Reflections on #lrnchat: Information vs. Instruction

(Sorry for the delay on this post – the flu bug got the best of me this week)

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.

The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “Information vs. Instruction”

I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group:

Q1) What is the difference between information and instruction?
Q2) Which are more important “learning outcomes” or “performance outcomes”?
Q3) What do you do/say when stakeholders want a “course” from L&D that is really just information?
Q4) What differentiates information design from instructional design?

Key Learning Points

Information and Instruction are terms that are often used interchangeably, especially by stakeholders in reference to learning and performance programs.  These terms, while related, are not interchangeable.  For Learning Professionals, understanding the differences between information and instruction is critical.  These differences not only affect the design and implementation of a Learning and Performance program, they could determine whether the Learning Professional’s support is even required.

The discussion started by directly asking the question: What is the difference between information and instruction?  If there was one constant in the responses to this question it was this: Information is there to be pulled, whereas Instruction is usually pushed to a learner.
Ultimately the difference between information and instruction is not defined by delivery.  It’s true that the delivery method will be very different for information as compared to instruction.  The difference is not defined by the delivery though; it is defined by the context.  Once the context is understood, the information/instruction decision becomes clear, and the delivery vehicle becomes more of an implementation decision.
What I found most interesting about the responses to this question is how well it demonstrated one of the biggest obstacles in our field, that of the language we use.
Words are what they are.  As George Carlin wisely said “There are no ‘Bad Words’.  The words are innocent.  It’s the context that makes them ‘good’ or bad’”. George’s context at the time was profanity, but I think the thought process applies very much to the language of the Learning Professional as well.
In this discussion, there were a number of people that expressed a dislike of the word ‘instruction’, mainly due to the fact that it conjures an image of the traditional push style of learning that we are trying to get away from.  Instruction itself isn’t bad – it’s the fact that a large percentage of instruction is implemented via lecture and other non-engaging methods that create the problem. 
While I think a general shift to Pull is needed, it does not void out the need for instruction.  Push isn’t being completely eliminated; it’s being replaced by ‘Smart Push’ (a term I believe I first heard from Clark Quinn).
From there the discussion moved on to another debate question: Which are more important- ‘Performance Outcomes’ or ‘Learning Outcomes’?
At first this question seemed cut and dry, with most of the groups quickly anointing ‘Performance Outcomes’ as the winner of the bout.  Underneath that initial outcry, a question seemed to be asked – “Do learning objectives ever come first?”
The theme of that question seemed to center on ‘learning for learning’s sake’ by people who have a love of learning and just want to learn about something to broaden their horizons.  As someone who falls in that category, I would have to disagree.  I cannot think of anything that I’ve learned about that isn’t somehow related to a performance issue. 
I think part of that debate centers on the definition of performance.  If we expand our definition beyond simply ‘putting the learning into action’ then everything ultimately is a performance issue.  For example, one area I like to keep myself abreast of is mobile learning. 
I work for a small organization where mobile learning isn’t anywhere on the radar, and I don’t expect it to appear there any time soon. Yet I still read on the topic.  It’s true that I find it interesting, which falls under the ‘learning for learning’s sake’ header.  It’s also true that if I stay in this field, I’ll be dealing with mobile learning at some point, but that probably won’t be in the immediate future (at least not at my current organization).
Yet still, the learning is a performance goal.  How?  Quite simply, I want to be able to have meaningful and constructive conversations with my peers in the field, including on the topic of mobile learning.  I want to ‘perform’ effectively in those conversations.  It’s for that reason that I think any learning is ultimately has a performance outcome.
The discussion then moved towards how Learning Professionals handle a request for a ‘course’ that is really just information.
There were plenty of potential responses shared.  My favorite response came from Craig Taylor, and falls under the heading of “Things I’d love to say but never would” – Go Away.
Most of the responses centered on digging deeper into the request, which is always an effective route to take.  Specific examples included:

  • What do you need learners to DO with that info?
  • If it’s simply a matter of providing information, there are better/easier ways to do it than a “course”.
  • Tell me what is going on and what you are trying to accomplish.
To me the bigger issue is that a question like that represents a fundamental misunderstanding our function.  The stakeholder should not be coming to us with a solution to be delivered; they should be coming to us with a problem they need help solving.  Often that’s the first barrier that needs to be broken in an organization with a weak learning culture. 
I find a good response to this type of a request is to simply say something like “Let’s talk about what the problem is first.”  It helps you find the root cause of the performance issue, and sets the expectation for future interactions with the stakeholder.
The discussion concluded with an exploration of the differences between information design and instructional design.  For me, this mirrors the differences between Pull and Push.
Informational design is about Pull. It involves integrating the information into the workflow so that it can be pulled at the time of need.  It also involves designing an interface so that the information is easily and readily accessible; the information should not need to be ‘found’. 
Instructional Design is about ‘Smart Push’ and Pull.  Whereas Informational Design allows the user to determine the context, the context of Instructional Design is usually targeted at a specific performance problem.  Instructional Design also can incorporate Informational Design as part of its performance support strategy.
For me, the tweet that best summed up the differences between instructional and informational design came from Cathy Moore: Instructional design aims at solving a performance problem using several solutions. Info design makes info easier to use.
This again echoes the concept I mentioned early regarding context.  Once you understand the context of the scenario, the differences between Instructional and Informational Design become much clearer.
Until next week #lrnchat-ers!

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