Insights from the Field: The Instructional Designer as Data Storyteller

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Elisabeth Stucklen

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Storytelling-with-Data-Visualization-Instructional-Design-WorkshopThe Online Learning Consortium (OLC) is reaching out to our global community of thought leaders, faculty, innovators, and practitioners to bring you insights from the field of online, blended, and digital learning. This week, Bethany Bovard, OLC Institute faculty for the Storytelling with Data: An Introduction to Data Visualization course, joins us to answer our questions on data visualization and its connection (and relevance!) to instructional design.

OLC: There are many opportunities to teach online. Why did you choose OLC, and which Institute course(s) do you teach for OLC?

I first became involved with OLC when I took a summer research workshop with them in around 2003. Then, I was fortunate enough to be part of the steering committee for their 2003 conference. Shortly thereafter, I started developing workshops for them and eventually became their lead instructional designer. For the past few years, I’ve enjoyed acting as a consulting designer and teacher for OLC. Throughout those 15 or so years, I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate the many ways in which OLC helps enrich our online teaching community. Not only do they provide some valuable research, but they also foster an excellent community of educators dedicated to improving online and blended teaching and learning. For those reasons and so many more, I am thankful for the opportunity to develop and teach workshops for OLC.

While I’m thrilled to teach in the Instructional Design Certificate Program, the Essentials workshop series and several workshops in the Online Design and Online Tools tracks, what I’m most excited about right now is the upcoming workshop titled Storytelling with Data: An Introduction to Data Visualization. It is an important and useful topic for instructional designers and we’re going to have fun while exploring the many facets of data visualization.

OLC: You have designed, and are facilitating, the upcoming course Storytelling with Data: An Introduction to Data Visualization. Why do you believe data visualization is essential for instructional designers?

Data visualization is about visual communication, a critical skill for instructional designers. Understanding this skill help us communicate more clearly and effectively. Additionally, communicating concepts both visually and with text can help us address challenges with accessibility and universal design.

This topic is also essential because it is related to the concept of cognitive load. Instructional designers are always trying to make their courses more effective. One of our go-to methods is reducing extraneous cognitive load. Certain types of visual information – the types used in effective data visualizations, for example – don’t require any conscious processing of information. So, learning how to craft great visualizations can help you reduce extraneous cognitive load for your learners so they might learn more effectively and efficiently.

Finally, for those of us who are managers or who simply need to inform and persuade anyone with data, being able to create stunning visualizations that capture an audience’s attention is an asset. It is always more effective and interesting to present information with charts, graphs, and other visualizations than it is to present a spreadsheet with lots of numbers!

OLC: What are the 3 most important things prospective participants should know about the upcoming course?

The upcoming OLC data visualization course is a hands-on, practical approach to data visualization that is tied directly to higher education data concerns. And while data sets are provided for the course activities, you are welcome to utilize data sets from your own department, college, or university to complete the assignments. In fact, we encourage you to use this course to help you develop data visualizations you can use in your job. Finally, you’ll leave the course with some valuable visual communication skills that can be useful in a variety of situations.

OLC: Our Institute offerings help professionals stay current in their fields, and often assist in the advancement of their profession. What do you believe are the top three ways in which professionals in the field of instructional design can stay current and move ahead?

Instructional design is a huge field, and everyone who holds the title of instructional designer wears numerous hats: course designer, media specialist, technical support, LMS guru, faculty development specialist, and so on. Regardless, I think the three ways we can stay current and move ahead include strengthening our research knowledge base, developing related skill sets and, perhaps, specializing in instructional design for specific fields.

Strengthening our research knowledge base will give us the ability to appreciate and be open to new trends while also being more discriminating in our choice of trends to follow. The field of instructional design in higher education has changed tremendously over the past 20-plus years. We’ve seen numerous trends, plenty of hype, and a few solid innovations. Given that, it is a real challenge to stay current. Yet, the more research we read (or conduct!), the more adept we’ll be at analyzing and evaluating those trends before using valuable time to try them out in our own particular set of circumstances.

Developing related skills sets – for instructional designers that would include user experience design, coding, media development, and so on – will provide us with opportunities to extend the knowledge base of instructional design while also improving our chances at staying relevant. There are many varied skills that go into good, quality course design and development, and it would be impossible to learn them all! But, knowing just one other related skill would make any instructional designer a more valuable team member.

Finally, I think we’ll move ahead when we take some time to specialize our instructional design knowledge to a specific domain. Designing courses requires different approaches for nursing, engineering, the humanities, and other domains. When I first started as an instructional designer, my first two big projects involved helping the nursing department and the engineering department create online versions of some of their programs. It was then that I realized that most of the instructional design knowledge available at that time was geared toward course design for the social sciences. It was an eye-opener. Things are changing as more colleges and departments hire their own instructional designers. I see this trend continuing, so staying relevant will mean we may need to – at the very least – be more aware of different ID techniques and strategies for the various domains and fields.

OLC: What are you currently reading that informs your practice in instructional design?

I’ve been reading quite a bit about data visualization and visual communication, since they play such a critical role in instructional design. The most recent article was titled “An example for translating LMS access data into actionable information,” from Dartmouth’s Analytics in Instructional Design site. As instructional designers, we deal with a lot of data, and it is always fantastic to see how that data can be leveraged to support student success!

As for the field of instructional design in general, I’ve been re-reading Interface Design for Learning: Design Strategies for Learning Experiences. The book was written by Dorian Peters, a specialist in UX for learning. I pull it out frequently to re-read passages and ponder how I might apply it to my course designs. It is just another example of a related field that has significant connections to instructional design.

About the Author

Bethany Bovard has been working in education-related fields since 1997. She received her BA in Languages & Linguistics with an emphasis on Spanish and Portuguese. She went on to complete an MA in Curriculum & Instruction, where she specialized in teaching foreign languages using online technologies. Because she had always been a geek (and proud of it!), she really enjoyed using technology for teaching. So, she went on to study for a Ph.D. in Instructional Design for Online Learning. In addition to her formal education, Bethany has had many wonderful opportunities to apply her knowledge by designing and teaching many online courses and programs.

When not sitting in front of her computer, Bethany knits and bicycles quite a bit. She and her husband currently reside in northern Colorado, where she enjoys the Rocky Mountains as she walks her dog, Brandie.

If you’d like to connect with Bethany, she can be found on Twitter @bethanybovard.

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