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Learning & Development Blog

Are You a Free-Range or Helicopter Instructional Designer?

It is hard to escape all of the news and opinion stories I have seen in recent years arguing for and against Helicopter Parenting and, conversely, Free-Range Parenting. In the unlikely event you have not been privy to this debate, Helicopter Parenting can be defined as a style of child rearing in which an overprotective parent discourages a child's independence by being too involved in the child's life. On the other hand, Free-Range Parenting is a parenting style that allows kids to have some freedom without constantly worrying something bad will happen.

If I had to choose one style over the other, I’d say I definitely lean towards free-range with my own kids. There are 4 kids that get on the school bus at the end of my block. My 8 year old daughter is the youngest of the group, though I am the only parent who occasionally allows my child to walk to the bus stop on her own. I would do that more often if it weren’t for the 3 other parents standing there wondering where I was! Peer Pressure is alive and well, even in adulthood.

Now, when it comes to work, my team and I spend a good deal of time designing instructor-led training for an entire industry. While we also provide eLearning courses, instructor-led training is still a popular and effective option for this industry. Before we took over the maintenance of the existing courses and the design of new courses for this particular client/industry several years ago, the instructor guides that accompanied the course materials were little more than answer keys for quizzes and pre-certification testing. The classroom PowerPoints provided for these courses were also very basic and did not contain any instructor notes.

Historically, the onus has been on course instructors to highlight the points they consider important and bring in any equipment for demonstrations that they consider helpful. In short, much like Free-Range parents might do, instructors have been given what they absolutely needed, but have been trusted to teach a successful course and prepare their students for certification without specific direction on how to run their class. Their success or failure taught them a lot about how to succeed or keep succeeding the next time.

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Recently, we have been working on designing a new course on a complex topic that is not familiar to many industry instructors. However, it is important to the industry that more people get certified in this area, and in order to do that, we need a larger pool of instructors who are comfortable enough with the topic to teach it. The answer to that problem was to enhance the instructor guide and supporting materials in a way that makes the course easy to teach, even for a relative layman. But, in doing so I wonder if we have gone too far towards Helicopter Parenting.

This is a 5 day course and we have added countless instructor notes to the 800+ slides that support the class. We’ve added over 80 pages of content to the instructor guide which now includes a class schedule, information on managing a classroom, adult learning theory, inventory lists and information on how to conduct lab activities, and instructions and questions for leading classroom discussions. Finally, we have added over 1000 annotations to a special instructor copy of the student guide, many of which are copies of the instructor notes in the PowerPoint presentations.

I am managing this project, not designing it, and while the instructional designer working on the project is extremely competent and I trust her judgement, I can’t help but wonder if all of this is overkill. I am certainly having heartburn over the effort it will take to maintain all of this material when the content requires updates in a year or two. I wonder if instructors will truly find all of this additional information helpful or simply the actions of an instructional designer overly worried about their ability to teach the course.

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In addition to designing courses, I have taught quite a few courses over the years that were developed by others. Putting that instructor hat on for a moment, I know my preference would be to have a little more information and guidance beyond just the answers to the quiz questions, but not so much information that I feel like all of my choices have been made for me. Just as I try to give my kids opportunities to succeed or fail on their own in a relatively safe environment, I think we need to do the same for instructors.

Both extremes of the Helicopter and the Free-Range mindset can have negative consequences as we have seen over and over in the media. I think the same thing holds true when it comes to guiding instructors. A moderate approach provides guidance without dictating and the freedom to teach your class without having to guess about certain elements. Of course the experience level of your pool of instructors and their comfort level with a topic must also be taken into considerations. My job now is to steer us back towards the center.

So which type of instructional designer are you? Helicopter or Free-Range? If you have not thought about this before, your instructor guides will give you a hint.

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