Interview with Instructional Designer Debby Kalk

Debby Kalk is an instructional designer and e-learning project developer with over 20 years of experience producing interactive, video, and classroom-based learning programs. She has developed training and customer education programs for companies such as USAA Insurance, Dell Computer, and Verizon Wireless. She has also worked with publishers such as Prentice Hall, McGraw-Hill, and Addison Wesley to develop online educational products.  At, MicroAssist, Debby has developed training for a statewide call center rollout, Dell and Vaccine University. 

Debby speaks frequently on instructional design and e-learning topics at workshops and conferences including ISPI, eLearning DevCon, STC, and AECT. She is co-author of the textbook, Real World Instructional Design, published in 2005 by Wadsworth College Publishers, a unit of Thomson Learning. She has a BA in History, a BS in Radio-Television-Film, and an MA in Instructional Technology, all from the University of Texas at Austin.

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Debby Kalk is an instructional designer and e-learning project developer with over 20 years of experience producing interactive, video, and classroom-based learning programs. She has developed training and customer education programs for companies such as USAA Insurance, Dell Computer, and Verizon Wireless. She has also worked with publishers such as Prentice Hall, McGraw-Hill, and Addison Wesley to develop online educational products.  At, MicroAssist, Debby has developed training for a statewide call center rollout, Dell and Vaccine University. 

Debby Kalk on Instructional Design

Sanjay: Today we are talking to Debby Kalk. Debby is an Instructional Designer with over 20 years of experience producing learning for companies like USAA, Dell, and Verizon. She is the co-author of Real World Instructional Design and a Longhorn with Multiple Degrees including MA in Instructional Technology from the University of Texas in Austin. Welcome Debby. Debby you are an Instructional Designer, what is Instructional Design?

Debby: Well, Instructional Design is the purposeful development of an instructional episode. Ok, that is a big fancy way to say something, but I consider myself very equivalent to an architect. So in terms of my role, compared to the role of the instructor who actually teaches, the instructor would be more like the construction manager, I’m more like the architect, I develop the blueprint.

Sanjay: When would a company typically hire you?

Debby: When does somebody need an Instructional Designer? Typically it’s when people have a lot of folks who they need to train and the material they need to train has a lot of different pieces. So if you just have a handful of people and about 1 days worth of material it probably will work just fine to bring in the subject matter expert, and grab a conference room, and teach them what they need to know. But when you have to train, for example, new employees, or you have lot of people distributed over a wide range, especially if they will be traveling, it really makes sense to develop instruction that you know is going to be effective.

Sanjay: Debby as you know, we do a lot of standardized training and you can buy a lot of standardized curriculum. When do you see companies calling you versus getting some curriculum off the shelf?

Debby: The customized curriculum really makes sense when you have specific internal procedures or policies for sales goals, what ever it is something unique in your company that really makes it important for everyone in the company to be very highly trained and very effective at implementing either those procedures or policies. When you have a number of people who are going to learn material over a period of time that’s another place where a very customized approach is going to make sense.

Sanjay: You have a great deal of experience creating curriculum. You must have some typical difficulties you always face when you are creating curriculum. Can you list a few of them for our listeners?

Debby: Clients who haven’t participated in a curriculum development project very often are anxious about what it’s going to take in terms of their time and their not really sure how it works, so they don’t really know what is expected of them. One of our jobs as Instructional Designers is really to help educate the client about the process, and provide the materials and information to them in a way that is very accessible, and hopefully it’s even enjoyable. Where we most need to tap the clients expertise is at the beginning of the project when we need the content, what it is were going to do, and we need to have them help us understand our definition of who the learner is and what they need to learn through this project. We also need the client’s participation again when we have to review deliverables, and we expect to have to revise every deliverable. We have a cycle of review and revision built into every deliverable. So we try to really reassure the client that our first pass is just that, it’s a first past, and we will absolutely redo it until they are satisfied with it.

Sanjay: When I talk to Instructional Designers I keep hearing the term “SME’s” I know it means “Subject Matter Expert,” but what does it really mean?

Debby: What is really means is that that’s the person who has got the expertise of whatever this product, or process, or policy is in their head. And that’s the person I need to work with as an Instructional Designer. I work with that person to capture that expertise and get it down on paper, into the curriculum, so that we can teach new folks this information.

Sanjay: I noticed that you’ve done a lot of work creating curriculum for both classroom training and E-Learning training. Is the process similar for both of them?

Debby: The process for developing curriculum is the same really no matter what the delivery environment. That’s really one of the questions we ask when we develop a curriculum. We think, well who is the audience, what do they need to know, and what’s the most effective way to help them learn these new skills or this new information. Very often E-Learning works where we have folks who are distributed across many locations or we have people who really are already on the job and need to learn new skills, and then they can learn in what we call an “asynchronous” mode. They can login anytime and they don’t have to all congregate in one place at one time. For new hires, and for people who are learning completely new and complex job skills, and for folks who are learning things like interpersonal skills, managerial skills, and social interaction skills, sales skills, very often a classroom experience becomes important. It’s also often the case that we can combine some component in a classroom and some parts of it online to have blended learning, which is a very strong combination of both.

Sanjay: Debby, when does one choose E-Learning versus classroom training?

