Episode 10: Rob Pearson


In this episode, I interview Rob Pearson.

Rob is an educator, learning experience designer, and documentary filmmaker. He has a rich and varied work history with experiences in health care, higher education, not-for-profit, and small and large private sector organizations. Sparked during his film production studies at York University, a linking theme throughout Rob’s career has been the role of media and technology as an enabler of learning. During the tech boom of the early 2000s, Rob held senior roles in several Ed-Tech start-ups and then took on the lead of the Learning and Customer Experience practice at Maritz Canada, a US-based marketing services company. Rob has been active as a community builder, spending 10 years as a board member, board chairperson, and ED at the Canadian Society for Training and Development – now the Institute for Performance and Learning. More recently, Rob completed contract roles leading Executive and Corporate Education at the Ted Rogers School of Management and as AVP Professional Development at Sun Life and is now an experience design consultant with clients in North American and Europe and an active volunteer with several local charities. Rob holds a Ph.D. in Instructional Systems from Syracuse University and an MBA from the Rotman School of Management.


In this episode

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Episode transcript

REBECCA:
Thanks for listening. This is the last episode of season one, but don’t worry, I’m taking a short break and we’ll be back with more demystifying instructional design in mid-January. If you enjoy this podcast, please subscribe and follow demystifying ID on social media. Also, if you’d like to support demystifying instructional design, I’ve set up accounts on Patreon and Buy me a coffee. Links are available on demystifying instructional design dot com. Welcome to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview various instructional designers to figure out what it is instructional designers do. I’m Rebecca Hogue, your podcast host. Welcome, Rob, to demystifying instructional design, can you start by introducing yourself?

ROB:
My name is Rob Pearson, and I’m an instructional designer and thrilled to be with you today, Rebecca.

REBECCA:
Thank you. And so can you tell me a little bit about how you got into instructional design?

ROB:
Yeah, it’s a long and twisted journey. I first started getting interested in learning and instruction through a filmmaking lens and went off to university to study filmmaking. That was my passion, it still is in many respects. And I seem to gravitate towards documentary films and films that were, probably wouldn’t have used this language back in my early 20s, but it had more of an educator bent to them. I ran into some professors and got pointed in some interesting directions that I ended up going off to do my Ph.D. in instructional design at Syracuse University in my mid-twenties. So really got thrown into the deep end of instructional design at the very beginning of my career.

REBECCA:
You’re lucky to have found it earlier in your career. Very few people do.

ROB:
Unusual for sure.

REBECCA:
And so how do you describe what you do when someone asks you?

ROB:
Gosh, it’s the question I dread over the holiday season. What do you do, Rob? Oh, I’m an instructional designer and do you design furniture? The best way I describe what instructional design is to people who have never heard of it before is to give examples of the work that I do. That seems to be the best way to bring instructional design to life for people because it’s something most people have never heard of. They think I’m a teacher and I’m a teacher, but I think the best way to describe it is through the outputs and deliverables that I create. And so that could be an e-learning course, could be classroom experience. And more and more, I talk about instructional design in terms of problem-solving. I work with organizations to help them solve talent development challenges or ways of skilling and reskilling employees and using more effective methods and tools.

REBECCA:
That’s interesting. And so what kind of projects do you find fun?

ROB:
As a freelance consultant right now? The best projects are always the ones with the best clients. So clients that I connect with clients that I have fun with. But beyond that, I think the projects that I enjoy most are the ones that are bigger picture and more strategic. So the output isn’t so much a course or a lesson or an e learn or something. It’s an experience. It’s a solution. And that often takes the form of a kind of blueprint. And recently, the blueprints typically take the form of a journey map.

REBECCA:
Can you describe Journey Map a little bit?

