Reading Wide: Learning from Beyond Instructional Design

We’ve talked before about how eLearning is a broad field that involves many disciplines. So, if you want to learn something specific to further your design skill, or just for your own personal development, it’s pretty easy to find a book that will help you on your way. In fact, Jessica wrote a pretty good list of books related to eLearning just last week.

But I want to approach that list from a slightly different angle: what not-at-all eLearning related books can we draw eLearning lessons from? 

Being a strong designer means being able to assemble knowledge from unrelated disciplines and apply it to the task or problem at hand. But, that’s not a skill that always comes to mind while in the midst of a problem, and sometimes it’s useful to practice it. So that’s what I’ll be doing today.

So, here’s three non-eLearning books I read in 2018 that inform my work.

The Story of My Life – Helen Keller

The Story of My Life – Helen Keller

The autobiography of Helen Keller is not only an inspirational story about the struggles of a woman making her way in a world that was a constant challenge to her, it’s also a powerful, personal reminder of how critical accessibility features are when we build courses. Last year, some of our team presented at a UDL symposium.

We talked about basic steps you can use to make your courses more accessible. But even that is challenging. If you don’t use the best practices every day, it can be difficult to implement or call to the front of your mind the immediate necessity for accessibility features. 

Accessibility often gets added as an afterthought—we think “Well, I’ve made my course, now I need to go back and make sure it’s accessible.” Sometimes it helps to have a reminder of how critical these features are for learners.

While we may not experience day to day what it’s like to have visual or hearing impairments, the story of another person living through it can help give us that perspective. Helen Keller talks briefly about the beginning of her education:

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. “Light! give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour. 

Helen Keller “The Story of My Life”

By adding accessibility features to your courses, you get to bring that light of knowledge and love to someone who might not otherwise feel it. Take that responsibility seriously. 

Enlightenment Now– Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – Steven Pinker

This book famously became Bill Gates’ new favorite text when it was released back in the olden days of 2018. That meant I had to read it, and let’s just say I was impressed. In the book, Pinker lays out a case that despite what you may hear on the news, the world is actually getting better. Significantly.

Poverty is down. We’ve basically eradicated the possibility of catastrophic famine. More people are literate than ever. Access to good health care is broadening. Political structures and boundaries are increasing in stability. Sure, there are still problems, but with hard work and human ingenuity, they are solvable. 

So, besides being a breath of fresh air in today’s “hell in a hand-basket” climate, what did this book teach me about design? Two things, really—both of which I should have known. Or rather, I do know them, but it’s easy to forget.

1) Challenge Your Preconceptions & Biases 

This book smacked me upside the head with the dissonance between what I thought was true and what was actually true. I assumed the world was terrible because that’s what I had heard. The data told me differently. It reminded me to always question what I think I know, and be open and ready to new information as it comes to light. 

 It’s easy to keep believing and implementing the design philosophies, educational theories, and best practices that we were first exposed to as we learned about instructional design. But It’s critical to not only stay on the lookout for new information, but also be willing to integrate that new information into your workflow—even if it’s painful or involves refactoring your entire project or workflow. 

2) Look at the Data

Adjacent to this idea is to actually look at the data that you’re given—and whenever possible go out and collect it. From a design perspective, this data is feedback (and feedback is key to staying student-centered). Get it. Get as much of it as you can reasonably parse. Go over it. Share it with other designers. Get feedback from them and then decide what you want to implement in your course. 

Pinker says “remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend…And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too.” 

Just because someone says something or thinks something doesn’t make it true. Gather the data and find the real story.

Board Games that Tell Stories– Ignacy Trzewiczek

Board Games that Tell Stories – Ignacy Trzewiczek

It wouldn’t be a Dave post if I didn’t talk about games somewhere along the line. Plus, stories are important for learning too.

This is a bit of a weird book. It’s essentially a collection of blog posts from a Polish game designer as he recounts the various successes, design challenges, mistakes, utter failures, and emotional state of his design career—from starting a tiny company publishing roleplaying games to one of the most well-known companies in the tabletop gaming landscape. English is Trzewiczek’s second language (and it shows in the writing sometimes) but it’s still worth a read.

I found this book to be a reminder that each and every design is a learning experience. When we’re up against deadlines, it’s easy to get caught up in just getting the project done. We sometimes forget to reflect on what we’re doing or how we can get better at it. Some of that learning comes from the feedback I mentioned earlier, but a ton of it occurs just as we’re designing things, trying out new ideas, and exploring what works (and what doesn’t).

Each design has a story—plot, setting, characters, rising action, climax and falling action. Tell those stories (even if only to yourself). If you can identify the repeated stories from your designs, you’ll see patterns and trends emerge that can help you identify elements you’re good at or areas you need to work on.

It’s also a living reminder that your life will impact your designs—and that’s ok. Drawing upon your own life experiences—and whatever place you happen to be in at the time—will impact the learning opportunities you create. Don’t shy away from that—you have unique knowledge, experience, and thought patterns. Don’t be afraid to use them! Also, don’t forget to go out and try new things to shift your perspective. If you don’t, you’ll become stuck as a designer.

What’s a non-eLearning book that changed how you see your work? Let us know!


Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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