What is Instructional Design?

what is instructional design

Instructional design is the practice of systematically designing, developing and delivering learning experiences. The intended result is the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills. These learning experiences could include online courses, instructional manuals, video tutorials, learning simulations, quizzes, and games.

Instructional designers are considered the “architects” of the learning experience and often serve as directors and project managers of the instructional design process.  

Models & Theories

Although the approaches people use to design and develop instructional experiences vary widely, the common denominator is that the process is analytical, systematic, iterative, and measurable. 

Common instructional design models include:

  • Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping
  • Dick and Carey Model
  • Kemp Design Model
  • Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction
  • SAM (Successive Approximation Model)
  • Agile or rapid prototyping

ADDIE is perhaps the most widely used instructional design model, and it consists of five phases: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. It was initially developed by Florida State University to explain the processes and systems for military training. 

Stages of Instructional Design

As ADDIE is the most widely recognized, it’s helpful to have a closer look at its stages or phases as part of the instructional design process.

Stages or Phases of ADDIE                                             
AnalysisPerforms a needs analysis, by surveying the existing learning environment and identifying the learner’s existing knowledge and skills; clarifies instructional problems and objectives.
DesignAddresses learning objectives, assessment instruments, exercises, content, subject matter analysis, lesson/module planning, media selection, and delivery methods.
DevelopmentCreates and assembles content assets according to the Design phase, developing storyboards and technologies.
ImplementationDevelops procedures for training facilitators and learners.
EvaluationConsists of two aspects: formative and summative. Formative evaluation is present in each stage of the ADDIE process, while summative evaluation is conducted on the completed instructional products.

The original idea with ADDIE was to complete each phase before moving to the next. However, subsequent practitioners revised the steps, and eventually, the model became more dynamic and interactive than the original hierarchical version, now looking more like this diagram below:


Source: Wikipedia

Notice that the Evaluation stage sits squarely in the middle, as it is central to the success of the completed learning project.

Learners may not be aware that instructional designers in their company use an academic model to design their training. However, that’s the beauty of instructional design: it’s working in the background and is timeless and flexible enough to accommodate the often complex, shifting needs of today’s organizations.

Indeed, ADDIE and other instructional design models can be directly attributed to employees attaining much-needed skills or a higher level of knowledge—and performing more successfully at their jobs.

Instructional Design in eLearning

With the ubiquity of digital platforms for the creation and delivery of learning experiences, most organizations expect courses to be pushed out in shorter time frames—and updated quickly as content ages.

As such, there has been a push in recent years to utilize more agile, iterative learning design approaches, including Michael Allen’s Successive Approximation Model (SAM). Agile models, such as SAM, involve shorter design sprints in which a prototype is quickly created, reviewed, and revised, with the process repeating until all stakeholders are satisfied.

Such flexibility, creativity, and innovation are increasingly more valued, especially as courses and experiences are developed and shipped to learners digitally. Further, instructional designers are borrowing more elements from the areas of User Experience (UX) Design and Design Thinking, which place empathy as the first stage to fully understand the backgrounds and preferences of learners, before proceeding to design courses and other learning products.

The purpose of instructional design is to standardize processes according to proven methodologies and to create measurable goals—perfect for corporate settings that demand efficiency and ROI. If applied successfully, the learner has acquired a new skill or level of domain expertise and instructional designers are able to effectively assess this learning on an ongoing basis. 

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What is Instructional Design?