ROB:
Sure. I’m so thrilled that I’ve stumbled on the journey mapping and design thinking. A journey mapping would be a kind of tool set that design thinkers would use. But journey maps are a really powerful way of capturing an end users experience. And there’s lots of different ways to do them, but typically they have two or three, maybe four swim lanes, at least the ones that I prepare. So the first swim lane would be touch points, so all the critical touch points in the experience for the learner are mapped out in sequence. And then the second swim lane is a kind of second take on the touch points, identifying those touch points that you really want to amplify and bring to life and journey mappers design thinkers call those moments of truth. And then under that, I begin to map out the kinds of resources or processes or deliverables, tangible things that bring that journey to life, bring the touch points in the moments of truth to life, and that’s often the deliverable that goes to the client. And then, yeah, other folks go and build out stuff. But it really creates pretty detailed road map of a learning journey that could take place over weeks, months or potentially over years.

REBECCA:
It’s like a curriculum. That opens the door to informal learning.

ROB:
Yeah, I think that’s a neat way of thinking of it. I think that’s a really interesting question. Could a journey map be a way of capturing curriculum for me? Curriculum is more the what? And a journey map is the what and the how. And yeah, I think journey mapping should be a standard tool in the instructional designers toolkit now. Another really important part of journey mapping is that the folks that you work with to do the journey map are your clients, so they co-create it with you. So all the journey maps are workshopped, and I’m getting better at what that process can be and should be. But I challenge clients to, to put the designer hat on with me and be co-creators.

REBECCA:
That sounds like a great way to make sure you’re getting buy-in along the way.

ROB:
Completely so it is a great way to ensure, first of all, alignment with clients and the savvy clients involve their stakeholders in the design process, so they’re bought in With a recent client that that proved to be absolutely brilliant.

REBECCA:
What would you consider your niche to be?

ROB:
Yeah, that’s a great question, and then you did provide the questions ahead of time. It’s one one that I might just think out loud a little bit around. I think echoing some of the comments around the work that I like to do and the work that I love to do as an instructional designer. I think my niche is really and I’m not sure this is the best way to capture it, but it’s macro design and it’s designing at the systems level, helping organizations see how all the bits and pieces of a talent ecosystem fit together to drive performance in the workplace. And yeah, I see that. I see that very much as the work that I love to do and the work that I would characterize as my niche. More and more, Rebecca, my outputs for clients are strategies and plans and blueprints, not products.

REBECCA:
It actually highlights where you are in your career as well. How long have you been doing instructional design?

ROB:
I’m now rapidly approaching sixty one? And if I headed off to do my Ph.D. in instructional design at twenty four, we’ll let everyone listening do the math.

REBECCA:
Yeah, so quite some time. And so it kind of. But it does highlight that perhaps earlier in your career, you might be more individually creating products like training, learning products like a course or an individual thing. But as you get experience in different formats and different things, you grow into the ability to have that systems view.

ROB:
Yeah, and I think that’s a fascinating conversation for instructional designers to have, but also folks engaged in teaching instructional design. I’m not completely convinced that should be the the progression. I think absolutely. You need to cut your teeth as an instructional designer at the course and lesson level, you need to be able to write good objectives. You need to be able to create evaluations, tests that close the loop on those outcomes. Those things are foundational. But I think instructional designers need experience early on, and I think part of their formal training needs to be at that systems level.

REBECCA:
Mm-Hmm. What are the biggest challenges you face as an instructional designer?

ROB:
I think the biggest challenge I face as an instructional designer is, and I think this would be true of many folks who are in what I would call professions, connect to or rely on more of the softer sciences that everybody thinks they know what good teaching is. And so it’s oftentimes hard to push back against those myths and those beliefs folks have around how people learn. I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody said, Well, I’m a visual learner. I also think part of the role of an instructional designer is, how do you counter that in a way that’s respectful and inclusive with the science of learning that formally trained instructional designers are steeped in? Mm hmm. So I think that conversation I even at this late stage of my career, I continue to find challenging. And yeah, it makes me frustrated and grumpy sometimes. But yeah, I think that’s what I find the most challenging.

REBECCA:
Mm-Hmm. What skills do you find most useful in your work?

