Relationships that don’t Suck

This post is a generalization. Now that I have that out of the way, here I go … I’ve been in the instructional design/technology/etc business for over a dozen or so years and I’ve seen lots of models in place to help people get their teaching, training, and learning materials together. In the corporate space it was a very contract driven approach with Subject Matter Experts (SME) being pushed to provide content by a project manager or instructional designer. In higher education the SME is typically a faculty member and they are typically being pushed to provide content by the instructional designers — a very corporate approach to learning design. It is my thought that this relationship is, in many ways, very unhealthy. I say that only by watching what I see around me in countless course design projects.

Back when I was an instructional designer at the Penn State World Campus I worked with a faculty member to build an online Reliability Engineering course. It was made very clear to me that a big part of my responsibility was to get the faculty member to write and deliver content on some (arbitrary) timeline. I was an Instructional Designer that had been reduced to a content task master. The faculty member on the other hand was an internationally known reliability engineer whom we reduced to the notion of content provider. I can tell you the relationship was contentious at best — for lots of reasons. One of those reasons was that we didn’t find a way to build a professional relationship that centered around us talking about what our areas of focus and expertise was all about. I find it unfortunate looking back on it as I wished I would have taken the time to work to a common ground. I could tell I made him mad and he knew that I loathed his pace in the delivery of the holy grail of eLearning materials — raw content.

How disturbing is that? Raw content … it just sounds insulting, that we would categorize what this man had to offer was nothing more than several written pages of raw content. I am sorry for ever reducing the brilliance of this man’s work into a term so demeaning as that. It is no wonder he looked at me like I was nothing more than a “computer jockey” slinging his prose into some HTML container. What a crock of shit the whole thing was.

After the conversation that broke out here this week about working to see perspectives when we come together I want so badly to offer an alternative approach to what we do in a typical instructional design process, but rarely feel like we have to time to accomplish — work to come together, build a relationship, and trust the passion, energy, and expertise we all bring to the table.

On Sunday I spent some time talking with my good friend and colleague Keith Bailey about how nasty the relationship can get between an ID and a faculty member for this very reason. We work so hard to create schedules and then push faculty to just hand over some content (and we’ll take it from there) that real anger emerges. The question that emerged centered around how do we push through and learn there are many more powerful ways to go about this task?

One I’ll offer is to embrace the notion open content. What I challenged Dr. Bailey with was at the start of the next course his team in the Arts and Architecture eLearning Institute designs is to take the content outline and first go to wikipedia, wikieducator, and other open content spaces and see what exists with the faculty member as a partner. Use that moment to explore what is and isn’t there, to start the conversation about what is different and what is similar about what they discover together. It should lead to a real conversation about why it might make more sense for us to skip designing in a closed space and instead actually using what is available and contributed what we make into these open spaces? If an article about a concept doesn’t exist, construct it collaboratively and contribute it there. The idea of a Creative Commons licensed article is much more powerful than the existing lock down we place on learning materials from within the academy.

Would the overall process of working together to identify existing content and working to contribute new knowledge into the commons lead to an opportunity unlike what our current approaches provide? I’m not sure, but would like to explore that further. Any thoughts?

12 thoughts on “Relationships that don’t Suck

  1. Good post, Cole. I don’t work in learning design but I can tell you that I hear these same discussions often. I like your idea about just taking the outline and then filling in the content from available online resources and going from there, but it reminded me of an idea you had a while ago about just working from the outline to start with. If we’re building relationships, why not build them as a community – WITH the students and not just with the faculty member? With World Campus, many of our students are working in the field and have some really wonderful experiences and perspectives to share and I wonder if giving those students the opportunity to contribute to the content wouldn’t build community in a very different way.

