What Is Instructional Design?

If you’re a newcomer to the field of e-learning or instructional design (ID), you might feel overwhelmed by the amount of information available online regarding the various ID models and all the different learning theories. Where to start?

First, it’s a good idea to understand exactly what instructional design is. In simple terms, it’s the practice of making learning experiences effective, interesting, and engaging for a learner. Anyone can create an e-learning project, but a skilled instructional designer will build e-learning that meets the learning objectives and needs of the audience.

You’ll be happy to know that there are some basic guiding principles of ID that can provide a good starting point for your first e-learning project, and can help you make your training more meaningful for your learners. In fact, even if you’re an experienced pro, you can apply these instructional design basics to tighten up your course.

Know Your Audience

Analysis is a big part of the instructional design discipline. You might analyze a variety of factors—but always make sure one of them is your audience. You need to know exactly who you’re designing your training for to develop a successful e-learning program.

Ask yourself, and your client: Who are your learners and what are their needs? Are they computer-savvy or completely non-technical? How much do they already know about the topic at hand? Are they experts or newbies? Knowing who your learners are and where they are coming from will help you decide how to develop content that best meets their needs.

For more specific tips on how to do an e-learning audience analysis, check out this article: How to do an e-learning audience analysis.

Separate “Need to Know” from “Nice to Know”

Another key ID task is to distinguish need-to-know information from nice-to-know information. You should omit superfluous information that doesn’t help learners do their jobs or tasks.

When you’re deciding what information to include in your course, ask yourself: Is this critical? Will the learners ever need to know this to do their job? And if they don’t know this, what would be the impact? If the information falls into the nice-to-know category, leave it out.

For example, if you’re designing an e-learning course on how to reply to a vendor e-mail, you don’t need to include a huge section on the background of your organization and its employees, or the history of e-mail. Just stick to teaching learners what they need to know to write effective vendor emails.

Follow a Basic Course Structure

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to designing your e-learning projects. To simplify the process for you, we’ve included a basic framework for e-learning courses:

  1. Welcome: Welcome your learners to the course.

  2. Instructions: Explain how they will navigate the course, which buttons they need to click, etc.

  3. Introduction: Tell learners why they are taking the course, and what benefits they’ll receive by completing it.

  4. Objectives: Outline the specific course objectives, so learners have a good sense of what’s ahead.

  5. Content: Build your main course content here. Depending on the length, you might chunk it into lessons, each with its own intro, content, assessment, and summary.

  6. Assessment: Give learners an assessment to see whether they’ve actually learned the material.

  7. Summary: Revisit the course objectives you stated up front.

  8. Resources: Offer additional content or resources that reinforce the course material.

  9. Exit: Give final instructions on how to exit the e-learning course.

Most e-learning courses follow this general flow. Keep in mind this flow doesn’t prevent you from building decision-making scenarios that branch learners to specific content based on what they know. You’ll just do that within the content section. If you follow this simple course structure, you’ll be on your way to designing stellar courses right from the start.

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14 Comments
John Wagner

I hope you won't be offended at my critique. First, let me say, I am very visually oriented. What originally drew me to Articulate was its focus on the visual and away from the simply verbal. Tom Khulmann's blogs taught me so much about moving away from bullet points and words in PowerPoint to saying the same thing with visuals. I was tehn drawn into the Articulate Heros community because of the visual templates that were avaialable. Ultimately, I purchased Articulate Storyline. I am thoroughly enjoying the new downloads being offered and templates being created as free learning tools. My point here is unfortunately, it appears your new Heroes rollout has gone back to massive amounts of words, with a multitude of bullet points, and very limited visuals. I am going to work my way through th... Expand

Mark S

I'm in agreement with John. I don't think I will ever count myself as a "fan" of SL (I used it because I had to, to be honest), but he raises some good points here. In your defense, Nicole, I acknowledge that you have made the assumption that elearning is the preferred method but Instructional Design has nothing to do with the tools used to produce a solution. In fact, a methods & media analysis will determine what the learners are going to use for to achieve their objectives. While learner needs are important (think "empathy") the business requirements are always going to drive what your solution looks like. These may encompass specific performance or preferred behaviours and they form the basis for learning objectives. Also, the basic building block of instructional design i... Expand

Peter Rushton
John Wagner
Aj Sweat