Universal design reduces learning anxiety.
My instructional design philosophy blossomed out of one of my most difficult experiences as a new hire. After a stressful job search, I had landed a job at a prestigious company, and I was excited to get started! The only catch: the job was in a new city, and my new apartment wouldn't be ready until three days after my start date. My mother-in-law welcomed me into her house for my first three days of work, but her house was still 3+ hours away from my new office, and I navigated my brand-new commute during a heavy rainstorm. When the storm had cleared and my apartment was ready, I found that the commute was still longer than I was comfortable with (2 hours each way). Each day, I balanced exhaustion with my eagerness to learn. Despite these hurdles, I stayed at the job for two years, learning a wealth of new skills that have benefitted all of my subsequent employers. Still, the experience sensitized me to the numerous barriers to success many of us experience on the job, due to circumstances largely outside our individual control.
The point? You never know what learners are going through as they transition into new jobs, or as they upskill in their current jobs. Moving or relocating, adjusting to a new commute, finishing a degree, leaving or entering a serious relationship, managing chronic illnesses--like it or not, all of these "personal life" issues can easily bleed into one's "professional life" too. As an instructor with eight years of experience in the university classroom, I have a solid foundation in helping others navigate these challenges. In fact, I take my own guiding instructional design challenge from these collective experiences: how do I help someone learn, when some other aspect of life makes it difficult to absorb, retain, and implement new knowledge?
Here are my solutions:
The foundation of Universal Design is empathy. If a designer assumes that some of their end-users will struggle with their product, they can try to design out some of that struggle. When I work with learners and managers, my first question is: "what are your biggest pain points with the material?" I listen, and then I imagine myself dealing with those pain points on top of the monster commute that used to cause me so much strife. What would help a person in that situation? By imagining multiple barriers to success, I can do my best to design learning experiences that are accessible, engaging, digestible, and memorable.
Just-in-Time Learning Aids
Learning experiences need to be accessible and well-curated in order to reduce a learner's cognitive load. Especially when a learner is trying to learn complex processes that are only performed sporadically or infrequently, it's important to have a handy reminder within easy reach.
I borrow the marketing profession's "job-to-be-done" approach when I create learning aids. I start by analyzing the job that needs to be done, since this is usually more stable than the process or platform a company or department uses to get the job done. For example, a company may always need procurement operations. They may go through several procurement systems over their years in business, but my instructional design process starts by getting to the heart of the matter: what is the job we're trying to get done? Once I understand that, I can design just-in-time learning aids for all of a company's unique needs.
So far, the 21st century expects a lot from professionals. The pace of change keeps accelerating, and even expert learners struggle to keep up. Thankfully, Atul Gawande's Checklist Manifesto is here to guide elements of modern instructional design. Gawande distinguishes between errors of ignorance and errors of ineptitude, arguing that errors of ineptitude--when we don't actually use what we already know--plague even the most elite experts.
As simple as checklists may seem, they can be very difficult to make when we're also dealing with overwhelm and cognitive overload. Don't get me wrong: I love to get fancy with my learning experiences, designing full e-learning modules and fun microlearning videos. But whenever possible, I try to distill complex processes into simple checklists that are accessible to experts and novices alike.
I am passionate about web accessibility, Section 508 compliance, and the nuts and bolts of Universal Design for Learning. I am also passionate about mitigating the secondary, invisible barriers to accessibility, such as anxiety, ADHD, or PTSD--conditions that may slow down or otherwise impede the learning process. While each learner's struggle with anxiety may be unique, I believe that it is essential to help learners with task initiation and to let them know exactly what to expect from a process, start to finish. When I map processes, I make sure to document what triggers the process in addition to the process itself: how will the learner know when it's time to do this task? How long might the task take? How should the task be prioritized?
Similarly, if a complex task ends with waiting for a report to generate, or sending a piece of paperwork to several different offices for a variety of signatures, I do my best to let learners know how long these waiting periods might last. Whenever possible, I want learners to know exactly what to expect. Ambiguity is a fact of life in most jobs, but I do my best to keep it out of my learning products.