Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The role of theory in Instructional Design

I was reading this article a week or so ago on the role that theory plays in instructional design. Even though the study was very limited (only 7 participants, and in several different industries), I've seen similar results when working with my classmates (I should point out that this post is not meant to criticize my classmates, but to point out observations in the instructional design field as a whole)

The researchers in this study found ten themes:


  • Participant desire to use theory and report that they often do.

  • Participants expressed ambivalence toward theory (theories were “viewed as overly abstract, rigid, or complex with relatively little guidance regarding application.”)

  • The range of theories chose are “likely limited to those that practitioners know about, understand how to apply, and find useful in their work.” The researchers then suggested that “practitioners may seldom identify theories that are actually useful in their specific setting, even if a helpful theory exists.”

  • Practitioners did not distinguish between theories, models, and design processes in descriptions of their work, “possibly suggesting that – given the abstractness and complexity of many of these conceptual tools – practicing designers are offered little basis for differentiating them and may lack the ability to select ones most suitable for their purposes.”

  • Using theory as an argumentative device brings a measure of legitimacy and professional to design decisions. However, theory use was somewhat hindered by others who did not see its value. This, the researchers noted, pointed to “an interesting and often tension-filled aspect of instructional design work (i.e, the process of negotiation to arrive at a workable design plan.)”

  • Decisions are often made on the basis of intuitive judgment and practical wisdom developed over time.



Now I see these embodied in my classmates, but I don't think it's necessarily an issue with the learners, but rather the curriculum. I've certainly has a couple of classes where we've had theory, and how theory can be turned into practice, but those were probably only a couple of classes out of the whole curriculum. Most of the curriculum seems very 'practical'. I would say that in Instructional Design 80% is practice, 20% is theory, while the opposite is true in my Applied Linguistics curriculum, where we spend 80% of the time deconstructing theory and how we see it manifested in the classroom, and 20% of the time applying theory to our classroom practices.

In courses that are heavy with theory, we are also expected to do research on our own, go out there and find resources, find additional theory, see how different theories connect or contrast, and then you make up your own mind as to what works, what doesn't seem to work based on what you've experienced.

I think that theory for theory's sake is wasted time, but paying no attention to theory, and not keeping up with recent (or older!) research, and seeing how the research fits in to what you do. Like most professions, Instructional Designers need to keep abreast with what is going in the field they are in (Education) in order to keep up with developments so your skills aren't antiquated. Sure, you can learn the newest computer program, or web 2.0 doodad, however if you don't know any theory, how will you apply what you've learn with doodad-X?

The danger of just going with your gut, or practical wisdom made over time (last bullet) is that you are pigeonholing yourself to the same old practice, when in fact that practice may have been proven wrong, or there is something out there that fits your needs better than what you are using now.

I think that students in Instructional Design should be designers and researchers because what they research, what they find, directly impacts how they work.

I would be interested to see what results would be if full research on this topic were undertaken.
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