Sunday, July 10, 2011

An ID's Journey!

A micro-electronics engineer by education and profession, I stumbled upon ID at a time when sources of information were limited and often out of bounds. Here I try to capture the key milestones in my ID journey.

How it all Started

Imagine waking up in a small room, almost a box, with no windows and a very faint light. You notice a few objects lying around and a piece of paper with instructions to build a vehicle using these objects. There is no one who can help you. A few people who walk in and out are as clueless about the vehicle and the process of building it as you are. You follow the instructions the best you can and after much frustration, build something that doesn't look like any vehicle you have seen before. You send it out for inspection and it comes back with some pointers from an expert about the mistakes you have made. You fix the mistakes and this continues a few times until someone from outside says "Done!". You have accomplished your task, but you have no clue what that object you constructed will be used for, and how? Will it ride on roads or will it fly? Who will drive it? What the hell is it? 

What you read above is how I started my journey of Instructional Design. My company had recenly won a contract for building hundreds of CBT titles for an American company. The client had a clear idea of what they wanted from the CBTs and had created training programs focusing on that. They covered only as much as they felt necessary for us to do the job. What we got therefore was a very limited view of ID, interpreted narrowly to accomplish a task. And there is no doubt that the task was accomplished. We churned out hundreds of CBT titles that made a lot of money for us and our client. And in the long run, this project was the start of the e-learning industry in India- a great achievement indeed and I am proud to be part of it.

The First Steps

Back to the small room and my task at hand. My first challenge in this particular situation was mastering whatever was available to whatever depth was possible and necessary for the job. So, after a few months of struggling with Design Documents, Scripts, Relevance, Objectives and the likes, I became pretty good at this stuff to the extent required by the client. My next task was helping others gain this mastery over things I felt were not that complex if one only knew what was expected. I just could not bear to see people around me struggling over the very same things that had baffled me for months and cost me my health and family time.

Thus began my transitional career as a trainer. Transitional because my primary job was still creating CBTs; training other developers was my part-time self-assigned additional responsibility. All through this period, I remained focused on individual bits and pieces on stuff I saw people doing incorrectly. I did not connect any dots on the ID puzzle. What I was training on instintively was standards required by the client- how to write relevance building screens, how to craft objectives, how to apply Bloom's taxonomy, how to avoid mistakes in writing MCQs, what each column of the DD must contain etc. However mundane that might sound, it took a lot of energy and effort to make these learnable for the hundreds of new recruits straight out of college. And this act of training others itself taught me so much practical ID!

The Breakthrough!

A breakthrough of sorts happened for me one day while reading a journal on Educational Technology that the company had subscribed to. The journal had an article on Intrinsic and Extrinsic relevance and it described an experiment done to see the effect of relevance building statements within the study material provided to medical students. Expecting to see elaborate and in-your-face relevance building statements like I was used to writing and training others to write, I was riveted by what the researchers had used. To make the content on heart relevant to the medical students, the statement that was used was "The heart is the strongest muscle in the human body." The simplicity of this statement, and its power, had me mesmerized. I must have read this article a hundred times over. This explains why I remember it distinctly, even 15 years later.

What this article did for me was to open a window in the small room I was used to working in, metaphorically speaking. It showed me how the parts that we were using to build our vehicle had utility in other contexts too. It showed me how those parts could be assembled differently. It showed me that there was more than one interpretation of a concept. It showed me that if I dared, I could interpret these concepts in a way that made sense to me. This single article empowered me like nothing else had done! 

Finding My Feet

After this, my journey was about opening more windows, seeing more perspectives, opening and challenging my own mind, trusting what my mind came up with- all this while working within the constraints defined by my client. It was not easy, but it was a lot of fun. Mind you, there was no google at that time and resources that existed were deep inside universities and journals we had no access to. Conferences on ID-related topics were few and in the US, so too expensive and out of bounds for many of us. We didn't even have access to other CBTs, so we were really working in a vacuum. And I for one had never even met or communicated with the people who were the audience for these courses. As a result, a lot of what I learned in those days was self-driven and self-validated. Is there any better way to learn? And more difficult?

From the Box into Infinity

The next change that happened in my career literally threw me out of the small room (with many windows by now) into a world with absolutely no boundaries. There were no instructions, no tools, no predefined tasks, nothing. As a result, no work was happening either. So my first task was to put in some structure, some milestones, some order, some boundaries. Ironic isn't it? However, I had the freedom to create the world I wanted to be in and I put my heart and soul into it. The structures I created and the boundaries I put up were based on my own experiences and, therefore, pliable and flexible.

Here, I had the opportunity to lead design efforts for all kinds of customers and content. Thanks to a very talented and unfettered team, I saw some of the most brilliant and innovative interactions and visuals being built around me. All the pieces I had been polishing separately came together beautifully and I got it. ID was no longer a science to be applied in bits and pieces, but a continuum. I was no longer aware of it as an outside force shaping my work, but something that was a part of the clay itself. In this heightened state, we created games, scenarios, interactive exercises, visual styles, game-based assessments- all supporting solid learner-friendly content.

Another Breakthrough!

In this world with no boundaries, I saw my own limitations starkly. I figured out that a good design done on paper was useless if it was not interpreted and implemented appropriately on screen. I could do all the thinking in the world and still the end product could be useless. I was nothing, powerless, without a team that understood and shared my intent. Since then, I have never thought of instructional design as a stand-alone activity- it is enmeshed into the entire development process. A visual designer is as much (and more) an instructional designer as any ID. As a result of this realization, my longest lasting partnerships in design has been with a particularly talented visual designer, not another ID. Together, we have created magic many times over!

The Road Turns

This is not the end of the journey for me as an ID. I believe the next transition will teach me newer stuff and take me much further and deeper. I can't wait to get started!


  1. AAAaah! Those were some days! Beautifully written Puja. I can relate to every word of this. In fact I can close my eyes and see us all sitting together - a wonderful team, I cherish those memories.

  2. Excellent read, Puja! I can so much relate to this!