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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2019 / Winter 2020)

Colleague 2 Colleague, Author
Cover, page 13 of 21


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Instructional Design on a Shoestring

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University 

Figure 1.  Shoestring (by 28703 on Pixabay)

It’s not quite financial exigency but pretty close?  Why waste a budget crisis (even if they are fairly regular)?  I thought.  Why not write an article about instructional design on a shoestring?  Then, as I thought it through, I realized that in institutions of higher education, we are in a constant state of limited funding.  Instructional design (ID) is almost always on a shoestring.  

The most typical context is that there is no funding for the ID, and there is a limit of hours to set aside for the work. Or there may be paid hours, but these also result in limited hours because administrators still have tight budgets.  (Every moment billed has to be clearly justified.)  Or, the project is fairly highly funded on a (state or) federal grant, but the hours are still limited because the grant funds have to achieve a lot with a little.  Meeting partner standards and national standards often means a lot more work to ensure professional satisfaction.  This is all to say that one has to keep the shoestring in mind for various ID projects (which include the design, the development, and the deployment, often all-in-one).  

So what does it mean to work on a shoestring? What are ways to work smart, introduce efficiencies, cut costs, and still ensure coherent learner-centered designs and effective learner-friendly learning experiences?  

Taking on an Assignment or Not?

In a workplace, there are some assignments you have to take. These are the ones that are backed up by political powerhouses on campus.  These are the ones that are invited ones and involve moneys coming to the office.  

There are those projects that you want to be first-in-line for—the difficult instructional designs, with interesting challenges.  

And then, there are the constant requests for freebies.  Just in the past half year, a professor whom I had not seen for many years professed friendship and asked for free work on a complex research project.  Another wanted help on a professional application for promotion.  One administrator to whom I’d offered a technology training falsely claimed I had created a template for their office's trainings—to try to suggest that I was responsible for this person's self-created sloppy automated trainings.  No, yes, no.  Administrators who have high ambitions but won’t finance them (and do not have the reserves that may serve as resourcing)—the no-cost option—often ends up with no options at all.  (Magical thinking does not result in actualized work.  And for IDs to take on the responsibility alone is to aim for burnout.  IDs need to speak up early if they lack the resources to actualize the work and then make sure that they acquire the necessary resources.  Or they will have to back off what work they can do.)  

There are even free-riding requests from off-campus for presentations, meetings, datasets, and others (and surprisingly, I have quite a few of these that I’ve ended up doing the work for).  [In one off-campus request case, an individual asked to use the images from a slideshow that involved 300 different datasets and unique visualizations.  That slideshow came about as the culmination of work done over a year. I said no, but I created some unique images for his usage.  I was somewhat aghast that he didn’t realize how much work went into what he requested.  He was also requesting something for free for his for-profit business.]  

Where one has an actual choice, it helps to get a sense of the individual.  How much prior technological experience do they have, and how real-world are their expectations?  Do they press advantages (send work on weekends and evenings)? Are they presumptuous about others’ responsibilities but much less so about their own?  Are they impractical or practical?  The basic rule  is that once one is committed, many demands will follow.  

It helps to have “redlines,” which are not cross-able.  One is that I will not break copyright to create a learning object, even if the client is a director with a lot of free hours.  Another is that I will not break professional ethics for research.  Defining those redlines and enforcing them are critical.  Otherwise, if things fall apart, then one has to be there for all repercussions and to pick up all the pieces.  

Online Environmental Scans 

An important part of shoestring ID involves conducting an initial environmental scan.  This is for three reasons:  

1) Client expectations:  This scan helps clients know what is out there in terms of online learning. They can point to some of what they like and do not like, and that can help set some initial guidance for the instructional designs and early drafts.  

2) New design ideas:  The scan may identify available online learning resources that may be worthy of emulation, that may introduce new design and development techniques, that may introduce new technologies, and so on.  The benefit of learning is potentially enormous. 

3) Free-to-use learning resources:  A scan may identify learning contents that are created to standard (legal, accessible, non-defamatory, etc.) and are free to use.  A free learning resource would potentially mitigate the need for a totally new build—from scratch—then that saves on the required work and lessens pressure on the budget.  

4) Trusted sources for raw digital resources:  This scan may help identify some trusted sources with open-source raw resources (photos, diagrams, video snippets, music snippets, data, information, and others) that may be harnessed for usage in the learning designs and developments.  

It is also possible to ask third-party content creators, like book publishers, if they have hosted learning resources and slideshows that the instructors may use. Often, book representatives can reach out to publishers to acquire access to various digital resources for faculty who require the purchase of the textbooks and teach a fairly high number of students regularly.  Many faculty use augmentary materials from third-party content creators and then create original contents for only parts of their courses.  

Pre-Development Lead-up Design Work

To stay shoestring, it helps to engage in in-depth early work:  

  • research, 
  • target learner groups, 
  • definition of learning objectives, 
  • definition of learning outcomes, 
  • target deliverables (and typical use cases), 
  • target learner experiences, 
  • and other necessary information.  

It will be important to know what the available resources are:  time, human, technologies, budgetary, and others.  It will be important to know what the standards are being built to:  legal (intellectual property, accessibility, and others), technological, and others.  

With (most of) those elements, it is possible to create technology templates, storyboards, drafts, prototypes and sample learning objects, and other pieces, that may be analyzed for sufficiency and for revision/editing.  (Before any video is made, a script should be created and vetted; storyboards should be roughed out and vetted.)  Learning contents should be analyzed all of a piece, to make sure that there are no glaring contradictions.   