ROB:
I think the skills that I find help me really perform well as an instructional designer are those foundational skills that that I think are really critical that probably over the years, I just take for granted now around writing good objectives and sequencing content and using taxonomies and the tools and tricks that formally trained instructional designers have at their fingertips. But I think the skills that are the most valuable really are the consulting skills. Listening, empathy, being able to bring a client along the journey of co-creation and design. And that takes finesse. It takes nuanced ways of behaving. And yeah, I’m still getting better at all that. But in the end, instructional design is, unless you’re in a big instructional design shop, you are working with a client, you are working with someone. Whether it’s a subject matter expert or a professor at a university and maybe a physician in a health care setting, you are working with someone who, yeah, you need to get, to get the, you need to collaborate with to really understand what the problem is that you’re trying to solve as a designer.

REBECCA:
Is there anything you wish you knew sooner about instructional design?

ROB:
Back to the earlier comment. It was a bit of a revelation and it came a bit later in my career that there are different playing fields for instructional design and that the revelation around instructional design really needs sometimes a three dimensional chess. You’re working, designing at the course or asset level, but you need to be able to pivot to that higher level of. How does this fit into broader performance enablement, talent development, whatever label you want to put on an ecosystem? And yeah, I wish I’d come to that sooner and again. To my earlier point, I think that needs to be. That needs to be part of the formal preparation for instructional designers. One of the things we did at the Canadian Society for Training and Development now Institute for Performance and Learning, kind of Canada’s version of ATD. When we revamped the competency framework, we actually spent a lot of time. We argued a lot around layering in a whole competency pillar around this notion of designing at the systems level. And we ended up calling it curriculum design, which I that’s not the right term, but it gets at it. But yeah, that’s that is such a critical dimension to instructional design. I think regardless of what stage you’re at in your career, what advice would you give to new instructional designers? Yeah, I think instructional design is a rapidly evolving discipline. I think instructional designers need to continue to be curious. They need to continue to grow their skills, and they need to do that on a number of different fronts. They need to be. They do need to be savvy with technology and the kinds of outputs, the rapidly changing range of outputs that instructional designers could design and produce. I think instructional designers need to be really in sync with, depending on the kind of environment that they’re working in. They need to be really in sync with the evolving conversation around the future of work and hybrid work spaces, and that conversation will have profound and having profound impact on what instructional designers use, also creating lots of opportunity for instructional designers. And then finally, I think keeping up to date with the rapidly changing theory base that informs instructional design. When I was studying instructional design 30 years ago, it was behaviorism and cognitive psychology, and constructivism was new and different and sexy. And but now we’re talking about neuroscience, and so it’s really keeping in touch with all those theory bases and navigating them and now figuring out how to draw on them to continue to evolve your practice.

REBECCA:
And have you seen that the sort of pace of change over time?

ROB:
Yeah, that’s a great question, I so I certainly see it, and within the context of what clients ask about and the way they the way they engage me, they’re in some respects. They’re more sophisticated than they used to be in terms of being connected with some of these, these changes. But yeah, I’m not sure. I wonder some days whether instructional design as a profession is really keeping up.

REBECCA:
I’m going to pivot a little bit.

ROB:
Sure

REBECCA: Over to your experience as a manager of instructional designers and what types of things do you look for when you’re trying to hire an instructional designer?

ROB:
As I reflect back, I think the best instructional designers that I’ve ever worked with, which share a common set of characteristics, maybe they don’t have a Ph.D. in instructional design, or maybe they haven’t even completed a degree or diploma in instructional design, but they are grounded in the in the models and theory of instructional design. And that’s important for a lot of reasons. I think the models and the theory are what drive and inform really effective solutions like. It’s not just it’s not just window dressing, but it also facilitates a much more effective and high level conversation between instructional designers because you can use the language, the technical language that we’re trained in and steeped in. So I think that’s really important. When I’ve hired instructional designers that might not have had that, we’ve done some things behind the scenes to make sure that they pick that up and embed that in their practice.

I think instructional designers need to be superb communicators. They need to be able to write. They need to be able to express themselves with clarity. They need to be comfortable and facile with technology. And then I think I’ll add two more things to the list. This is sounding like a heavy list, particularly for instructional designers practicing within corporate learning environments.

