Thursday, December 1, 2011

What is Instructional Design? part 1

What is instructional design? A friend and colleague of mine, Rob Barton, asked (and answered) this question in a fairly recent blog post. His thoughts are interesting and have made me think of my own response to that question- what is instructional design? Here are my thoughts (which are fairly similar what Rob wrote).

What is Instructional Design?

This is an important question, and sometimes I have a hard time answering it. (This is probably because I get geeked out and start talking about all the "academic" details of the field and practice). It is easiest to describe it through what an instructional designer does. An instructional designer, at the most basic level is a person who creates materials that help people learn.

For the past several years, I have designed instruction for college professors. I help them organize and create course materials and assignments that will help the students learn what is being taught. I do my best to use strategies that are based on what works according to the research. Instructional designers work in many different settings, including public school (K-12), colleges and universities, corporations, and in the military. Most of my experience as an instructional designer has been in higher education.

So, here is where my thinking gets a little more geeky. Below is my more lengthy (and academic) description of what an instructional design is and what instructional designers do.

A More Detailed Explanation

First, instruction (as it relates to instructional design) is an imparted unit of knowledge. Instruction is given with the intent that the one receiving it will acquire or learn that knowledge. (I use the term knowledge broadly to include skill, information, attitude, etc.)

Second, design (as it relates to instructional design) is the deliberate planning and creation of instructional materials.

So, instructional design is the deliberate planning and creation of materials used to impart knowledge to learner.

The Tools of Instructional Designers

As instructional designers plan and create instructional materials, they use several tools and technologies to accomplish their design goals. In my opinion and experience, these include the following major types:
  • Instructional Theory, which is a set of prescriptions describing what the instruction should be like when it is finished. Instructional theory "offers explicit guidance on how to better help people learn and develop" (Reigeluth, 1999). There are many instructional theories, and the most useful and beneficial are those which are based on sound learning theory,  peer-reviewed research, and reflective practice. An example of an instructional theory is Merrill's First Principles of Instruction (Merrill, 2002, 2007, 2009), which I am partial to and have written about (see my publications page). 
  • Instructional Design Processes, which provide guidance on specific steps or phases to follow to help ensure that the instruction is of high quality. Examples include the ADDIE Model and the Dick & Carey Model (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2006). Both of these are briefly described in Wikipedia's article here.
  • Instructional Technologies and Tools,  which are physical objects* used to create, manipulate and represent the knowledge that is being taught or imparted. These technologies can be used by the instructional designer to create the instruction, by the learner to gain and expand knowledge, or by both. Examples include a Learning Management System such as Blackboard or Articulate, or classic teaching and learning tools such as a pen and a piece of paper.
The Three Tools of the Instructional Designer
The three Types of Instructional Design Tools.

Instructional designers use these tools as they design instruction. Of course, instructional design does not occur in a vacuum, and designers must be aware of and adapt to the context in which they design. This is actually very complex and I will attempt to treat this in a later post. I have written about this idea elsewhere (Gardner, 2011).

In my next post What is Instructional Design? part 2, I will expand on what I have written here and also share a video that explains what instructional designers do.

What Do You Think?

I am interested to read your thoughts. As a whole, instructional designers seem to have a hard time defining what they do and how we do it. Perhaps this is because every design context is different and the way design occurs is therefore different, but are there fundamental similarities? Do you agree with my assertions here?

* Note: I state here that instructional technologies are physical objects. One might remind me that a design process or a theory is also a technology or a tool, but I make the distinction between physical tools and abstract tools. An abstract tool can be represented physically. For example, an instructional design workbook (physical) might guide an instructional designer through the ADDIE process (abstract). Abstract objects can therefore both internal to the designer (something they know, perceive, and conceptualize) and external as a physical representation of that tool or technology.


Dick, W. O., Carey, L., & Carey, J. O. (2005). The systematic design of instruction (6 ed.): Pearson/Allyn &; Bacon.

Gardner, J., (2011). How Award-winning Professors in Higher Education Use Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 8(5), p. 3-16).

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.

 Merrill, M. D. (2007). First principles of instruction: a synthesis. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, 2nd Edition (Vol. 2, pp. 62-71). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Merrill, M. D. (2009). First Principles of Instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth & A. Carr (Eds.), Instructional Design Theories and Models: Building a Common Knowledge Base (Vol. III). New York: Routledge Publishers.

Reigeluth, C.M. (1999). What is instructional design theory? In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.) Instructional design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Vol. 2, pp. 5-29). Manwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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