Tag: participatory culture

Let’s get rid of the instructional designers!

That’s the view of some user-oriented design proponents.

It’s something I remembered while writing my last blog post about user-generated content. Whereas that post explored the role of the learner in the content development process, how about their role in the broader instructional design process?

I wrote a short (1000 word) assignment on the latter at uni several years ago – in the form of a review of a chapter written by Alison Carr-Chellman and Michael Savoy – and it’s a concept that has resonated with me ever since.

Here I shall share with you that review, unadulterated from its original form, except for the graphic of the user empowerment continuum and the hyperlink to the reference, both of which I have added for this post.

Whether or not the more “progressive” design philosophies resonate with you, at the very least I hope they provoke your thinking…

Colleagues collaborating around a table with sticky notes


Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) provide a broad overview of user design. They define the term user design, compare it against other methodologies of user-oriented design, identify obstacles to its successful implementation, and finally make recommendations for the direction of further research.


According to Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004), traditional instructional design methodologies disenfranchise the user from the design process. In a corporate organisation, for example, the leaders will typically initiate the instructional design project, an expert designer will then analyse the situation and create a design, and finally, the leaders will review the design and either approve it or reject it. The role of the user, then, is simply to use the system (or perhaps circumvent it).

In contrast to traditional instructional design methodologies, user design enables the users to participate in the design process. Instead of just using the system, they are involved in its design. Furthermore, their role is more than just providing input; they are active participants in the decision-making process.

Comparison against other methodologies

Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) carefully distinguish user design from other methodologies of user-oriented design, namely user-centered design and emancipatory design.

User empowerment continuum, featuring traditional instructional design at the lowest extremity, then user-centered design, then user design, then emancipatory design at the highest extremity.

User-centered design

According to Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004), user-centered design methodologies consider the needs of the user during the design process. In educational situations, for example, the expert designer may analyse the target audience, identify their preferred learning styles, and perhaps run a pretest. In tool usage situations, he or she may distribute user surveys or conduct usability testing. The goal of these activities is to obtain extra information to assist the designer in creating a better system for the users.

The key difference between user-centered design and user design is the level of participation of the users in the design process. Under a user-centered design model, the designer considers the needs of the users, but ultimately makes the design decisions on their behalf.

Under a user design model, however, the needs of the users go beyond mere food for thought. The users are empowered to make their own design decisions and thereby assume an active role in the design process.

Emancipatory design

If traditional design occupies the lowest extremity of the user empowerment continuum, and user-centered design occupies a step up from that position, then emancipatory design occupies the opposite extremity.

Emancipatory design dispenses with the role of the expert designer and elevates the role of the users, so that in effect they are the designers. This methodology charges the users with full responsibility over all facets of the design process, from initiation, through analysis, design, review, to approval. Instead of having a system imposed on them, the users have truly designed it for themselves, according to their own, independent design decisions.

Emancipatory design is founded on issues of conflict and harmony in the disciplines of social economics and industrial relations. Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) recognise that the goal of emancipatory design is “more to create change and vest the users and frontline workers in organisational outcomes than it is actually to create a working instructional system”. Hence, emancipatory design may not be a universal instructional design methodology.

User design

User design fits between the extremes of the user empowerment continuum. Whereas traditional design and user-centered design remove the user from the active design process, and conversely, emancipatory design removes the expert designer from the process, user design merges the roles into the shared role of “co-designer”. It strikes a balance between the two perspectives by including contributions from both parties.

Arguably, user design is a universal instructional design methodology. Whereas traditional design and user-centered design devalue the role of the users in the active design process, emancipatory design devalues the role of the expert designer.

User design, however, values both roles. It recognises the necessity of the active involvement of users, because they are the experts in their domain and will be the ones operating the system. However, users can not be expected to understand the science of design. The active involvement of an expert designer is critical in guiding the design process and driving the work towards an efficient and effective outcome.


Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) identify numerous obstacles to the successful implementation of user design, including the reluctance of designers and leaders to share their decision-making powers with users, the inclusion of users too late in the design process, the tendency to categorise users into a homogenous group, and the lack of user motivation to participate in design activities.

Further Research

Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) claim that research specific to user design within instruction systems is scarce, and much of the research into other user-oriented design methodologies lacks scientific rigour. Therefore, they recommend the following actions for the research community:

  1. To create a standardised language to define user design and to distinguish it from other user-oriented design methodologies,
  2. To study the implementation of user design across different variables, such as user profile, subject area and mode of delivery, and
  3. To communicate the success of user design in terms of “traditional measures of effectiveness” for the purpose of influencing policymakers.

