Learn to be in the same space as The Non-Designer’s Design Book. If you had no background at all in it, this would be a good starting place for people. It would give them not only some of the good things to do, but also some deeper understanding about why you do those, in an accessible manner so that somebody who really didn’t have any background in the field could pick it up and read it. At the same time, I hope there’s stuff in there that’s useful to people who have been doing this for a while or do have experience.

Click here to download a free chapter of Design for How People Learn.

Images used courtesy of the Usable Learning website.

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