December 18

Instructional Design as Wayfinding

This is a map of the busiest airport in the world, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, GA


As tangled as the map appears, over 95 million people a year manage to find their own way through this maze of walkways and trains and gates and escalators. Why is that? What allows an individual to navigate such a complex system with nothing but a suitcase and a desire to make the next flight or catch a taxi home?

The answer is wayfinding: the design process of simplifying complicated spaces to make navigation easy and intuitive. Designer Jim Harding built the wayfinding system at Hartsfield-Jackson. From signs to maps to paint color, Harding leveraged the traveler’s intrinsic motivation (“I want to get where I’m going”) and created an “invisible hand” meant to guide the traveler towards his/her goal with minimal interruptions or wrong turns. Subtle but critical cues are the core of good wayfinding, like this “yellow brick road” to security lines and the pairing of icons and words to reinforce the intent and clarity of signs.



Instructional design is wayfinding. The 21st century learning landscape is as complicated as Atlanta’s airport: we are preparing students to navigate and succeed in a global, networked society that is growing more complex. It is essential that instead of grabbing students by the hand and leading them to their destination, we design learning paths and experiences that help them find their own way, that leverage their intrinsic motivation to learn (and, yes, students are intrinsically motivated to learn) so they can gain the creativity, flexibility, and resilience necessary to succeed in the complicated system that awaits them. Instructional design is the practice of creating safe, challenging, and engaging experiences where students take ownership of their own learning.

At GOA, we have an instructional design team to support our teachers in becoming wayfinders. The instructional designer coaches the teacher in translating good pedagogy into engaging and meaningful online learning. Teachers may be used to standing at the front of their classrooms, the center of their students’ experiences, but online learning demands a different approach, one that involves establishing goals early, building materials and activities in advance, and preparing students who will be doing most of their work independently and asynchronously. GOA students are like the travelers in Atlanta’s airport: eager to reach their destinations, they enter the online space and look for signs and cues. The teacher is still present as the course progresses, but that presence is defined by more than just Skype calls or emails; it exists in the way the teacher writes instructions, organizes content and activities, and designs assessments for engagement. “Present” does not always mean “visible.”

Designing learning is demanding work, and the relationship between a teacher and an instructional designer is at the heart of a successful GOA course. Teachers need coaching, and they need to feel comfortable and confident with the person giving them feedback, sharing ideas, and facilitating connections to great resources and people. The ID team explores our classes every day, navigating learning paths and looking at the signs our teachers have designed; we stay current with research and trends in learning and educational technology; we analyze data from our student and teacher surveys and help our faculty be responsive to it; we nurture a learning community by sharing great work from our teachers’ courses as best practices and providing online spaces to share ideas. We want our faculty to learn from each other as much as (more than!) they learn from us.

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We are a part of a growing trend of integrating coaching into the daily lives of organizations, and we are eager to learn more about how other schools are finding their way into the future. The work of GOA’s instructional design team and faculty contributes to a culture of collaboration and transparency, aiding our evolution as educators and wayfinders. It’s hard to imagine doing this alone.

Eric Hudson is Global Online Academy’s Dean of Instruction. Follow him on Twitter @ericgoa.