Having an understanding of an appreciation of an affinity for business and business language, I think is also critical. Typically, instructional designers again are working for or delivering for collaborating with folks that are going to take these products and use them to achieve organizational objectives. And so being able to translate the language that technical language of learning into organizational language that resonates with clients is really important. You’re working for a big bank as an instructional designer. They’re interested in making sure that folks perform in a way that boosts sales and increases customer satisfaction reduces risk. And so being able to see those connections, I think, is really important.

The fourth thing that I look for in instructional designers or the thing that that the best instructional designers I’ve ever worked with really brought to the table in spades was creativity. I think being able to think creatively about how to execute on instructional designs is just so important. At the end of the day, we need to deliver the goods. But oh my goodness, let’s not be boring, especially if it’s compliance training. That’s a whole podcast unto itself, but it would probably be filled with things word you’d have to cut out.

REBECCA:
What can a new instructional designer do to stand out?

ROB:
for new instructional designers hitting the marketplace? And I, my sense, is a good time to be an instructional designer. It seems to be a role that’s in big demand right now. I think being able to to demonstrate the ability to create outputs, solutions, experiences and be able to showcase those through portfolio of some kind that are interesting and creative and differentiated. That’s the way to stand out. Having a sizzle reel, I think, is important to showcase some of that work. And if instructional designers are new, then invest some time in creating and you put all your sort of really great stuff on it. So my, some products or assets to to put in a sizzle reel.

REBECCA:
Can you explain sizzle reel? That’s a new term for me.

ROB:
Yeah. So sizzle reel is what comes from is the world of video and marketing. So Sizzle Reel would be reel would be a reel of film. My wife’s a costume designer, so she has a sizzle reel, clips from the movies that she’s worked on and the costumes she’s designed. And she narrates it and says, Yeah. So in this case, here’s what I did. And yeah, it’s it’s designed to really amplify and hype the really cool work that you’ve done that gives me a really interesting idea of what one can do.

REBECCA:
And so what types of things do you suggest people put in their portfolios?

ROB:
So you want to demonstrate your creativity? I think you want to be able to demonstrate your stretch across from courses, lessons, the kinds of traditional outputs of an instructional designer to experiences and learning journeys. I think that’s important. And then I think the third thing that’s really critical and a sizzle reel, particularly if it’s going to be you’re marketing yourself into an organization is to show the connection between the products, solutions, experiences that you’re showcasing and the kind of business challenges or organizational challenges they’re being directed at. So it’s got a bit of a and and there’s ways to do this that aren’t dry. I think, it’s got a bit of a case study. Feel to it. Yeah. Here’s here was the challenge now the organization was blah blah blah blah blah, and it needed to find ways to increase production, or it needed ways to improve customer satisfaction. The net promoter scores of the business were in the toilet, and the organizers decided to put a real full court press on changing the culture of the business and making it much more customer centric. So here’s one of the things that the organization did, so it is it’s connecting the output back to a business problem.

REBECCA:
Now I have a last question that I like to ask everybody, and that is, what’s your prediction for the future of instructional design?

ROB:
My my prediction for the future of instructional design would be a prediction that I might put against lots of other professions, innovate or die out. I think instructional designs future is in the design of experiences that are much more comprehensive, long lasting than the traditional notion of instructional designers as designers. To me, that’s the future of our profession that we really fully evolve into and embrace our role as problem solvers and not technicians who turn out stuff.

REBECCA:
Thank you very much, Rob, for your willingness to come on the podcast and letting me pick your brain.

ROB:
Always a pleasure, Rebecca, and happy to come back anytime.

REBECCA:
Thanks for listening. This is the last episode of season one, but don’t worry, I’m taking a short break and we’ll be back with more demystifying instructional design in mid-January. If you enjoy this podcast, please subscribe and follow demystifying ID on social media. Also, if you’d like to support demystifying instructional design, I’ve set up accounts on Patreon and Buy Me a Coffee. Links are available on demystifying instructional design dot com. You’ve been listening to Demystifying Instructional Design, a podcast where I interview instructional designers about what they do. I’m Rebecca Hogue, your podcast host. If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on demystifying instructional design, please complete be my guest form available on demystifying instructional design dot com. Show notes are posted as a blog post on demystifying instructional design dot com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe or leave a comment on the show notes blog post. Thank you.

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