Instructional Design Orthodoxy

April 27, 2012 jkatzman

I will be dating myself here, but so much of the orthodoxy in the instructional design process was forged back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when the only Computer-Based Training (CBT) tools were Toolbook for the PC, and Hypercard for the Mac. Back then, the metaphor was a deck of cards and each card was a 640?480 screen’s worth of content. Due to the technical constraints it became a law that “pages must not scroll”.  The idea that you might allow scrolling was to many an Instruction Designer taboo. The organization and division of the content wasn’t based on the subject matter, but rather what you could fit in the page.  If the content couldn’t fit on a single page, rather than allow the learning to scroll and keep their context and maintain the continuity of the subject matter, the content spilled over into the next page.  This constraint created some “interesting” design choices and some very boring page-turner content and some clever ways of cramming a lot of content into the single non-scrolling frame. This approach often obfuscates key content and leaves the user to do a scavenger hunt by clicking on all the buttons and widgets to get at the content.

Even as we progressed from CBT to Web-based Training (WBT) in the 90’s the orthodoxy still held and most of the authoring tools enforced the no-scrolling constraint. As the web took root, and the learner population shifted from baby-boomer to GenX, the expectations about how to use technology were evolving based on the adoption of web-browsers. People had no objections to scrolling pages on the web, but yet this rigid constraint persisted and WBT tools lagged behind the cultural norms. WBT looked exactly like CBT, but was now HTML/Flash based rather than proprietary formats.

In my work, we convert a lot of customer’s content to XML so that it can be brought into the LCMS, managed, and republished out to print, web, and mobile learning products. Over the years we’ve seen a lot of eLearning where one course looks just like the next with a skin, and non-scrolling, very busy screens that cram a lot of content into a page. However, in just in the past year, we’ve finally seen a shift driven, I believe, by the adoption of tablet devices like the iPad and now the Kindle fire.

The simple fact that you can use your fingers to vertically swipe to scroll pages on the tablet, is now re-shaping expectations of how users interact with the content thus changing how the content is designed.

Now, content is organization and divided by its subject matter rather than some presentation constraint. And the trend that was initiated on the tablet is now changing our expectations of how we interact with content in a computer web browser.

In my blog posts, I’ve been challenging instructional designers to embrace cultural shifts, and evolving technologies rather than brace against them.  Can we finally put the discussion of scrolling vs. non-scrolling pages to rest?

Authored by Jeff Katzman, Founder and CLO at Xyleme, Inc.
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