Instructional Design


content, ia, ux

From 1999 to 2010 I was a college-level educator who taught mythology, humor theory, and gender in the ancient world. I realize that these days “instructional design” is a thing you get certified in.  But before it had a certificate, I assure you we instructors were already doing it.  I’ll talk here about how I approached designing classes — which, by the way, is terrific training for designing meetings and workshops — in terms of user experience, content, and information architecture.

The Problem

A class is, in many ways, the same as any design problem. You need to find the right way to bridge students’ needs and your educational goals (which, in a business context, we might see as parallel to “brand goals”), using the available resources. You’re not always going for user delight, though; one of my goals was to give students a dry run for post-college life and work, and that meant sometimes giving them feedback that wasn’t positive, but was always respectful and kind. (Again, good training for management and leadership.)

The Solution

Agree on Deliverables

It was my job to communicate expectations. Since “subject matter expertise” is a vague deliverable, I would break this down into tasks. For example, in Myth 101, I required the students to identify the twelve main deities by sight; my role was to point out the visual cutes, such as Artemis’s tendency to sport a bow, and hang around with wild animals:

A slide from the lecture on Diana/Artemis
A slide from the lecture on Diana/Artemis

But the class wasn’t just trivia memorization; I wanted my students learn big-picture theories, and most importantly, to apply that knowledge. The main deliverable I required, in every class, was a research project and presentation. I figured this would be a better item in their portfolio than a traditional research paper. Also, I realized that the best way to truly master something was to know you had to explain it to other people.

Identify shared goals with empathy

Using an anonymous survey at the beginning of each class, I would ask the students why they were taking it. I had many students who just wanted to be entertained, or were clearly going for a C in their last senior semester — and you know what? That was fine. I also had students who were in difficult straits; I would talk to them about how best to get what they needed from the class.

I outright begged students to choose a research topic they were actually interested in, touching on something they cared about in real life. Students examined race in the ancient world, representations of Cleopatra in the modern word, mythology in video games — things that gave them a meaningful connection to the material.

Talking to students is already user research; and as any researcher can tell you, tone and body language tell you far more than their words; if an individual or group was having trouble, I would address that.

Model the technique

Most of what I did, as an instructor, was model how to organize and apply research — information architecture, in short, but you want to give the students the power to sift through messy things. You don’t do it for them.

So I would sort through difficult topics, or show how to thoughtfully ask questions in class or online discussions. Additionally, I would meet with them individually to make sure their final project was on-target as the semester went on.

The Result

My delightful moments came when I got to watch the final student presentations, in which students could educate me about the persistence of Greek myth in video games, for example, or apply ancient humor theory to modern college comedies:

Students applied Aristotle's humor theory to college comedies.
Student presentation slide applying Aristotle’s humor theory to college comedies.

When it came to evaluations, I averaged above 4 out of 5; that said, evaluations are (perhaps unsurprisingly) really problematic, including being sexist and racist.

And some qualitative data from evaluations was invaluable; you might get a thoughtful remark about something you needed to explain better, or a problem with the textbook. And a really helpful approach I found was to give students anonymous “how are we doing” surveys every other week or so, to identify problems early on, so there was a continuous feedback loop.