Thursday, August 2, 2007

Effective eLearning ID: Tech Skills Req'd?

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' corporate blog)

Alan Kay, a true pioneer/legend in the Computer Science world, once said:

"People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has referenced this quote several times when challenged with the idea of making Apple more profitable by taking a page from Microsoft's strategic play book and concentrating efforts primarily on software.

Without speaking for Mr. Kay and what it was that he intended with this famous phrase, one potential interpretation is that living in operational silos makes for less than stellar results. The more you have isolated groups who have little/no understanding or appreciation of what goes on in other operational divisions, the less likely you should expect anything groundbreaking or revolutionary to emerge. The best one can expect in such a circumstance is a more finely polished version of what has been seen before, due to a lack of understanding of what is possible and reasonable.

Relating this interpretation to the world of online learning and instructional design, I have gone back and forth over the years regarding if the best (eLearning) IDs also have a more-than-passing familiarity with the basics of computer science, programming, and some of the more popular/powerful authoring tools.

Reflect, for a moment, on the following:

  • Are the IDs you admire/respect the most tech literate?
  • In recruiting, do you explicitly look for tech abilities/understanding as one of the characteristics that are required?
  • Are tech skills something your organization supports developing (in the form of ongoing training) in its ID team members?

Why? Why not?

I'm still not fully convinced one way or another, but I have a heavy leaning...

In my 16+ years in the field, I've seen far too many examples of designs thrown over the wall to developers that detail either mind-numbingly simple interactions (for lack of knowledge that anything better was possible) or amazingly complex pipe-dreams that would require a form of A.I. to actually implement (for lack of understanding of what sorts of logic would necessary). In such cases, I can't help but believe that having a moderate understanding of how development work is done would make for better designs (and ultimately, courseware).

Just as a good architect can't simply design based on what 'looks good', but actually needs to have a basic understanding of the strength of various materials and how they may (not) interact with each other, perhaps the best IDs should know be conversant with Programming Concepts 101 (maybe 201? maybe more?).

Of course, there will always be the counter argument that such a background should be regarded as a 'nice to have', not a 'must have'. After all, didn't Frank Lloyd Wright design beautiful homes that had notoriously leaky flat roofs? (it is said that FLW once told a client to "Move the chair" in response to a complaint of rain leaking through the roof of their house onto the dining table.) But should we build the rule based on the exception?

How would the ID profession change (both positively and negatively) if we suddenly began to require more of a tech-bent? Would we end up cutting our noses off to spite our face? Or would we see a sudden surge in the quality, sophistication, and ingenuity of the instructional solutions that are thrust upon the world?

I'd like to hear YOUR thoughts, regardless of what they are, or how fully fleshed out they might be!

Weigh in!

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