Monday, April 5, 2010

Learning from Instructional Design, Or Stealing from the best

While I'm here in Spain I'm grasping the opportunity to take some e-learning from Daryl L. Sink & Associates (they're the organization that Learning Tree partnered with to develop Learning Tree's Reality Plus courses). Since I do some instructional design for a couple of my clients, over the last 12 to 18 months I've been concentrating on increasing my knowledge in the field (my experience tends to take care of itself)--this training is part of that process.

The course that I'm taking from DSA is their "Course Development Workshop". I've been meaning to attend one of their "in-person" presentations of this course but work, so far, has always interfered. I finally decided that if I was going to do it at all, I'd best take advantage of their distance education, web-based version. I'm picking up lots of good stuff.

One of the tools that the course promotes is, I think, going to be especially useful to me and not only when I'm doing instructional design but also when I'm doing technical writing. In the course it's referred to as
   M - A = D: Master - Actual = Difference

The tool consists of a three column table that lists:
  • The performance of a "Master" (not a "superstar" because it costs too much to train people to be superstars)
  • The performance you currently have (the "actual")
  • The difference

So, for technical writing, you might have this when comparing a new hire to a competent technical writier:

Adjusts content and format for different audiences Writes what he or she would want to read Does not understand the demands of different audiences

It's actually a four column tool because DSA uses this in conjunction with a second table that lists the cause for each difference (e.g. knowledge, attitude, lack of essential tool).

In applying this to technical writing, a tweaked version of this table could be very useful in defining the knowledge domain for a document--one of the critical issues in designing a document. This table could go a long way to addressing the knowledge domain question: "What needs to be addressed in a particular document for a particular audience?" You only need, after all, to address the differences.

Of course, defining the knowledge domain is just the first step. Once you have defined the difference, the next step is determining how to address it--what content should be included to help the audience move from their current state to the required state?

It seems to me a small step to modify DSA's table to address the difference in knowledge/information between the required level of knowledge in the domain vs. the level of knowledge in document's audience. And it's an equally small step to extend the tool to include a tactic for addressing that difference. If I was writing a textbook on technical writing, I might create this version of the DSA table as part of designing the textbook's content:

Specify the different requirements of various audiences for the same knowledge domain Treats all audiences as having the same needs as he or she does Provide examples of different audience demands for the same knowledge domain. Contrast with what the author finds valuable

I'm finding this tool useful (I tried it out as part of revising a course proposal I put together for one of my clients) but obviously it needs work. Just because there is a difference and you have a way of addressing it, you don't necessarily have to address that difference. A prioritization step is also needed (DSA divides potential content up into three categories: Could, Should, and Must). It also seems to me that you need both tables: one to help you accurately define the difference and one to help you define a way of addressing it. Perhaps a five column version would work best: Master, Actual, Difference, Cause, Tactic? Too unwieldy?

And another critical point: DSA's original (M - A = D) spells out a word. My version (R - A = T) spells out an unfortunate word. And, as we all know, the success of any tool is dependent on its acronym.

Reading or read

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