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A transition from academia to instructional design

Lessons from a recent graduate

Place a piece of academic writing and one of Thrive’s off-the-shelf modules side-by-side and I doubt too many people will say they are all that similar. Where an average university essay could be anything from 2000-5000 words long, Thrive’s ten-minute microlearning modules are far more concise (and far more visually appealing, thankfully). But, despite appearing as similar as the proverbial chalk and cheese, they are rather closer than you would expect.

Similar goals, similar outcomes?

On the surface, the differences between academic and instructional design aren’t so huge. The aims of both are rather similar: engage and educate the reader, be clear and coherent, use clear language that is easy to understand and make sure what you say is to the point.

How they go about achieving these aims, of course, is altogether rather different. Having finished a History MA back in August 2018, I was starting my first job in the elearning industry less than a week later. From a 15,000-word dissertation to ten-minute module scripts in the blink of an eye.

But that isn’t to say that the skills honed into the small hours in the university library are not applicable to my work at Thrive. Rather, it could be argued that Thrive’s way of writing could enrich academic writing styles, as much as the other way around.

Keeping end users engaged is key

In academia, the introduction sets the tone for the rest of the essay: it outlines your ideas and intends to show your confidence as a writer. Thrive’s introduction isn’t so different. But, in just thirty seconds of text and video, the rest of the module is set out and the learner’s attention seized. If I thought being concise in an essay was difficult, creating succinct, relevant microlearning content here at Thrive was a whole new challenge.

Across every module topics which take up metres and metres of virtual writing are covered effectively in those ten minutes. Where your professor or lecturer will struggle to the end of your essay (no matter how bored they may become), your learner will often not extend you the same courtesy.

Fail to engage adequately and you fail to teach. And they fail to learn anything.

This need to be as concise as possible was the biggest challenge in transitioning from academia to instructional writing. I found myself continuing to use my go-to explanatory words in Thrive modules (and I don’t think ‘exemplify’ is a word that will fill most learners with a sudden burst of enthusiasm).

Are we speaking the same language?

How language is used is the biggest difference. Whilst it’s true that the language used in elearning is simpler overall, the way in which it is used is another factor. The need for sign-posting is as important here as it is in academia, but when words are at a premium, it is imperative that it is done correctly.

Add in the need to work with designers, giving them the space to work their magic, and it’s quite a delicate process.

Because what we are effectively doing is writing a ten-minute story, which engages and teaches in equal measure. A story that uses the key information of a particular topic and makes it memorable. The best teaching at university is that which made you feel like you weren’t being taught at all, but rather someone was facilitating your own curiosity. And that’s what I try to do with my own instructional writing.

We’ve got to keep it simple

The writing process, whether academic or instructional, is the same. You conduct your own research, you pick out the most important information from the best sources you can find and write that information into an engaging format. You edit, take feedback, edit some more, until at last, you feel it is of sufficient quality.

The precision needed to give our learners all the information they need in such a small package would be useful to any student (and a fair few academics I had to read up on as well). And if there’s one thing I have learned as a result of this new way of writing, it’s that the simplest words tend to be the most effective.

Writing for Thrive isn’t easier or more difficult than that of academic writing, but the key is that it makes use of the same skills I’ve used for the last four years, whilst at university. And it is through enhancing these skills ever further, with a new challenge, that I have become a better writer, who (hopefully) can engage university lecturers and ten-minute learners in equal measure.

Just don’t expect me to be able to explain my MA dissertation in only ten minutes any time soon!

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