On Learning About Instructional Design
When Jo mentioned instructional design in conversation, I realised that while I was acquainted with the term and that it was to do with designing and building educational experiences for learners, I was quite ignorant of exactly what it is that constitutes instructional design, and I regarded this as a quite unsatisfactory state of affairs. A little bit of research soon threw up the following resources:
- Instructional Design Primer by Mike Kunkle (2011)
- Instructional Design Principles by Daniel Lloyd Calloway (undated)
- Instructional Design Essentials at the Australian Institute of Learning and Development (undated)
- Universal Instructional Design Principles for Moodle by Tanya Elias (2010)
- Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples by Sheryl Burgstahler (2015)
As I worked my way through these articles, I realised that I had been here before 40 years ago, though in a different context. I was looking at how systems are first analysed, and then designed.
On Analysing Systems
In the business context, the phrase “systems analysis” means producing a model of how part or all of the business works, usually with a view to improving the way that the business operates. This is then followed by “systems design” with the outcome that existing systems are modified to meet the current business objectives, usually increased profits in the case of commercial business.
Translating this into the educational arena, this means producing a model of how education works at the classroom level, and then designing educational experiences to meet the current educational objective, to wit better educated people.
There are many formal systems for undertaking systems analysis in the business context. This matches the plethora of models of how people learn.
There are many systems design methodologies in the business context. Again the same is true in the educational context: one has only to look at the differing viewpoints in the five links above.
As one trainer in systems analysis and design once said to a class of which I was a part, it is about having a toolbox of methods, and choosing an appropriate method for the situation that you are currently looking at. I think the same holds in the educational context.
The Author’s Toolbox
The concept of instructional design is relevant to all three domains of learning: affective, psycho-motor, and cognitive. However, due to my limited experience in two of them, I address only the cognitive domain.
The model of learning that is presented below results from using the following tools:
- Observing how learners succeed, and how learners fail, when going through a learning activity.
- Observing learners’ emotional responses to a range of learning environments and learning activities.
- Observing the differences in knowledge between different learners in the same cohort.
- Observing the different rates at which different learners learn.
- Observing the different different types of question asked by learners of different ages.
- Observing how students react to different styles of presentation.
- Observing group dynamics
- Observing how learner motivation changes over time, and considering what might be causing those changes.
- Observing how understanding of high school mathematics is dependent on understanding previous concepts.
- Observing similarities and differences between academic endeavour and commercial endeavour.
- Observing change of subject matter over time.
- Asking questions.
A Model of Learning
I claim to have some learning in the areas of mathematics and of information technology, and I use both contexts in what I am about to say.
It seems to me that it is impossible to have the concept of a fraction until you have grasped the concept of a whole: there is a whole cake, take a piece out of it, and you have a fraction of a cake. The same applies to information technology: until you are acquainted with spreadsheets, the term “cell address” is meaningless. In both cases, understanding the second idea is crucially dependent on having a good grasp of the first idea. This is a constructivist approach.
There is also the question of “Why bother to learn?”, this addressing the issue of student motivation. This plays a crucial part when it comes to designing delivery activities and materials.
Relevance of information also plays a part. Applied mathematics changes very slowly, while practice in information technology changes very rapidly. Information that was relevant 10 years ago may be entirely irrelevant today: the floppy disk serves as a paradigm for this. This has implications not just for the professional development of educators, but also for the materials that they use.
The way that learners prefer to study also differ. At one extreme, there are learners who much prefer to work through a learning activity on their own. At other extreme, some learners need a lot of support from their teachers and peers.
Devices for Developing Learning Activities and Materials
The ideas offered below are neither complete nor prescriptive. They again come from my toolbox. Readers must decide for themselves which of those ideas are relevant to their own context.
- Identifying goals, sub-goal, and sub-sub-goals until you end up with something small enough to be a single learning activity. Verifying that the sequence in which the material is going to be present is logical. This is an iterative process that continues until the summative assessment, if any.
- Project management:
- establishing existing levels of knowledge in the learners
- identifying which learning goals will be achieved by when (aka scheduling)
- identifying the human resource implications (crucial if you happen to be team teaching)
- identifying costings where appropriate.
- Identifying the resources needed for any learning activity, and either locating same or preparing your own.
- For every planned learning activity, checking the following:
- correctness, particular for task-analysed activities
- Incorporating feedback from the learners into existing and planned learning activities.
In light of the increased use of information technology in learning activities, it is perhaps worthwhile going into some detail about making online learning activities more accessible. At the risk of stating the obvious, merely converting an existing printed document into an online form does nothing to increase the accessibility of the material being learned. The advantages of an online learning environment include, but are not limited to:
- Immediate feedback on assessment tasks
- Access to live data
- Increasing or reducing the challenge presented to the learner on the basis of the learner’s answers (adaptive assessment)
- Opportunities for independent research
- Choice of route towards a learning objective
- Audio and video material
- Being updated for new information – current news stories are relevant here
- Being updated for correctness
The choice of route towards a learning objective takes on an even bigger role in online learning. While printed material tends to very linear, online learning lends itself to having multiple pathways, so signposting becomes very important.
Please add your observations and additions in the Comment box below. Thank you.