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Building Skills While Solving Real-World Performance Problems

By:    Published 7:50 am / December 24, 2009

When volunteers walk dogs for the Idaho Humane Society and crews with the National Interagency Fire Center battle wildland blazes with airborne attack pumps, they probably don’t realize that key elements of their training came courtesy of students at Boise State.

These graduate students are in the Department of Instructional & Performance Technology (IPT), where real-world problem solving is part of their coursework. Clients include business, industry, military, government and not-for-profit entities such as the Idaho Humane Society, for which students are creating orientation and dog handling training materials for volunteers. The process has involved assessment of existing materials, study of skilled performance on the job and creation of a training program that equips volunteers with the best tools and practices.

“We are so appreciating what the team is doing for our program!” said Melanie Larson, volunteer services director for the Idaho Humane Society. “They’ve kept us informed throughout the process, have exhibited drive and enthusiasm to get a grasp of our needs and are intuitive in helping us realize areas of concern that we may be taking for granted but can be improved. We are looking forward to the teaching aids and suggestions they are putting together and are so appreciative of their help.”

This is just one example of how IPT students are benefitting organizations in the Treasure Valley community and others across the nation. About 60 percent take classes remotely from locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, and most of them work fulltime. The department’s master’s degree program and three graduate certificates are intended to prepare students for careers in the areas of instructional design, training and development, e-learning, job performance improvement, organizational development, program evaluation and performance consulting. Through coursework and the completion of hands-on projects, IPT programs teach skills needed to identify, analyze and close a variety of gaps between desired and actual performance in workplace settings.

“From a beauty salon to a nuclear power facility, the IPT Department helps a wide range of organizations remove obstacles to performance,” said assistant professor Tony Marker.

Associate professor Steven W. Villachica explained that the goal of these efforts is to improve individual, team and organizational performance in measurable ways that people value.

“We help organizations leverage the know-how of their best performers. This is about bottling that lightning and helping others emulate successful behaviors. The result is better performance and more intelligent work environments,” he said. “This field doesn’t see instruction as a cure-all. Only 11-20 percent of gaps between existing and desired performance arise from a lack of required skills and knowledge. Chances are the cause will lie someplace in the workplace environment — a lack of adequate information, tools, process or incentives to do the job.”

Over the years, IPT students have addressed such problems on a variety of scales, from helping farmers in Panama learn how to make fertilizer to training the parents of developmentally disabled children to facilitate effective playtime activities. A team of students recently partnered with the National Interagency Fire Center to create a training program for wildland firefighters who operate powerful but temperamental water pumps.

“It has been a very valuable and worthwhile project, and we have really enjoyed working with the team,” said Ingrid Sather of the National Interagency Fire Center.

“Our IPT students complete real work for real organizations,” Villachica said, “and the feedback from clients has been phenomenal. We thank them for being so supportive of our students and for investing in their own future.”

“If you could put dollar amounts on these student contributions, they would be significant, but IPT is not just about efficiency. It’s about improving all aspects of performance, planting trees as well as putting out fires,” Marker added.  “The most satisfying thing is that we help people do their jobs better. It’s a win-win for the clients, the program, the students and the university.”

To learn more about the master’s in IPT, visit http://ipt.boisestate.edu/AboutProgram/MSDegree.htm.