‘Instructional design’ is a system for creating material to help people in companies, organizations, or universities learn new information and skills. This can range from analyzing performance issues and offering suggestions to designing and developing in-depth training experiences.
Instructional design is a multidisciplinary field that draws on the best practices of learning theory, psychology, design thinking, digital learning, and teaching.
However, to fully answer the question “What is instructional design?” let’s take a look at the general process for an instructional design project and see some examples of this process in action.
While there are a variety of models and processes for instructional design projects, they usually break down into five steps.
This could be a performance issue that needs to be solved, or the client might want people to learn a new skill or increase the skills or knowledge they already have.
Once your proposed solution is approved you need to write a storyboard. The storyboard is an outline of your learning solution and shows what it will look like.
This can include images of the learning experience, samples of interactions, or the script for dialogue depending on the type of learning intervention you choose. You will share it with your stakeholders to get feedback.
The stakeholders include anyone involved with the project, like the client, subject matter experts(SMEs), members of the intended audience, or any other members of the organization who have a say in the final project. (Senior staff, members of the financial department, etc.)
In some cases, the instructional designer does the development themselves, in other cases, you would send the storyboard to a developer.
Ideally, you would also include an evaluation stage at the end to ensure that people are benefiting from your learning interventions, and are performing their jobs better.
As previously mentioned, this list is only a rough outline of the instructional design process.
Let’s look at a few examples so that we can understand this process more fully.
A shipping company wants to start using a new software to record orders and track shipments. The new software has several updated features but is much more difficult to use. The CEO of the company hires you to make a learning experience for this software.
First, you meet with the management team to figure out what the employees need to be able to do with the new software. Then if any of the employees have already learned how to use the software, you meet with them to hear about the struggles they had.
Finally, you experiment with the system yourself to figure out how to best teach it to the learner.
Because you want the training experience to closely replicate what the learner will do in the real world, you decide that the best solution will be an eLearning experience for the software.
In the eLearning experience, employees learn about the different elements and uses of the tracking system, then they practice entering and tracking orders just like they would in the real world.
You suggest this solution to your stakeholders with some images to show what the eLearning experience would look like. They accept your proposed solution and you write out a storyboard.
As you are getting feedback from the stakeholders on the storyboard several of the employees point out that some of the essential tasks the management team mentioned are no longer necessary.
After a discussion, everyone agrees that you should remove those tasks from the learning experience. You take this feedback and build out the final product.
While many instructional design projects require training to help people upskill, this is not the only learning solution.
eLearning, face-to-face workshops, job aids, and other performance support solutions are all valid options for addressing learning needs. Your instructional strategy should reflect the requirements of the project. Let's look at some other ways you could solve a learning or performance problem without resorting to training.
A store has a dedicated desk where they handle item returns and complaints. The salespeople who manage the desk often accept or reject returns incorrectly, or call a manager at the first uncertainty.
First, you talk with the managers and develop a list of rules that the sales team should follow for returns. Then you create a large colorful job aid that the employees can quickly consult if they aren't sure a return is valid. You stick this job aid to the desk in two places the sales team can see it.
You direct the sales team’s attention to it and tell the managers to do the same.
Occasionally companies need courses and training because they have to conform to new laws or regulations. If that is the case you simply need to focus on creating content that conforms to the new regulations without making the learner feel like they are wasting their time.
A hospital hires you to create a course to train their staff on how to effectively use the hospital's patient tracking software. Many of the patients' files are incomplete.
After some analysis, you discover that the system is dangerously buggy. The staff is not to blame. You recommend changing the software.
As with all jobs, there is a less positive side to instructional design. Many organizations will throw training at a problem without actually analyzing if it would help. These organizations expect the instructional designer to “build courses” and that’s it.
If you get one of these projects, then do the best you can with the information you have and try to make it engaging for the people taking the course.
In higher education, instructional designers serve many roles, from tech support to full course development. While the role can vary, higher education instructional designers work to support faculty in turning their class material into online learning material.
