Monday, September 29, 2014

ID Standards: Addresses Sustainability

Standards are different from theories or models.  Standards about the ways competent professionals that judge their own work and that of their peers. 

For instructional designers (IDs), theories are filters that create mental models and structures for what learners need to have in place in order to learn.  As such, theories are not standards.  However, they do create a common language around the application of that theory.  Over time, theory-in-practice creates a mental model about how that theory should play out when applied.  IDs have learned how to mix-and-match theories to take the best of multiple theories in order to create better and better learning solutions.  We (for I am an ID, as well) have created an internal set of standards that cross multiple theories.  The theories are not the standard, our mental model of combined theories is.

Similarly, product and instructional solution development models such as ISD, ADDIE, SAM, Agile, Lean, or Six-Sigma proscribe techniques for moving the learning solution idea from idea to delivered learning.  They create a common language around the process of building learning solutions.  

Experienced IDs use the stages of development and tools of those stages as markers to guide them in determining whether the emerging learning solution meets their own personal standards.  
Yes, the interwoven nature of standards, theories, and models gets tangled and convoluted.

We are discussing here the internal standards that competent IDs use. That those standards emerged from theory and development models is true, but they are different from both theories and models.  Think of them as lens describing the effectiveness and quality of the learning solution.  Each ID applies many lens to their work as he or she moves through the cycle that is learning solution development.

Standards are the measures that IDs use when determining whether they will sign-off on a learning solution, or not – whether their name goes on the final product.

The competent instructional designer/developer (ID) addresses sustainability (of the learning solution).

At first, "sustainability" seems to be a lesser standard than, say, Aligns Solution, Engages Learning, or Assesses Performance. As the ID Badge Team at TIfPI worked on defining ID standards and performance, this standard seemed to not fit, even though surveyed practitioners indicated that they did do this work frequently and that it was important.  Over and over again, this one was tough to define and describe.  Then, suddenly, it came into focus; it made perfect sense.  None of wants to engage in the development of a learning solution that will not be valued.  We value our work and our time, we want our products to be valued.  Therefore, we all address sustainability. 

Strangely, sustainability is something that instructional designers 
and developers address from the moment that they are engaged in planning a learning solution and continue to address throughout the development project right up to the end.  Yet, it is one that we do not talk about with other IDs.

Consider a typical engagement start.  A sponsor or project lead meets with the ID to introduce the project.  Right away, the ID starts asking questions about the purpose of the project and how it the learning solution will be deployed.  In the back of his or her mind, the ID is also asking themselves whether this is the right project for them, whether the resources are available, and whether the timeline is reasonable.  They are addressing sustainability of the learning solution project -- can I do this.  If it do-able, the ID moves on to other issues.  If not, he or she begins negotiating (time, content, tools, others involvement, etc.)

Even while trying to determine that the project is viable, competent IDs are also asking questions about the how the learning solution will be deployed.  They ask about the size of the audience, the connection between the course and the work, the preparation that learners will have before the course, and the follow-up ensuring transfer.  Here IDs validate both short-term sustainability of the course – that it can be deployed and delivered a few times.  They also check that there will be a long-term need for the learning solution -- that it solves a problem over time and that the first learners can demonstrate change so that future learners will want to come to the course. 

When the learning solution project has been negotiated and accepted, development beings.  While the negotiations and acceptance may be very short and very informal, they do exist for everyone. 

During development, competent IDs continue to work toward that end goal of a sustainable learning solution that meets the need and draws in learners over time.  This includes seeking appropriate content, identifying ways to improve the content, building more robust and less expensive courses, and creating a learning solution that is easy to maintain over time.

Case Study: the Case of the Unsustainable Learning Solution

Once upon a time, there was a young and idealistic ID called in to develop a course for a highly technical software that was still just an idea.  The sponsor was a respected scientist and corporate executive who wanted an instructor-led course that would teach programmers, data base administrators, systems architects, and content developers enough about the scientific field that they could build the software, database, interfaces, and manage complex content sources.  When asked about the details of the course’s audience, the ID discovered that each audience needed a slightly different class, as the software under development grew.  The course content stayed the same, but the tools used for activities would be different at different stages of the software development project.  The only instructor would be the scientist and the course would need to change between every delivery.  The size of the audience that would receive this highly customized courses?  Ten to fifteen people at each of five stages. 

Sustainability Question: Is it feasible to customize a course to this degree for an audience that is this small?  Probably not.  Yet this course was done. 

The point in addressing sustainability is to make the unwise or improbable solution workable and reasonable.

After some discussion, our ID discovered that the basic content and activities would be static.  Our ID discovered that course activities could be done through a variety of online tools (without the yet-to-be-designed software.)  The expert simply wanted learners to do exercises in the new software (in a DEV environment) as it developed, but continually emerging activities would have the same purpose as those done through the online tools.  Our ID also knew that new software systems often failed on the day that you really needed them to work, as well.  Therefore, using a DEV version of a software could make a course activity unviable. The key to sustainability was in the online tools. 

Solution: This course was developed only once using the online tools for individual activities. Then, it could be tweaked at every re-delivery of the course adding in equivalent activities using the DEV environment tools as those tools emerged. If DEV wasn't functioning on the day of the class, the original activities would continue to be available with the online tools.  Designed with only the smallest of tweaks between classes, the expert himself could modify the participant materials adding new versions for each activity while keeping the original version in the materials – adding exercise 2B, while keeping 2A.  During class the instructor could simply define which activity (2A or 2B) was being used that day based on whether DEV was functioning correctly or not.   Each round of delivery added one or more new activities (2B, 3B, 6B) depending on what had been developed and was functional at each stage.  Each course could be unique, while the overall work effort to maintain the course materials was low.

It worked.  It was a sustainable course over several years during times of high change.  Addressing sustainability moved this improbably course from 'can't do it' to 'done and working.'
Do ID's address sustainability?  Yes, all the time.  Every day.  Every project.  Every learning solution.

Definition of a Standard

Consider the definition and performances for Addresses Sustainability as listed for The Institute for Performance Improvement (ITIfPI's) ID Badges.

Definition:  Considers the best usage of resources (time, money, materials, staffing, technologies, etc.) now and in the future.

Performances that demonstrate this standard for a Solution Domain Badge (one or more of the following):
  • Selects tools and methods that can be replicated at minimal costs and time.
  • Builds in techniques that allow subject experts and instructors to modify the learning solution without requiring the solution to go through a complete revision cycle for each modification.
  • Recommends tools and techniques that improve the learner’s learning environment and better match the learner’s needs.
  • Recommends tools and techniques that improve the learning solution’s cost effectiveness.
  • Leverages content, solution development processes, and solutions for reuse and for lowest cost of reproduction.
  • Develops solutions that can be turned over to a different team that will support or teach it over time.
  • Develops solutions that include planned future review cycles.
  • Remediates expensive one-time solutions with follow-up that allows learners to access elements of that learning solution.
  • Explains improvements to original learning design where such improvement created savings, improved learning, improved functionality, generated better data to the sponsors.

Note that any one solution may not require the use of all 9 performances listed.  Individuals applying for ID badges will be asked to describe how they demonstrated at least 4:9 performances.

Can you see yourself doing these performances?  Can you see yourself doing at least 4 of these performances with every learning solution?  Can you see other IDs doing these performances, perhaps differently, but still doing them?  If so, you need to consider applying for a learning solutions development credential.  Go to

Want a list of all 9 ID standards?   

Would you like to know about the study -- a practice analysis -- that TIfPI Practice Leaders did to generate and validate nine standards, including Addresses Sustainability?  Go to

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