L&D Podcast recap - Robin Sargent
Training & Learning

Dr. Robin Sargent’s ‘Do It Messy’ Approach to Instructional Design

Suppose you are an L&D leader focused on identifying and solving performance gaps, just like L&D thought leaders worldwide are encouraging. In that case, you will be wondering if the role and remit of instructional design have changed in the era of Google and YouTube.

You’ll also be questioning what’s needed to counter the vast suites of bad ‘click next’ eLearning, and luckily, we have some expert advice for you on both these crucial questions.  

In this L&D podcast recap (check out the full episode here), I speak with Robin Sargent Ph.D., Founder, Owner, and President of IDOL courses and Author of ‘The Do It Messy Approach,’ about the approaches and skills required for the instructional design profession to evolve and meet the demands of the modern hybrid workforce.

Read on to hear how instructional design is more than just ‘click next’ eLearning, why employees are resistant to eLearning, and how Robin developed her Do It Messy approach to help L&D teams impact performance.

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Instructional design is solving the performance gap

Instructional design, Robin explains, starts with performance analysis and ends with designing a solution to fill the performance gap in your organization. 

“Whether that solution is learning materials or an apprenticeship program, it solves performance gap problems that result from a lack of knowledge or skills,” she says.

Crucially, instructional designers go beyond the common misconception that they are just ‘click next’ eLearning developers. It is a different role altogether. In Robin’s experience, you can be an instructional designer and never build eLearning. 

“A true instructional designer is on the design side of solving the performance gap,” says Robin. “That's identifying the needs, finding a solution, and designing the solution. So, not all of that includes eLearning at all.”

“I think that one of the misconceptions about instructional design is that people think it has turned into these bad ‘click next’ eLearning courses, and people who think that it's just all the tools when it's so much more,” she says.

Speaking of eLearning, is there a reason employees often resist it? From an instructional design perspective, Robin finds it comes down to the variables involved in creating eLearning. 

Related: Looking for more tips on how to facilitate better learning experiences? Download our playbook: How to Get Learning in the Flow of Work Right


Practical, hands-on learning in 6 simple steps

Why it’s common that employees are resistant to eLearning

In Robin’s experience, employees’ reluctance to use eLearning comes down to all the variables involved in creating it. 

“We know that training budgets are usually tight because a lot of businesses don't appreciate the return on investment or they don't see it,” she says. “Or maybe the programs and solutions aren't built to improve measurable outcomes, so it doesn't have any ROI for businesses.”

“You're talking about people who are put in a situation where they are to solve a problem, but they're not given adequate time, resources, or support to do so,” Robin explains. “And then you have the employees who are working full-time and have their own stressors in the jobs they're doing.”

The employees will have some performance gap in their role, which is why they are pushed into the training.

“But now they’re going to fix it by going to this boring, terrible training,” says Robin. “I think a lot of that has to do with why employees are resistant to eLearning, or when they actually do open it up, they see a subpar resource.”

So, how does Robin see instructional designers changing employees’ perceptions of eLearning? 

Related: 3 Steps to Solving Evergreen Problems: A Framework From Expert Gabe Gloege

Changing our learners’ perceptions of eLearning

In Robin’s experience, changing perceptions of eLearning starts with knowing both the development and front-end instructional sides of your L&D practice. 

“I know people say, ‘We don't need your unicorns’, but I disagree. I think that you should be a unicorn in the sense that you have a small caterpillar of skills where you understand a little bit of everything that is done in the L&D department.”

By understanding the holistic picture, Robin explains, even if you don't want to be an eLearning developer, you should know the reasoning behind the following:

  • How a course is structured
  • Why buttons are put in certain places
  • Why there are practice activities
  • The types of assessment that should be built to measure whether the content has been learned

“Also, the instructional designer should understand how the technology works,” she says, “because how are you going to instruct a developer to build something if you don't even know what the software is capable of doing? So, people should be exposed to everything and understand the whole picture.”