Let’s look at the broad categories for these tasks.
Some instructional designers serve a supporting and training role with faculty and staff. You would design and deliver professional development classes or one-on-one assistance. This includes training faculty in eLearning tools and providing instruction in the best methods of online teaching.
This can also be a monitoring or coaching role where you teach new faculty about curriculum development, course design, assessment, and best practices.
You might also support staff in adapting their course material into online material or supply technical support for learning management systems.
Currently, the instructional design role is not often fully understood in higher education and designers often report a lack of buy-in from faculty.
Professors who have taught a course for years can become defensive when an instructional designer comes in with advice and suggestions for how to adapt their course for eLearning. Depending on the organization, addressing this tension can be part of the instructional design role.
This is the more traditional role of an instructional designer. You would work with your subject matter expert(SMEs in universities are usually the professors) and develop an online course with them.
First, you collect information from an SME, then using your knowledge of instructional strategies, instructional design theory, and online learning, you create effective and engaging learning experiences that align with the goals and learning objectives of the course.
Let’s look at a scenario so that we can see this in practice.
The university wants to create an online Introduction to Management class. You meet with the professor who teaches the course.
Together you review their instructional material in order to adapt it for an online class. The professor has a project where the students had to write chapters of an employee handbook for a fictional company.
This exercise allowed the students to identify, troubleshoot, and create solutions and policies for an imaginary company.
You want to replicate the experience of actually managing an organization as closely as possible, so you recommend modifying that assignment so that the professor gives managerial problems to the students and they have to create policy solutions to address them.
The students will have to make choices about managing employees, inventory, and dealing with common real-world problems.
You suggest shortening the writing assignments so that it's easier for the professor to grade quickly, and so he can adjust assignments based on the students’ needs. He will also be able to use the answers they give to create more study material in later semesters.
The professor likes the idea, and together, you both come up with a series of common problems a manager might encounter in the workplace.
You and the professor then modify his course material so that it takes advantage of the technology while also fulfilling the learning objectives of the class. Finally, you put the new assignments on the learning management system.
As a university instructional designer, you might also manage the actual creation of the online courses. This can include working with eLearning developers, video producers, graphic designers, or anyone else who is involved in the development process.
You may be tasked to work with all of these departments to ensure that the course you are making gets done on time.
There are several terms in instructional design that are used interchangeably. So let’s take a moment and address the more common ones.
What is Instructional Systems Design(ISD)?
Instructional systems design is an older term for instructional design. Instructional design is a broader term for creating learning interventions while ISD is more focused on creating systems that accomplish results.
What is eLearning?
eLearning is short for electronic learning. This field covers learning experiences that are delivered electronically. This can include videos, podcasts, interactive web programs, and more. If you want to learn more about eLearning, you can check out this article.
What is Educational Design?
Educational design is a less common term for instructional design. The only difference is that educational design is more focused on the educational sector, such as curriculum and assessment development.
What is Instructional Technology or Educational Technology?
Instructional Technology and Educational Technology are both terms for instructional design with a greater focus on technology, internet-based education, and K-12 instructional design. They can include elements such as mobile learning, virtual Worlds, web-based courses, gamification, and more.
What is Learning Technology?
Learning technology is an umbrella term that describes digital or technological tools that support learning, teaching, and assessment.
What is Learning Experience Design (LXD)?
LXD is a marketing term for people who want to distinguish themselves from traditional instructional design by creating people-oriented learning environments but in practice, LXD rarely deviates from traditional instructional design. If you want to know more about LXD, you can check out this article.
What is Learning Design?
Learning design is very similar to instructional design. While learning design originated from instructional design, the adapted term is supposed to draw more attention to designing for the learner. However, the principles and underlying theories are the same.
So hopefully that helps answer the question: ‘What is instructional design?’ If you’re interested in learning how to become an instructional designer, check out this article.