  2. @ Shannon Ritter Thanks for the comment! This post, as you mention, is very much like some previous thinking I’ve done around course design — actually if you dig deep enough you’ll find that I really only talk about the same half dozen things over and over again. The difference here is that I am growing tired of complaints that seem to stifle progress. I’ve been relatively vocal in my view on education recently and as one of the commenters on another of my recent posts points out, we may be modeling really bad behavior. It may be time for us to lead the way … maybe it can happen from the bottom up.

    I am interested in seeing us all embrace open thinking and creative commons licensing that can serve as an example to others. I think we’ll see the start of some new activities this year … can we lead the way is the big question?

  3. Good thoughts here, Cole. The only contention I think I have with this post is that it seems a bit decontextualized. I don’t think the way ID&D operated in the past was terribly good–but NO ONE was doing it very well at the time.

    Ten years ago, which is the time of which you write, everyone was still figuring out what to do with this medium and how to create models that would work for the students, the faculty, and the institution. There was no open content, wikipedia, or other resource to draw from, and no one really knew how to create quality courses, let alone quality in a collaborative manner.

    Thank heaven for progress! There are interesting things happening now all across the institution, from the opening up of content, to the use of open resources, to collaborative design with students, to flexible design and more collaborative relationships when working with faculty. We’ve all learned a lot in the last 10 years. I think it will be important as we move forward that we continue to have these conversations across the design community. The question is whether folks will take the time to come out of their silos and participate in the conversation. I hope they will!

  4. All of the people I work with are talented professionals that are leaders in their fields (much like your faculty member), but I complain about them a lot anyway and I feel bad about it too. I have boiled down the problem to individuals within the Division having varying levels of commitment to developing our cocurricular elearning modules and certificate programs. It’s ironic that we call ourselves a division, I know. Because developing these modules is the focus of my position, I am obviously more focused on the commitment than anyone else. Everyone else’s focus is on the important work that our units do. I am hoping that our next strategic plan will help solidify everyone’s role in supporting cocurricular learning within each unit. I am cautiously optimistic that things will change.

    I have always liked the idea of open content and using available online resources to develop content using an outline developed with the SMEs. I liked it so much that is how the content of sexual assault awareness module was developed. The downside was that I ended up doing nearly all of the writing myself, so I think I did something wrong along the way. When I tried implementing that model with another group, however, it was shot down entirely because they said that Wikipedia and some of the professional blogs and websites that I proposed weren’t valid resources. They wanted to use only government sites because they believe them to be valid. Needless to say, it was incredibly frustrating because the websites and Wikipedia were all based on the government sites, but just provided in a more easily digestible format. I feel like we’ll just be recreating the wheel, but my hands are tied and the module is stalled.

    So I think that if we are to use this model of course design successfully, commitment will play a huge role in accepting the model including how resources are selected and used, how much time individuals should be required to work on the course together as a team and alone, and who is responsible for which parts of the process. I sue there are a lot of other things that need to be included. Maybe in some units this stuff is already spelled out especially in World Campus and Outreach, but it’s not in some other units or at least mine. Chris said yesterday that he doesn’t think that some organization do a very good job of communicating what IDs do or are responsible for very well. Maybe this is part of SME/ID Conflict that seems to be raging in most units?

  5. This idea interests me because it makes me think of the two very different varieties of “Instructional Technology” jobs I see (yeah, more generalization!). 1st, you’ve got the kind that is all about the Instructional Design, especially within distance/blended/whatever learning, often in BB, Sakai, Moodle or whatever LMS. I have the impression these folks usually come out of a Masters in Education programs.

    Then you have the kind that’s much more grounded in Web 2.0 and emerging technologies, who don’t think so much about ID, but run with faculty ideas to see what could be built around them (that’s the camp I’m in). The degrees found in this camp are all over the place, but are often some flavor of humanities.

    Maybe what you describe is something of a hybrid of the two? Emphasis on the “let’s run with the options and ideas”, but combined with the more structured and planned out aspects of designing an entire course with them?