Furthermore, Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) recommend that researchers adopt the participatory action research (PAR) method of inquiry. They argue that PAR democratises the research process and, consequently, is ideologically aligned with the principles of user design.

It can be argued, therefore, that Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) promote both user design and user research. Their vision for users is not only to assume the role of “co-designer”, but also of “co-researcher”.


Carr-Chellman, A. & Savoy, M. (2004). User-design research, in Handbook of Research on Educational Communication and Technology, 2nd ed, D. H. Jonassen (Ed), pp. 701-716, New Jersey, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum.

They’re not like us

As learning in the workplace becomes increasingly informal, the motivation of employees to drive their own development becomes increasingly pivotal to their performance.

This is a point that I fear many of our peers fail to grasp.

You see, we love learning. We share knowledge on Twitter, contribute to discussions on LinkedIn, read books, write blogs, comment on blogs, subscribe to industry magazines, share links to online articles, watch videos, and participate in MOOCs. We tinker with software, experiment with new ideas, attend conferences, and join local meetups. We crowdsource ideas, invite feedback, ask questions, and proffer answers. The list is endless.

No one forces us to do all this. We do it because we enjoy it, and we understand that it is critical in keeping our knowledge and skills relevant in an ever-changing world.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that not everyone does this. I’m not referring to some of us in the L&D profession, although that’s an ironic part of the problem. For now I’m referring to a large proportion of our target audience. In a nutshell, they’re not like us.

An embodiment of this concept is the 1% rule. This heuristic maintains that in a typical online community, only 1% of the members create new content, while the remaining 99% lurk. A variation of this theme is the 90-9-1 principle, which maintains that in an online space that empowers users to create and edit content (eg an intranet or wiki), only 1% of the members will create new content, 9% will edit it, leaving the remaining 90% who consume it.

Of course, these ratios assume a participating population; they don’t account for the proportion of the membership that is disengaged with the community. That is to say, not even lurking. And that proportion may be surprisingly large.

In any case, I’m not interested in getting tied up in knots over the numbers. Like 70:20:10, these are merely rules of thumb that reflect a broader truth. I also appreciate that lurking isn’t necessarily a bad practice. The consumption of content is an important element of “learning”. No argument there.

A problem arises, however, when active participation is expected. Consider an ESN such as Chatter: 1% of the organisation won’t adequately reflect the enterprise’s collective intelligence. Or a discussion forum that supports an inhouse training program: 1% of the participants will fall short of the critical mass that is required to develop a rich, diverse and meaningful discussion. In such cases, the vast majority of the SMEs are effectively holding back their expertise, and those with experiences to share are not doing so. Hence the learning experience suffers – even for the lurkers.

Another challenge we face is pre-work – or more to the point: it not being done. Of course this has been a problem for as long as pre-work has existed. However it’s becoming acute for those among us who are trying to implement a flipped classroom model. Value-add activity can not be undertaken when the face time is spent on the non-value add activity which should have (but hasn’t) already been done. It defeats the purpose.

Again, when the expectation of active participation is not met, everyone’s learning experience suffers.

Tumbleweed rolling along a deserted road

So how can we as L&D professionals change the situation? How can we motivate our participants to participate actively…?

My poll results from Drivers of Yammer use in the corporate sector are somewhat enlightening. Indeed, I have enjoyed some success by getting executives actively involved, as well as by calling on champions throughout the business to push the barrow.

I recently asked a presenter at an e-learning conference what she does when her target audience aren’t actively participating in the discussion forums that she sets up, and she replied matter-of-factly that she reports their reticence to their respective managers. Ouch! but apparently it works.

Natalie Lafferty blogged about a paper recently published by the Virginia School of Medicine, in which they reported dwindling attendance at their flipped classroom sessions…

“In sessions where students could sit where they wanted, they were less prepared as they would typically sit with their friends and would choose their table based on fun rather than who knew their stuff. The session for some served as a ‘social catch-up’, others admitted they watched videos. There was however a difference in approach to team-based learning sessions where students were assigned into groups; they were more likely to prepare as they were more concerned about appearing stupid.”

I call the latter phenomenon “social accountability” and it appears powerful.

Jayme Linton blogged about encouraging her students to do their pre-reading by employing similar techniques such as “speed dating”…

“Speed dating allows students to interact with several peers in a short amount of time. Students talk for a short time (1 or 2 minutes) with a classmate, typically in response to a question or set of questions. After the specified time period has passed, students rotate and have a conversation with another peer.”

Dare I suggest again the major concern of the participants is their social standing?

Carrot and stick

While all these techniques evidently motivate the target audience to participate, I can’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. Because each of these motivators is extrinsic.