I know people say, ‘We don't need your unicorns’, but I disagree. I think that you should be a unicorn in the sense that you have a small caterpillar of skills where you understand a little bit of everything that is done in the L&D department.

And luckily for you, Robin has developed an approach to help improve your instructional design practice. Read on to hear how it works.

Robin’s ‘Do It Messy’ approach to instructional design

Specifically, Robin’s ‘Do It Messy’ approach came about in her role as a president of an authorized vocational school for instructional design and eLearning development.

“In that role,” she explains, “I've been focused on making this a formula for people. Because whenever you're teaching somebody a skill, you want them to understand the steps by breaking it down, demonstrating how it's done, and giving them an application opportunity.”

Robin found her formula when she read M. David Merrill’s ‘First Principles of Instruction,’ a textbook given to those who enter a master's program in instructional design rather than a book people are picking up as a brand-new instructional designer. So, she set out to keep it simple in her approach. 

“The ‘Do It Messy’ approach is about sharing the formula for designing solid instruction for your course blueprint. It's all about the most important thing: keeping our instruction problem or complex task centered and giving people full demonstrations and application opportunities.”

“Then, once they've had deliberate practice with their feedback, and it's centered around a real-world context, problems, and scenarios, they integrate it into their world through peer-to-peer interaction,” she explains.

The ‘Do It Messy’ approach is about sharing the formula for designing solid instruction for your course blueprint. It's all about the most important thing: keeping our instruction problem or complex task centered and giving people full demonstrations and application opportunities.

Don’t tell. Show learners how things are done

In Robin’s approach, three things are consistent throughout most theories and models: training needs to be problem-centered, people need to work in a real-world context, and they need to be shown a full demonstration.

“Think about people tying their shoes, for example. If you’re teaching a child to tie their shoelaces, you start by showing them how to tie their shoes,” she says. “One of my favorite quotes from David Merrill is that information is not instruction.” 

In Robin’s experience, it doesn’t matter if you have an ugly course if you allow your learners to build mastery through the framework of a problem-centered course design.

“We've heard that content is king, but even more specifically, when you get a full demonstration of a real-world context and you are put into a situation where you are solving the problems yourself, and you are immersed in the learning, the motivation comes from building mastery.”

“The first step is to build the whole final problem of what it is you want your learners to be able to do. Once you've built your whole problem, write out a couple more problems that work their way up to the big problem.”

When demonstrating problem-centered design, Robin shows students examples of full course blueprint scripts, gives them a checklist, and shows them what other students have done to build it out following these same steps.

“If you structure a course where you give people the opportunity to practice, apply and integrate into their real-world based on the actual context of what they're learning, then who cares what it looks like? It doesn't need to look amazing to be really effective,” she says.

So, what does Robin think is on the horizon in the world of instructional design and eLearning?

Related: 9 Tips to Help You Create Great Training courses

More peer-to-peer learning on the horizon

Before the pandemic, Robin explains, 80% of corporate training was instructor-led, most of which has now moved to eLearning or more hybrid solutions. 

“We're seeing more of these social learning networks pop up like Dr. Nicole Papaioannou Lugara from Your Instructional Designer, who is now exclusively focusing her agency on doing these social learning networks,” she says. 

“I think that it's exciting to see that instead of focusing on the instructor-led training, we're doing more peer-to-peer online learning, which still involves eLearning, but now the peers are also facilitating their own learning, helping each other find things, and creating groups of support around content to help solve their own performance gaps.” 

But what Robin finds most fascinating is seeing how we will solve our performance gaps in the remote workforce.

Thanks to Robin for sharing her ‘Do It Messy’ approach and instructional design insights with us! Keen to learn more from L&D experts? Check out my conversation with Fredrik Peterson Herfindal and Teemu Lilja on their pivot from a learning orientation to a performance-orientation L&D approach and their four steps to help you make the shift yourself!

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