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Less Talk, More Practice: Instructional Design Communities of Practice

In: Designelearning

A Call to Action: Go Design Something

As an instructional designer, I am proud to consider myself a “creative.” It’s one of the things I like most about my work. While this may not apply to everyone in the learning field, my particular position, and, if you look at job descriptions, quite a few other people like me not only design instructional experiences, we are also responsible for graphic design, motion design, video, sometimes even web design. We could argue as to whether or not this should be the case, but we won’t. This is the world many of us live and work in and, for my part, I enjoy the challenge. But, unlike most other creatives, I find that many of us in instructional design do a whole bunch of talking about effective practices and effective design, but still treat our work as though it begins and ends with the latest assigned project. I think it’s time for this to change. Right here, right now, I’m throwing down the gauntlet: Go design something!

Creatives Practice, Often

Creatives aren’t people who somehow, magically are amazing at what they do; who have flashes of inspiration that happened to come out perfectly. Those great short films you saw on Vimeo or that elegant web design or those stunning graphics? Yeah, they are the result of some serious hours spent practicing, failing, critiquing, doing.

Via FroDesign

Super Mario posters in the style of WWII Propaganda[/image]Take the graphic designer, as an example. A graphic designer, perhaps especially one new to the field or looking to make a name for him or herself, doesn’t just do the designs they’re hired for. They are constantly practicing their design skills, creating projects for themselves (like this designer who reimagined Pokemon names as logos for specific types of companies). The have created communities of practice for themselves, like Dribbble and Behance. Graphic design isn’t a 9 to 5. It isn’t something that they only do on when they get a project. They are always practicing, refining their skills. Another example of practice, these folks created a parody update of Friends. Why? Because they wanted to.

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The web designer is the same. A good web designer doesn’t just read up on the latest web design trends or best practices. He or she finds sites to design or redesign, just for themselves, just for the practice, in order to experiment with new concepts and technologies. And what do we do? How many of us actively practice designing instruction? Now I can almost hear you saying, “Kristin, I practice all the time. You know, at work.” But ask yourself, what creative practices or (only practices) while doing the job? Dancers don’t practice dancing during the performance; that’s what the weeks and months in between are for. What kind of performance do you think you’d get if the only time a dancer danced was at the show? Spoiler alert: a bad one. Now, writers might seem like notable exception to this whole practicing thing. They could be thought of as practicing as they write a novel, for example; they may still be experimenting, finding their voice. But if you think that that’s the only time they practice, you’d be flat out, dead, and in all other ways, wrong. They are always practicing: writing short stories, writing for prompts, writing essays. It should be the same with instructional designers. We need the practice. Without it, we aren’t living up to our potential. It’s too easy to settle into the comfort of old design templates and cluttered, glorified slideshows because of budgets and time constraints and all of the other things that happen in a project you’re being paid for. Practice is meant to get you ready for these challenges, to prime your creativity pump, to make you better at important work you do.

Some Suggestions

Maybe you’ve thought about practicing but you weren’t sure how to get started. It can sometimes be challenging to think up prompts and scenarios for yourself. So here’s the part where I point you in the right direction. Right now, I only know of two communities of practice that actually encourage practicing instructional design through prompts: the Articulate Elearning Heroes community, which offers weekly prompts, and my own budding endeavor over at AWSM Prompts. The Articulate Challenges are a great option when:

  • You want a lot of variety. Prompts are every week.
  • You want to challenge yourself to develop quickly. Most folks tend to give themselves the weekend and others challenge themselves to produce a prototype in 24 hours. It’s a wonderful way to develop skills in rapid prototyping.
  • You want to learn Articulate software fast
  • You need an established, active, welcoming community

I started AWSM Prompts in the hopes of offering:

  • A little bit longer timeline (monthly prompts) so that you could develop fuller projects for you own practice (and portfolio) and still have time for your busy life outside of design.
  • A community that is completely tool-agnostic so that you feel free to use whatever eLearning and design tools you have in your arsenal
  • A community that offers critique as well as praise

Bottom Line

Let me be clear: If you’re reading about learning and design, keep reading. There’s great stuff out there. If you’re taking courses, keep takin’ em’. Continued learning makes us stronger in more ways than one. My point isn’t to supplant your self-education efforts. It’s to enhance them with that indispensable second step: Practice. What do you think? Do you practice enough? What’s stopping you? Are there any other communities of practice out there? Do you get together with other IDs in your organization to practice and learn? Let me hear from you in the comments.