By Asim Choudhury
The Role of an Instructional Designer is often exaggerated in India. For the amount of brainwashing and rumour doing the rounds in e-learning companies, one can’t help but believe that IDs are the ‘kings’ in the world of writing. The real fact: they are like tissue papers – get momentary pleasure by being placated the one moment and then get thrown out when the job is done.
Days back I found myself in the company of an Instructional Designer (ID) working in an Indian e-learning company. Young and full of gait, the chap threw the airs of a king: possibly induced by his newly acquired status and the monetary benefits. He was casual and remained serious. A little time in some silly talk, I settled for the killer question: “what do you think is your future in e-learning?” He fancied my question, paused, gave a weird smile and took a long drag from his Malboro before coming out with a loosely crafted response, “Well dear, see, now I am here…cool job… 3 years and I hop somewhere as a Project Manager and then…shoooo…I am off… off to the US or some foreign country.”
I digested the essence of his chimerical response and stared at him for sometime before throwing the next query: “Do you think some good learning is happening here in your present role as an ID”? “Learning?” he quipped smartly, “what learning?”… “Hey cool it man…we gotta work out the present and not strain our brains on what’s what.”
The answer said it all…and he said it pretty clear. Though the interaction appeared simple, the essence was thought-provoking. The answer revealed desperation and a possible ‘professional suicide.’
Most e-learning companies in India boast of a talented ID resource. In reality, all they have to pride is a fragmented ID workforce consisting of simple graduates who find themselves in in e-learning by a waft of fate than by will. Any observation will reveal that Indian vendors are least interested in analysing ID skills because of reasons whatsoever, and any wayward dummy with some knowledge of hinglish can hop in. Credentials are passe and cost factors are important. Afterall, at the end of the day, costs have to be justified.
A closer look at the academic background of most IDs in the industry, a select few can boast of a post-graduate degree. A majority are graduates and lack sound academic knowledge. One can only magine the value they bring to the workplace. Even by the standards of an average layman, it would be difficult to understand as to how could someone with shoddy education create powerful instructional designs.
E-learning companies today frequently advertise for IDs keeping the simple criteria of “a minimum of 1 year experience.” Thereby applications are screened by the dozens and consequently selected. Training, they say, can happen on the job. Unfortunately that training never comes by. Apart from a few companies like NIIT, Inforpro and Accenture, most organizations in India offer no ID training whatsoever.
Talking of remuneration, the scale of an ID appears tempting for most middle-class Indians with a penchant for quick money. The long-term prospects, however, appear bleak, as is evident from several instances in the Indian e-learning industry. While industry honchos vouch that IDs can notch up a package of anything between Rs 20k to 1 lakh a month, reality is something else. IDs in India have a saturation point beyond which they turn into a liability for the organization. A few years of increments lands the ID into a position that is a dead end. Neither can organizations afford them, nor can they justify their package to prospective clients. This is the time when organizations dump them like a fly from a bowl of soup. The result: IDs have to start analyzing their skill-sets and eyeing opportunities in related fields like technical writing and journalism. Wonder do they really stand a chance there!
Identity-wise, IDs are rather unknown creatures – all they have is a name lost in heaps of HR files in the database. Poor chaps, the best they can do is to fill their CVs with tall claims of having done some great piece of work for some XYZ GREAT MNC. The actual glory is reaped by Project Managers and the top management from clients.
As an ID one tends to burn-out the knowledge they have accumulated over the years after almost 25 years of education. This is since, theories apart, IDs do not get the opportunity to learn on the job. And all they leverage on during their stint as an ID is the knowledge they have learnt over the years. Unfortunately, their work is just like another clerk, bereft of learning opportunities. As an individual the ID tends to become a virtual recluse – cutting out from regular social interactions and knowledge exchange. The ID work gobbles up the fun and excitement from their lives: too much work pressure and very little rest.
One opinion in the industry is that the role of an ID hones one’s skills and helps them become better writers – partly true and partly false. True that ID develops the skills of objectivity and rationality but in the process, they kill the creative writer within. The final result is that they hang around like a misfit – quite like the washerman’s dog, neither at home nor on the river banks (Ghar ka nag hat ka). They neither make good journalists nor do they fit into a creative role.
Recent years have seen a large number of frustrated IDs in India hopping from one organization to another in the vain hope of having something different. But its all the same everywhere. There are ample instances of IDs who have pulled out of the nerve-wracking role of IDs from companies as small as Magic to big giants like NIIT. Wonder what beckons them!
The repository of learning knowledge is as vast as one imagination and cannot be simply captured within the framework of a few cognitive or constructivist learning theories by Bloom et al. What the industry respects and perhaps looks forward to are innovative people capable of developing top-of-the-line courseware, not clerks who mug-up a couple of tailor-made theories and set for the kill.
Instructional Designing by virtue is very limiting. Its not always that the IDs in the Indian industry cannot think of innovative strategy for designing e-learning courses. They do have some up their sleeves but most remain constrained with whatever the client dictates: another rationale for comparing the work to that of a clerk’s. Strategy is the client’s call and IDs are not allowed to think. The situation can be compared to that in the Defence forces where a soldier is not supposed to exercise his thoughts; he is simply supposed to act on the orders. The result is a mind that is bereft of creativity; or more precisely programmed not to think creatively. Unless IDs are allowed to treat into the creative domain of e-learning solutions, the work would continue to remain drab.
The programmed thought in IDs contains very few items: suggest a graphic with a few lines of text in a frame and then follow them intermittently with reinforcements in the form of drag and drop, multiple choice or fill-in the blanks. The visualization also is a problem area. Working under stringent timelines, graphic designers always ask for simpler graphics which they can work on very fast. A creatively visualized flash graphic can send the whole project awry as the developer will have to put in extra effort which time never permits him.
It's time Indian IDs forego their slumber and get onto doing some real analysis. They need to make up their minds -- whether they want to hang around the lively world doing unyielding and unsatisfying work or get into a cutting-edge area. And this analysis has to come fast, before they burn out the last remains of their intelligence and creativity.