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Introduction to Instructional Design

Bob Little 

December 4, 2019

Among the L&D professional’s core skills is the ability to design learning materials. But doing so for a diverse, online audience can be tricky.

It’s vital to account for different learning preferences, but according to leading instructional designer Jan Seabrook, this requires time. Jan says, “The pay-off is that online learning materials offer advantages such as consistency of content and reduced learning time.”

Why Is Instructional Design Important?

Over the years, the importance of instructional design (ID) has been emphasized to varying degrees. But it’s now in danger of being ignored in the face of template-driven, rapid-authoring of learning objects, simulations, unstructured learning, peer groups, and so on.

There’s also a greater focus on logging and measuring learning – on top of the usual pressures of time and costs. Yet ID provides a structure, discipline and core framework for learning solutions. In addition, it’s based on principles that can help to keep any project on track.

Psychologist Robert Gagné argues that there are different kinds of knowledge and skills, and that each of them requires unique conditions for learning. ID’s job is to identify these conditions. Its architecture can comprise media-, message-, strategy-, and model-driven designs for learning programs.

Overcoming Obstacles

However, in the world of corporate learning, ID has to overcome a range of practical problems. For example:

  • Often, instructional designers don’t lead the L&D team and therefore don’t call the shots.
  • Projects have a habit of changing. Instructional designers will likely be asked to alter the entire design in order to cater for extra learner categories.
  • The rest of the project group, and the client, probably won’t understand the particular nuances, skills and rationale of the design.
  • Program design has shifted from the instructional designer to subject matter experts. These experts aren’t necessarily skilled in, or sympathetic to, ID techniques. Nor are they adept at remembering what it’s like to know very little about the subject in which they now specialize.

To be effective, ID needs to be based on identified learning needs, relate to organizational needs, and have clearly defined objectives.

It should also structure and sequence the content effectively, use the appropriate delivery media, and offer assessment and feedback.

How to Create Effective Learning Programs

Of course, learning should take priority over technology. Merely having the technology to develop learning materials doesn’t guarantee their effectiveness. The content of an effective learning program should match the user’s immediate learning needs. But, according to Jan Seabrook, “this implies a proper user analysis yet, often, that’s taken for granted, with the manager/client describing who needs the learning.

“By reducing time to [just] the delivery of online learning, working with smaller budgets, and a possible assumption that ‘anyone can put learning online,’ the role of ID may be seen as unnecessary. However, its role is to allow learners to become proficient performers, in the most efficient and effective way, at whatever the project set out to achieve. An effective instructional designer can also provide useful reference materials, improve work processes, and provide other helpful [pieces of] advice for the business that become apparent during the ID process for the project.”

The Frank Troha Instructional Design Model

New York-based ID specialist Frank Troha says, “In life-or-death situations, there are proven processes – or protocols. They’re followed because they tend to produce the desired result. I wish I could say the same for corporate training.

“Doctors agree on the process to be followed to remove an appendix. But do workers in the L&D field agree on the process to be followed to design effective instruction? In my 30-plus years of designing corporate training, I’ve met many L&D colleagues who’ve been far more enamored with the latest technologies than with mastering an effective protocol or process for the design of instructional experiences. Yet it’s the mastery of an ID model that provides the basis or framework which informs the proper selection and utilization of the most appropriate technologies.”

Creating a Blueprint for Success

Frank’s ID model comprises a series of major questions, asked in sequence. They are:

  • What’s the purpose of the training?
  • What’s indicated the need for it?
  • Who’s the audience?
  • What do they need to come away with as a result of completing the training?
  • Given that we want them to come away with those things, what exactly do we need to address in the training?
  • What’s the best way to get those elements of course content across to the audience? (This is where the selection of appropriate learning technologies comes in.)
  • How can we help make sure that the learning “sticks” – what can we do before, during and after the training to ensure that it’s kept alive?
  • How will we evaluate the effectiveness of the training, both while it’s being developed (or drafted) and after it’s been finalized and delivered to the audience?

The answers to these questions form a blueprint to guide the development of learning programs.

“These eight steps are an ID model,” says Frank. “By contrast, consider what happens when a subject matter expert dives in and populates templates with learning content – compared with an instructional designer who uses an approach like the eight questions. Which individual is likely to produce the more effective training experience? I know the answer to that question – and it’s why I believe ID will never die.”

How do you make your L&D materials, who else is involved, and what have you learned from the process? Share your ideas in our comments section below.

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