    In my work I’ve been involved in projects at various places in that spectrum. I’ve found that the best projects start heavy on the “Let’s run with the options” one semester, and over the next few semesters they get refined and better integrated into a plan for the entire course.

    The trick — that requires a lot of faculty commitment to developing over the course of several semesters, and embracing the riskiness of experimentation at the beginning. Difficult to find and encourage in the current context of education.

  6. @Stevie Rocco I agree we’ve made huge progress on both fronts. I think there is a place in the middle that we’ll eventually get to … sort of what @ Patrick Murray-John describes as a hybrid skill set. We’ve been working towards a model here that is built around the idea of the long term relationship … I am growing much more interested in impacting large enrollment environments and that takes a long time to work through. We’ve been starting with small pilots in the “let’s see what happens” approach and that over time turns into a real collaborative process as we go forward. I think by crafting meaningful relationships we’ll arrive at much stronger results and longer lasting opportunities.

  7. Interesting post. I’ve had both good and bad experiences, and I really do think the instructor is the key to any innovation – Web 2.0 or even Web 1.0.

    For the good experiences, the common factor has been that the instructor has believed in the possibilities of using Web technology to improve a course and were also willing to examine the rationale behind how they taught. When an instructor can really imagine an online scenario, solutions seem easier to find and content (whatever it is) easier to generate.

    I think main problem is that there is more “demand” for courses than appropriate instructors to fill them. Unfortunately, not every organization can control for that.

    Using Wikipedia is an interesting concept, but I suspect that for a skeptical instructor, starting with Wikipedia would lead to long discussions about the worthiness of content anyone could edit.

    I’ve actually found Wikipedia more valuable as a private textbook and image repository. Even when instructors are frustrated with the technology process, they often appreciate a team (Id/multimedia/programmer) who is willing to learn part of the content. Maybe that’s a way for the process to feel less factory like.

  8. @ Cole Camplese
    I totally agree, Cole. That’s one of the reasons I’m starting to get re-excited about the possibilities offered in this new technological world we live in. The PSU Online initiative is one such place for us to explore the opportunities offered across the institution, but I’m hoping that, eventually, the collaboration will come so naturally and in so many different avenues that it almost becomes unnecessary. Working myself out of a job, is I guess what I’m saying. 🙂

    Love to talk about some of the possibilities cross-institution as we go forward. We’re building the bridges, and I’m looking forward to working on them with you.

  9. Cole, the Designer/SME relationship are the “keys to the kingdom”. My presentation in San Jose at DevLearn in November was on this topic. While my presentation was based on my experiences in corporate custom e-learning engagements where the technical assumptions were more ‘static’, the themes focus on relationship building, setting expectations and innovation in content sharing. The technologies are changing and progressing all around us but the art of building relationships is where it all starts. If you want, I can dig up my presentation handout and offer it up.

  10. Cole,

    I think this is a nice reflective posting, and it highlights for most of us how well the state of our profession has evolved in a relatively short period of time. Yours and Keith’s interest in perhaps using WikiEducator as a source and a place to contribute content particularly intrigues me.

    If you are at all interested, the folks at WikiEducator routinely run a program called Learning4Content, which I think is conceptually elegant. I bet that we could get them to run a session for us. It is a facilitated tutorial that helps faulty, learning designers, and others involved with authoring and designing learning materials and resources to use wikis for authoring, facilitation, and delivery. The program has the participants through the creation of content. In exchange for the free course/tutorial, the participants commit to contribute their creations to the WikiEducator community under a license Approved for Free Cultural Works After all, it’s good to share.



  11. @ Ken Udas That is really interesting … one thing I wonder about is how our own Institution would view depositing content not into the Commons, but into someone else’s container? I know for a fact we can now do CC licensing on our content, what your comment makes me confront is the notion of creating that content/course in the wikieducator space. See the difference? I think it is worth exploring and I will do that!

    Damn it, Ken, I’m going to miss your voice, spirit, and intelect at PSU!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.