Debby: There are a couple of different things to consider when considering how you want to deliver the training, and that’s actually one of the first things we do anytime we develop curriculum. We have to look at who are the learners? Where are they? Are they sitting in front of computers all day long? Well that makes it very easy to distribute E-Learning to them. Do they need to form a cohesive group in order to learn together? For example, if you have an incoming class that’s going to work together very closely, it might make sense for them to meet each other, in person, even for a short time and then do the rest online. Although there are ways to do things online now that also develops a coherent group. A lot of it has to do with, what is the material, how much material is there, how much time do we have before we need to deliver it?  And also, how stable is the material?  If the material is going to change rapidly, its volatile information, and we certainly don’t want to commit to an E-Learning format. If people are widely distributed and really it’s going to be hard to interrupt their schedules to all bring them to one place at one time, it makes a lot of sense to look at E-Learning as a way to distribute the learning and allow them to access it at times that are convenient for them.

Sanjay: In our conversations, you seem to differentiate between building knowledge and building skills. Is one form of training better for building knowledge versus building skills? 

Debby: That’s a really good question because many people don’t even think there’s a difference between knowledge and skills. What I always like to point to is, in your pocket is probably a driver’s license. And the way you got that driver’s license is there was two parts to that test. One part was to do a multiple choice test and it tested you on your knowledge. Your knowledge on the rules of the road, how fast can you drive when there’s no speed limit posted, for example. The other part of that test is behind the wheel, and it tests your physical ability to manipulate the car in traffic and under certain kinds of conditions. That’s a skill. And so since there are two ways that we test, there’s really also two ways that we have to develop that curriculum and deliver that curriculum. So for skills, people need opportunities to practice those skills, to make mistakes and get feedback so that they can correct their mistakes. It doesn’t work to develop skills and then give people a multiple choice test. So those are very common errors in curriculum development and delivery that we certainly want to avoid. Both of those actually, skill development and knowledge building can occur in a classroom just as well as they can occur online. We just have to identify them ahead of time and figure out how were going to develop the skills and knowledge, and how we are going to test them.

Sanjay: Choosing the right technique in developing knowledge versus developing skill is one issue in designing curriculum. What are some of the other issues in designing curriculum?

Debby: Some of the things to consider when developing curriculum, does the curriculum exist already? Sometimes it’s in the heads of people who are experts and we have to work with those experts to develop what it is someone needs to know and to document that, get it down on paper. Other times there’s existing curriculum and we are transmitting it from one medium to another. Perhaps you’ve developed very successful classroom curriculum but now your folks are distributed and you want to deliver it online and you have to re-think how to do that to an online format. There are times when people just need to enhance or advance their skills. And so, we have existing material that hasn’t been used in a way that extends the skills, and perhaps to extend the skills that require some simulations and more advanced strategies, instructional strategies.

Sanjay: Debby, what are some of the subject matter areas where you can develop curriculum?

Debby: I know this is surprising to people that I don’t develop material based on my content area knowledge. What I bring to the process is the ability to work with someone else who is an expert in whatever topic is out there. I’ve done things for NASA, I’ve done things for Early Childhood Education, universities, all different levels, and I don’t have curriculum content in those areas. What I bring is a process of how to develop any kind of subject area into an effective curriculum for a specific audience.

Sanjay: People are concerned about costs. Isn’t developing customized curriculum very costly?

Debby: Well, I think there are two ways that we need to look at the costs. Certainly there is a cost associated with creating something from scratch. However, what is the cost to the company with people who are unproductive? Typically, that is going to be a much higher wasted resource or lost revenue. So that’s how you have to balance it. Certainly there are ways to develop customized curriculum so that it’s a very efficient development process and an efficient delivery process. And so those are certainly always our goals.

Sanjay: What are some of the other parameters our customers should consider when considering return on investment for customized curriculum?

Debby: Some of the things to consider are how expensive are your people, and how much return do you really need to get from each person. Do you want people to learn things tribally? In other words, they turn to the next person in the next cubby and they may get very good information or it maybe very inadequate information. I think all of us as consumers have experiences where we walk into one place and it just seems everybody
knows what their supposed to do, and the services and quality is also very, very high. That is always an example where people are very highly trained. So it’s usually going to be a matter of how irreplaceable are your employees, and how productive do you want them to be.

Sanjay: Debby, are there any industry standards for what it costs to create custom curriculum? What are some of the key factors in the costs of custom curriculum development?

Debby: Unfortunately, there isn’t a formula that is really applicable across the board. We often use the analogy that’s like building a house. You could have a house that’s a perfectly wonderful house, but it’s a 1000 square feet and it’s got 3 bedrooms and 2 baths and it’s a house. You could also have a house that is 5 times that size and you can imagine how that affects the cost. Things that affect the cost in curriculum development; does the content exist already? If it doesn’t exist already it means there are people in the company that have knowledge, it just isn’t documented anywhere. Well that’s going to cost more to capture that information then if it existed in documentation already.

Sanjay: What are some of the things we can do to control the costs of creating custom curriculum?

Debby: One of the first things that the Instructional Designer does is to meet with the producer and really try to understand what are the production limitations and opportunities that we have within the budget and the schedule and the content available to us. And we design templates; we design formats that we know will work within the budget available to us. It means that when we develop the content we are very mindful of the templates and formats available to us so that we can live within our cost structure.

Sanjay: Debby thank you for coming in today and sharing your knowledge with our listeners.

Debby: Well thank you for having me. I really love talking about what Instructional Design has to offer, how it works, and how we can help people really do a much better job in delivering really effective training to their customers and to their employees.

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Have a question? Meet Heather Poggi-Mannis, our E-Learning evangelist. Heather has been working in the training industry for 12 years. Her technical background and previous experience includes a BSEE from the University of Texas at Austin, working for Texas Insturments Analog Devices, as well as product manager for a Computer Telephony Integration product line in the early 1990s. In each of these roles she provided outreach and training to both her internal and external clients.

Now Heather is dedicated to helping people find the right E-Learning solution for their organization. She'll take you through every step of the process from technology considerations to content development, all the way through to review, deployment, and hosting.