Argo: Entertainment Design vs Instructional Design

When he sat down to develop the script outline for Argo, Ben Affleck was faced with a design problem. The six hostages that are the focus of the movie underwent incredible stress. How could the movie convey that sense of tension?

Part of the problem was that much of the tension came from not knowing what would happen, not knowing how long they could hide until they were discovered. The torment was psychological. It’s hard to do justice to that on the screen.

Affleck decided that the best way to convey the tension they felt was to invent fictional scenarios to interject physical tension–police cars roaring down the runway in hot pursuit, machine gun laden soldiers storming through the airport, hostage-takers piecing together the location of the missing hostages at just the right second, threats of being evicted by the Canadians, a location scout the almost erupts in a riot, a last second intervention by Jimmy Carter, and so forth, none of which actually happened. These fictionalized sources of stress combined to create an analog for the tension the real hostages felt.

I was enthralled by the movie but then the experience was tarnished for me when I found out how much he had invented for dramatic effect. I would have preferred he tried to convey the tension without doing violence to the history. That might not have been as easy as police cars chasing airliners down a runway, but it would have been more meaningful.

But then again he won an Oscar for best picture, so what do I know?

Course developers use similar strategies sometimes for instruction: the content is boring, so what extraneous material (games, clip art, etc.) can I add to keep people engaged?

The better question is, “How do I structure the course so that learners find challenge and engagement in my content?” If your content has value to the target population, then there will be ways to make it engaging without resorting to unrelated distractions to keep the energy level high. Finding them is a matter of commitment and design.

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