Given the effort required to develop contents, it is always better to invest a lot of time into the design and some early prototypes to be shared with the client to get their approval (in documented form), so that time is not lost developing something that will be rejected or left unused.   

IDs should engage in smart planning.  If they have to capture a number of interviews, perhaps some of these may be captured using desktop screen capture and web conferencing tools.  Perhaps the visit of a guest speaker to a class may be recorded (with the guest speaker’s express written permission) for later use in the online course.  Or a fieldtrip linked to a face-to-face course may be harnessed to capture B-roll, photos, and analog samples for the online learning resource.  

For learning sequences, a resilient ID team has to be able to go to Plan B if Plan A is not going to work.  It helps to have the flexibility to go to fallback.  

The documentation of the work is necessary at each phase to refresh memories and to have a fallback when people’s memories change.  For complex projects, it helps to have a fully explicated “stylebook” so that all the team members are building towards the same things with the same standards.  Also, it helps to have checklists for the various resources to ensure that they meet standards.  

Constant Learning in the Quieter Periods

In general, it is a rare occasion to take on wholly new technologies during a new project.  Learning curves can be steep with new technologies, especially if they are outside one’s usual bailiwick.  Optimally, one would acquire the learning and practice during the relatively quieter times in between projects (or even off-time if the new technology aligns with personal hobbyist interests).  Regardless, constant learning is par for the course for instructional design.  

Frugal Development

Frugal development is about designing carefully, getting approvals on the design, and executing on those designs in the most practical and efficient way possible.  The development is the instantiated expression of the design.  The focus has to be on what will actually work.  What are some ways to ensure that the development goes as smoothly as possible?  

Keep good records.  For all the raw digital and analog materials collected for the project, it is important to know where each has come from and what one can use each for.  Raw contents may be used in a video, a slideshow, a simulation, a digital learning object, a publicity plan, and it is this commonality of re-use, that requires a clear record of where each raw object came from and the copyright releases on each and so on.  

Over the years, learning resources have to be updated, and these eventualities require a memory of the rights releases (and copies of the contracts).  Many will record the contents in Excel spreadsheets (along with thumbnail images)…  Such record-keeping enables a project to be resilient and nimble.  

Documenting is good professional practice.  In ID, people like to say that they are always building for the hand-off.  The idea is that a project can be passed off to others at any time.  A well defined project with clear documentation is handed off much more successfully than those that are not.  

Select proper technologies.  In my years in ID, I have found that even if one has access to complex technologies and capabilities, many administrators prefer what is already comfortable:  slideshows, articles, simple cases, and so on.  They are not for interactive simulations. They generally have not gone for immersive virtual worlds and digital avatars. Others have wanted technological capabilities that I lacked, including an old-school Flash-based animation capability.  

In most cases, I use my typical set of technology tools.  My preference is to have the most up-to-date versions of the technologies, but it is possible to use a tool that is one version back and not suffer excessively.  Even older technologies themselves are not particularly low-cost.  

Follow necessary rules.  This development is about following the rules carefully, so that what is created is not undone because of sloppiness or illegality.  If talent is brought on for acting or voice work, there should clearly be media releases, so that the recordings of these individuals may be legally used.  No laws should be contravened in the work.  If a lawsuit is filed, even those peripherally tied to a project will be targeted because of how the legal system works.  It is best to avoid liabilities. 

Design simply.  Generally, simple designs trump complex ones.  It helps to be accurate but also agile and fast.  Part of frugality means avoiding unnecessary costs, drama, and entanglements.  

Check with the experts.  There should be regular communications with the respective subject matter experts (SMEs) and content experts in order to ensure that the teaching and learning are accurate.  

Use smart corner-cutting.  Some types of corner-cutting may be helpful, such as batch-processing all the similar images of a set at the same time (while keeping a pristine master set back).   

Create lean development teams.  The most efficacious teams are lean ones with clear communications and basic trust.  These are not easy to seat.  

Decide on how the team will handle bylines. The truth is that all are responsible whether their names appear on the work or not.  The other truth is that bylines only mean as much as the talent behind the name (the personal brand).  Name-dropping a relationship to a project or a company is something most in-the-know will treat with some skepticism.  

Build in a future-proofed way.  Get the fundamentals right in the learning resources.  Build the learning resources to be as factually supportable as possible.  Remove dated styling and cultural references.  Avoid the expression of excessive human personality, in most cases.  Make the learning as heritable as possible.  

Ensure that the digital contents are not at risk of technological obsolescence where possible.  Enable a way to recreate learning contents from raw matter if the created learning object is no longer accessible.  It helps to maintain the ability to change contents out, as needed.  (Modular design helps with this because modules may be switched in and out of a learning sequence.)  


Finally, once the created contents are alpha-tested for quality and functionality and beta-tested with live learners, then the work is deployed to the public via the learning management system.  Data may be collected about the learning.  Perhaps more retrofitting is required. Certainly, adjustments may also be made on-the-fly by the instructor(s).  


Times of belt tightening can bring out high-stress and resulting bad behaviors, like turf warfare, showboating, attempts to encumber others with one’s own work, stolen credit for others’ contributions, and other ways that people try to justify their value.  

Some people go to ground, and they try not to attract attention.  They stop taking risks in their work (and innovation may seem like a high-risk endeavor).  Others run to patrons for political cover as in the days of old, and they point to the social over the actual work performance.  

What might work better is to make the work more efficient and to work smarter.  

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  Her email is  

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