Rube Goldberg Instructional Design


Rube Goldberg created incredibly silly contraptions to accomplish simple tasks. His work is now recognized through an annual contest.  In the event, engineering students compete to create the most complicated and creative solutions that to solve simple problems.  The official 2012 contest is approaching and has me thinking about how instructional designs can be over-engineered.

In March 2011 the University of Wisconsin-Stout team won the national competition (for the second year in a row) with a machine that completed 135 steps to water a plant.  This year’s competition is to over-complicate inflating a balloon.

What is the value of creating a complicated, albeit creative, solution to a simple problem? For the students involved, they have fun and learn about engineering, physics, and the properties of various substances.  The events promote science, engineering, and the programs at the schools involved.  These activities are outstanding in every way except one: the outcome.  The products these machines create are irrelevant.

As we create instructional technologies and designs, how many of them are Rube Goldberg machines?  Designers create complex new technical schemes or media-rich products when much simpler and more elegant solutions will work.  Everyone involved in such design processes learns a lot and the contraption might be fun to watch but is the end product worth it?

The answer is, of course, it depends.  If the intended outcome is knowledge for the technologist, then such a design is a success.  Similarly, if the users of the product participate in its creation, then it is also worth it (but this is a rare instance in most instructional product designs).  If we want the output of the design to be the most important part of the process, then simple and elegant solutions yield better results.

Perhaps a Rube Goldberg instructional design competition would be a lot of fun: create the most complex instructional solution to teach someone a simple task…

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  1. #1 by Kathleen on May 27, 2012 - 11:02 pm

    Enjoyed the video. I’ve seen computer software designed this way, possibly because the programmer was unsure of the process and the desired result at the start. Always a maintenance nightmare!

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