How to Fail in Instructional Design

In my last post, I discussed the benefits and risks of incorporating new, untested educational trends in course designs.  Whenever we try something new, there is always a risk that it doesn’t work the way we expect.  From software bugs to human factors, there are countless reasons why a learning experience won’t be as effective as intended.

When trying something new, I try to ask myself is what happens if it doesn’t work.  Will the rest of the course still be effective if that element fails?  What are the costs of failure?  Is it simply a waste of the project’s time and resources, or will there be a broader negative impact for the learners?  What time and money are the students spending on a course?  Is mastery of the learning objectives critical for their job performance or subsequent courses?

If the cost of failure is low, I’m a lot more willing to take risks and try new things.  If I am completing an eLearning module for a class assignment the only cost for failure is a lower grade.  I feel free to play with the features of the authoring tools rather than developing contents of the lesson.  If I am designing an online college course, the cost of failure includes the time, money, grades, and futures of every student who takes the class.  I will still try new things, but with a much more conservative approach.  In that situation, I’m much more likely to incorporate new technology and techniques into supplemental materials rather than the core design of the course.

It should go without saying that we never start a project intending to fail.  However, no learning intervention is perfect and there is always room for improvement.  Trying new things increases the chances for failure, but also gives us the most room for growth as instructional designers.  By considering all of the ways a course could fail and the possible results of failure, we are able to make choices about how much risk is appropriate.

What is your biggest failure you have seen in a course?  What do you think could have been done differently to reduce the impact of that failure?

7 Replies to “How to Fail in Instructional Design”

  1. One failure I experienced in a course build revolved around the use of a virtual desktop that allowed students to remotely access expensive, complex software needed for their assignments (STEM). The students didn’t actually need the software until later in the course, so we thought it was working until the week the first assignment was due. The real failure was not letting the students test and try out the software before their first assignment was due. It was a little painful for the instructor and students, but a little flexibility on the due date went a long way. The lesson learned here is that I now always add a simple assignment to test the virtual desktop/software in the first week to ensure everything works properly and to avoid unnecessary stress on the students.

    1. I’ve heard a lot of stories about software tools not working as expected. I love your solution of including something small to make sure the tool is working for all of the students before relying on it for a significant part of the course.

  2. Hi Jennifer! I think about failure in ID a lot, and in our efforts to be innovative can lead to important fails that help us learn and make better efforts in the future. But you’re right…we are risking student experience along the way. I think my biggest failure in ID is not creating enough space for innovation that minimizes student risk. Thanks for your post 😁

    1. It can be really tough to find the right balance between innovation and safety in our design choices. Even without considering the risks if something doesn’t work, it is a lot easier to create something similar to what you have already done than to try new things. I think it is easy to focus on the products we are creating and overlook our own growth as instructional designers.

  3. I recall a design failure in a navigation system we designed. If learners stepped through one page at a time, they had no problems. But if they stopped in the middle and expected to return to it — of if they finished it and then wanted to go back to review something — it was very difficult to find specific pages after the fact. It was sound instruction but failed in terms of navigation and use. Luckily, we found this out from a small group of test users during our first pilot test of the first module in the system.

    As designers, purposeful formative evaluation and iterative design are our best friends. When being bold with a new design, I try to take the learner point of view, anticipate where problem areas might be and correct them early on. I also always “play it on paper” – teaming with other designers / stakeholders to literally talk through the learner actions and path through the instruction to reveal points of confusion. From there, if there is still some uncertainty if the design will work, small groups of test users can be used to sleuth out other potential issues and correct them. For my example, the process looked something like this: My thoughts –> revision –> group talk through Module 1 –> revision –> test users –> revision –> more test users –> it worked! –> minor corrections –> use Module 1 as a design model for future modules –> learners like it!

    It’s important to be innovative and try new designs. But at the same time, through formative evaluation and iteration, we can be respectful of learners’ valuable time and effort by being proactive and refining our designs before they go live.

    1. Thank you for bringing up iterative design. Prototyping and testing are a huge benefit, especially when trying something new. It sounds like you were able to identify and correct a major problem in your design before it had an impact on the learners.

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