An Introduction to Instructional Design

As an instructional designer, I’ve had my fair share of blank stares when I tell people what I do for a living. E-learning? Instructional design? When I talk about my job I may as well be speaking in tongues. If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you’ve been either on the giving or receiving end of this kind of interaction. Let’s take a few minutes to break down what instructional design (ID) is, who’s involved in the ID process, and why it’s an important part of e-learning development.

What Is Instructional Design?

Fundamentally, you can think of ID as the process of taking information and framing it in a way that makes it interesting and easy for learners to understand. That might be a little oversimplified, but it’s a good place to start.

The ID process is usually based on one of many different theory models. The one that’s best known and most widely used is called ADDIE, an acronym for the five phases in the model: Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. Here is a brief overview of each phase:

  • Analyze: This first phase of the ID process is arguably the most important, as it allows you to identify the key elements you will need to design an effective e-learning course, such as the training needs, the learning objectives, and the learner profile.
  • Design: During the design phase, instructional designers take everything they learned during the analysis phase and start planning and structuring the content. This includes the project’s learning activities, exercises, assessments, visual design, and interface design. The document produced during this phase of development detailing all these decisions is called a storyboard and serves as a blueprint for the course.
  • Development: The development phase is where instructional designers take the storyboard they created in the design phase and actually create the activities, exercises, graphics, etc. This phase also involves beta testing and debugging any issues that turn up.
  • Implementation: This is the phase where the course is uploaded to a Learning Management System (LMS) or put online so learners can access it.
  • Evaluation: After the implementation phase, the course is evaluated to measure how well it achieved the objectives detailed in the analysis phase. The course evaluation may result in revisions and an updated version of the course.

The ADDIE approach is the current ID standard. Of course there are other ID models, such as the SAM Model, but they aren’t as widely used. To take a deep dive into the ADDIE model, check out this article.

What Do Instructional Designers Do?

The people who practice ID are often, aptly, called instructional designers, but there are a lot of other names used for this role: training designer, instructional technologist, e-learning designer, e-learning developer, educational technologist ... the list goes on!

Now that you’re familiar with the ID process, maybe you’re wondering, What does an instructional designer actually do on a day-to-day basis? One thing I’ve always loved about this role is the wide range of activities it involves. Here are some of the things instructional designers do during the course of a project:

  • Analyze training needs
  • Analyze audience / identify learner profiles
  • Define learning objectives
  • Identify the appropriate learning strategy for a given course
  • Rewrite and restructure content according to learning objectives
  • Create multimedia elements to support content (images, audio, video, etc.)
  • Create assessments to test learner knowledge / skill acquisition
  • Design the course’s look and feel (color scheme, fonts, slide layouts, player, etc.)
  • Storyboard the course prior to development
  • Develop the course in an authoring tool
  • Deploy the course on an LMS
  • Measure the course’s impact on learners’ work performance

The ID role varies from organization to organization. Depending on the size of your team, you may find yourself doing more or less of the above-listed tasks. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and is merely intended to give you an idea of the kinds of things instructional designers do.

Why Does Instructional Design Matter?

I think Tom Kuhlmann said it best in his article What Everybody Ought to Know About Instructional Design: “Without instructional design, the learner might or might not get the information they need. Because of instructional design, you can get the learners to cut through a lot of extraneous information and get right to the important stuff.”

If you’re building a course, chances are you’re doing it because you want learners to acquire new knowledge or skills. Solid instructional design will help ensure that happens.

Thirsty for more ID knowledge? Here are some other articles you may want to check out:

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44 Comments
Allison LaMotte
Allison LaMotte
Allison LaMotte
Urbie Delgado
Sabre Training

I don't agree that graphic design, illustration, multimedia producer, etc. are inherent roles of an instructional designer, regardless of your comment to Maurizio above about one person makes a team. The instructional designer's role, in terms of illustration/animation/etc, SHOULD be to frame out and define the graphics for the associated content. I'm not saying there aren't qualified IDs, but by and large, they do not have the prowess to pull it off. A professional illustrator, especially one who's area of expertise is eLearning, should be the one to bring the ID's ideas to life. As far as look and feel of the course, that is better left to people who live and breathe design. A pet peeve of mine is seeing these SL characters used and abused because they look pretty. It's just fluff on... Expand

Allison LaMotte
bradd graves
Sabre Training
Allison LaMotte
Walt Hamilton

Think of ADDIE as a planning method, and SAM as a production method, and CCAF as a more complete approach. Esoterica: After WWII, the US Army found itself full of young men with little training. When they were ordered to do something, they rushed off in all directions, whacking and hacking. When asked what their plan was, their response was "Plan?". They had great enthusiasm, but little knowledge of strategy. So the army created ADDIE, and forced them to to learn it and use it. Personally, I prefer to think, not in terms of planning and production, but in terms of creating: 1. Design Answering the most important question: "When I kick this baby out, and it lands in the hands of learners, what do I want them to do?" 2. Organize What is the least I can put in it to cause... Expand