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How to handle information overload in instructional design

Whenever I remember how I started my instructional designer journey, the image that comes to mind is an iceberg with only a small portion sticking out of the water. The bulk of it remains hidden underneath.

I learned that it was crucial for a course creator to have lots of information and resources, but share just what learners needed to know. Another key takeaway was that materials needed to be constantly revised and updated.

So far, so good. I’m sure none of this sounds like groundbreaking news. However, these days there are so many changes and so much information coming our way constantly that you cannot help but wonder how instructional designers make heads and tails of what's relevant and what’s just background noise.

In this article, you will find some strategies on working through all of it and avoiding getting overwhelmed.

Figure in advance what (and how much) information you need

The first step is to factor in what you need to achieve in your research. It may be simply making sure that existing material is still relevant or doing extensive research for a new course.

If it’s the first situation, you have to look for the most recent articles and data on the subject. See if there are notable advancements to include in the course.

If you are researching new material, it’s important to keep in mind the objective of the course. What will the attendees know by the end of the session? Focus your reading on that.

It’s all right to go off course a bit if you think it may be relevant or just find it interesting. However, while you need to have more knowledge than learners, you don’t have to have all the information.

Read more: What L&D professionals need to know about curating learning content

Search the best sources

Before beginning the actual research, you should look into the credibility and quality of your sources. Not all sites and journals are created equal.

Back in the day, it was easier to pick well-written and reliable reference books. Nowadays, you have access to anything and everything, but it's also harder to discern between various sources. That’s why it’s important to be sure of who you are listening to and double-check any piece of content that raises even the smallest red flag.

If you end up passing along distorted or even wrong information, your reputation will suffer. If you have the possibility, it’s best to check your findings with a subject matter expert that you trust and ask for recommendations.

Read more: Harnessing the power of SMEs for successful workplace training

Avoid going down rabbit holes

The internet is a wonderful, vast domain and content creators are highly skilled at enticing users to click from page to page, down never-ending rabbit holes. I’ve watched interviews with authors who admitted to having lost entire days after searching for a historical or scientific tidbit that was relevant to their work.

You can end up clicking for weeks, gathering information presented in an exciting way but not necessarily what you relevant to what you need to create. Instructional designers need to be very organized and disciplined in their research process. That is if you want to stay on top of it and meet your deadlines.

Stick to the sources you have already checked and look for the specific items you have decided you need. It’s fine to make mental notes of additional materials that could be useful but save them for a different time.

Beware of information crutches

If you're updating existing courses, you may know quite a bit about that particular subject. If you are starting a new project and you are not a subject matter expert, odds are you still have some ideas about what the content should be.

We usually seek confirmation of what we already believe. However, as learning professionals dedicated to designing and deploying quality educational content, we must be wary of confirmation bias and look beyond what seems to be “same old, same old”. Especially when information is abundant, it feels a little less overwhelming if we just skim over it. It's easy to find the familiar items, acknowledge that they have not changed, and be done with it.

This process is the opposite of going down rabbit holes. Confirming what you already know may help you reach your milestones faster, but it’s not great for content accuracy.

Closing thoughts

In the academic world, books and ideas that are hundreds of years old are still very valuable and relevant. In today’s corporate environment, however, training content can become obsolete in a matter of months. Therefore, learning specialists have to update materials and constantly create new training modules for evolving needs.

Sifting through heaps of information is no easy task, but these strategies will help you find what is relevant without spending too much time doing so.

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