I have been designing training and educational materials now for 20 years through my time with the army in pre-internet days, designed and developed a number of soft skills e-Learning courses in the 2000-3 time frame, writing telecommunications technical publications, to offering history and political science course online and in class, to now being an information architect with a practice of user centered design.
What I have come to realize is that up to 2 years ago, I often relied on others description of who the learner/user was. I never got to meet the learners; instead I relied on a subject matter expert who told me who the target audience was and provided the details and I applied objectives, wrote content and provided testing. Often the subject matter expert was several years removed from interacting with the end-users.
At no time until become an information architect was I ever allowed to question the medium/mechanism or design of what I was doing. My practice as an information architect has led me to start the process of training design by actually asking the question of “do we even need training?” Is it possible there are other forms of information that is more useful to the target audience?
To discover this, you actually need to talk to the users. You may discover that the users don’t need to be tested, they only what just in time information of how to do a task (insert a hyperlink) that an html help file can provide. So part of the problem is instantly saying we need to do training, when we actually need better information design. Better information design comes from talking to the users of the information to see how they consume it, how they need to use it, and the environment they need to operate in. Only them can you start to say we have x or y types of users and this is what each x or y user need to do. This process then allows you to come up with a list of requirements or recommendations, but these recommendations are not for all users, but the significant majority of users, or the users with the “most” pressing problems.
The recommendations may be on product help, topic based web help files, a Wiki publishing and user corrected feedback system, a better intranet/website, structured authoring, or single source publishing. So the technology choice comes last and not first. Perhaps the current technology is good enough, it just needs better implementation. Knowing what the general capabilities of technology are useful so potential avenues of exploration are possible, but what if there is no current technology? Then the requirements start a new development process for that technology to aid in the information creation and dissemination and re-synthesizing (if needed).
So, I see instructional design as being a sub-set of information design, and perhaps one of the last options to consider for the deployment of training since training can be so expensive and of limited durability in the product-driven world.
Perhaps the best thing that could happen is an easily findable website that is user constructed with links to reputable or useful information for the problems I need resolve for the information I need education in. Even my New Brunswick lumberjack with a web-enable cell phone in an area with service could trouble-shoot why his Husquvarna chain saw is acting up. He doesn’t need a fancy piece of e-Learning in an LMS or to take an operators course (unless the law says so).
This difficulty, of course, is trying to provide the information for what the software industry calls the “corner cases” or users that operating under what may be rare circumstances. In the Connectivist world, this means users that find themselves unable to connect to the internet due to lack of a computer or networking infrastructure. This may be coming rare in the “westernized” world, but a significant population may face challenge. The situation or user environment will help decide the educational/training mechanisms that are most appropriate. So a study of infromation architecture is extremely relevant to instructional design.