Whether it be ego, fear, politeness or bald-faced sycophancy driving their behaviour, I put it to you that the retirement of the motivating technique by the L&D pro would result in the cessation of that behaviour. By definition, the motivation is not intrinsic and so the participants are relieved of their incentive to continue.

Of course, an alternative is to cultivate the participants’ intrinsic motivation instead. For example, if the content is authentic, relevant and engaging, then that makes it compelling, and that should pull the participants in. However, I put it to you further that even with the most compelling content in the world, it will be worth nil if the participants are not habituated into interacting with it and with one another about it.

Which leads me to consider a hybrid approach: using extrinsic motivators to drive the desired participant behaviour, which is consequently rewarded by an experience that is intrinsically motivating. In other words, scaffolding the informal learning process with a formal structure, thereby driving the behaviour that achieves the outcome that drives the behaviour.

Perhaps over time a sustainable participatory culture will emerge and the need for such scaffolding will dissipate. In the meantime, though, we may have no choice but to dangle the carrot with the stick.

Is the pedagogy of MOOCs flawed?

This is a question that I tackle in my Udemy course The Wide World of MOOCs.

Almost immediately after I uploaded this preview to YouTube, someone on Twitter politely challenged me.

She took umbrage to my assertion that MOOCs are pedagogically richer than “regular” online courses.

Her counter argument was that the pedagogical devices that I cited – readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups – are the same learning and teaching functionalities available in any LMS.

While this claim is partly true, I wish to share with you my [elaborated] defence of my initial assertion. Why? Because I think it’s important to hear all POVs, and I’d like to know whether you agree…

Hand on keyboard

Right off the bat, I don’t believe that all the pedagogical devices that I cited are available in any LMS. They may be available in many LMSs, but certainly not all of them. Moreover, although an organisation may have a subscription to an LMS that offers these devices, it may not have them activated.

That of course is not to say that the e-learning designer is prevented from using these devices; for example, he or she might leverage other non-LMS technology within the organisation or in the cloud. However, in my experience and in conversations with others, it is clear that they often don’t.

Again, that’s not to say that no e-learning designers integrate devices such as online discussions and social media groups into their LMS-hosted courses, but even if they do, the target audience tends not to play ball. How to encourage active participation on social platforms is a hot topic in the L&D sphere, and there is no easy answer because it’s a question of organisational culture which can’t be “fixed” over night.

As for local meetups, in all my years I have never seen this offered in a regular online course!

Network Analysis of the EDCMOOC Facebook group

MOOCs, on the other hand, are the polar opposite. All of the MOOCs I have experienced include readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups. And the participants do participate. Sure, that’s to be expected given the massive scale of MOOCs, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Case in point, the University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is one of the best online courses I have ever experienced. While it had its fair share of pro’s and cons, it was a hell of a lot richer than the boring page turners that too many among us have learned to associate with “e-learning”.

And there was no LMS in sight.

Everyone is an SME

One of the recurring themes on my blog is a call for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to share their knowledge with the wider organisation.

In my view, this isn’t just an expectation: it’s an obligation. Organisations whose people embrace collaboration will prosper, while those who don’t will be left behind.

While the stereotype of an SME is a Sheldon-like character with superhuman intellect, the convenient truth is that we’re regular folk.

Of course the level of expertise in a particular domain will vary across a population, and the label of “expert” will naturally be assigned to those who have the most. However, it would be a folly to assume that the eggheads are the only ones who have anything to contribute.

You see, everyone is an expert in something. When humans work in a domain day in, day out, they familiarise themselves with it; they grow to understand its subtleties; they think up ideas to improve it; and they recognise the difference between business reality and academic fallacy when other people talk about it.

SamSo while they might not be experts in the entire domain, they will be experts in parts thereof.

Take Sam for example. He’s an administrator in the back office of a financial services organisation.

He’s no expert in superannuation, but he sure knows how to process a unit switch – even complicated ones. He processes dozens of them every day.

So when you need someone to record a unit switching tutorial, who you gonna call? It sure as hell won’t be Carl the CFP, or Mary the MBA, or anyone else with an acronym after their name. It will be Sam, the unit switching expert.


When we view the concept of subject matter expertise through this lens, we realise our roles as learning professionals need to change:

  • We need to stop deifying the few. This creates an “us & them” mentality which – even if affectionate – discourages the participation of the mortals.
  • We need to empower the many to share their expertise. In the modern workplace, this will involve social technology.
  • We need to cultivate a participatory culture. The best technology in the world is useless in an organisation with inhibitive policies and attitudes. Tools are meant to be used.

So unless they are doe-eyed novices, all the employees in your organisation have knowledge and skills to share. And if they don’t or won’t, let them find alternative employment with your competitors.