Improving Public Health through Instructional Design

The role of instructional design in improving public health outcomes.

In many settings, an instructional designer’s assumptions are probably not all that different from the colleagues with whom he/she most frequently collaborates.

Consider the role of an instructional designer in a university setting. The designer’s assumptions about, say, good pedagogy, are probably not all that dissimilar from those of the professors with whom he/she most closely works.

But what happens when instructional design is applied in other domains—especially those fields with fairly high-stakes implications, such as public health?

I recently spoke to Karina Lin, an HGSE alumna and Instructional Designer at Education Development Center (EDC), an educational nonprofit that collaborates with public and private partners to design, implement, and evaluate educational programs.

Karina shared her experiences working with an EDC team tasked with assisting the New York City Department of Health and Center for Disease Control (CDC) with their efforts in creating an online platform to help community organizations build their capacity in working with HIV/AIDS patients.

The clear and not so clear role of instructional design.

Given the importance of this project, Karina and her EDC team were fortunate to have a proven and reliable model from which to work: New York City Department of Health’s 2013 Care Coordination Workbook, which provides HIV/AIDs patients with an overview of the disease, and also discusses treatment regimens in an accessible, easy-to-understand way.

With NYC supplying the content expertise, EDC would then provide instructional design support to translate the model into an online format.  The CDC would be engaged to oversee the project and spearhead the dissemination of all of this work to a much broader audience.

The roles were clear. And that was the challenge.

Understanding content experts from other fields

One challenge Karina and her team experienced was sharing their ID process with public health professionals.

Steeped in a very different sort of professional training, public health practitioners were initially a little confused by things like mock-ups and wireframes.

“When we first gave them the wireframes, they were confused by the design. They said, ‘Where’s the color?’ and couldn’t focus on the content because they were looking for a well-polished website.”

Karina’s team realized they needed to bring more clarity to their ID process and give the public health experts an overview of their workflow, discussing how wireframes could enable the health experts to focus more on providing valuable feedback on content.

This made the process much more fluid. The content experts not only gained a better understanding of the design process, but also developed a sense of trust in the instructional designers’ choices.

Understanding the end-user: community organizations.

Another challenge Karina and her team experienced was ensuring that their portions of the project were as useful to community organizations as possible.

“We stayed true to the audience we were trying to serve by bringing in people from the field to consult with us on specific tools. For example, we created an online tool on how to supervise staff in an HIV clinic, where staff turnaround is really high from burnout, and we brought in two amazing program directors to tell us what they do.”

Karina said EDC also conducted a thorough ethnographic assessment of the project’s audience. “We interviewed them, assessed their needs, and asked them what they really wanted out of the potential resources they could be provided.”

While an instructional designer might feel right at home producing, say, a massive open online course, his/her professional training may present certain challenges when working with experts from other fields. And though navigating these relationships can be tricky, the upside potential is enormous, particularly when instructional design goes beyond the university’s gates into fields such as public health.

One thought on “Improving Public Health through Instructional Design

  1. pat9rice2 says:

    Really interesting post. My definition of an instructional designer has vastly changed since arriving at Harvard and I think the title encompasses many possible roles. I love seeing how instructional design is used in areas outside of the K-12, higher ed bubble. While it’s definitely harder to work with individuals from different industries, I think bringing this kind of design thinking to different areas can revolutionize industries beyond formal education.


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