Course Design and Revision:
An Overview of Instructional Design

A Brief Introduction to Systematic Design and Development

Creating strong educational programs is challenging. The purpose of this page is to provide a brief introduction to the systematic design and development of learning environments, particularly online environments.

The field of Instructional Systems Design gained prominence following its use in the development of training during WWII. Since that time, a great deal of research and the development of several ISD models has occurred. Most of these models appear to be the product of applied common sense and many share a common core of elements. This common core includes:

  1. needs assessment,
  2. defining instructional goals,
  3. information-processing analysis,
  4. objectives definition,
  5. instructional strategy and materials development,
  6. formative and summative evaluation of instruction.

Each of these elements is described below.

Needs Assessment: Why do anything?

A good needs assessment answers the question, "Why do anything?" A need can be defined as the gap between what is and what should be (Kaufman, personal communication). A thorough needs assessment will define needs and specify, in quantifiable terms, how we will measure whether we have closed the gap(s).

Writing Instructional Goals: What, in general, do we want learners to be able to do?

If instruction is determined to be a means of satisfying one or more needs, the purpose or goal of the instruction should be defined as concisely as possible. This goal will be very precisely outlined in the next step, information processing analysis.

Information-Processing Analysis: What does "expert" behavior look like?

The product of a good information processing analysis is a complete description of what an "expert" does when performing "in the field." This description is driven by the goal(s) defined previously but is a very specific description of the behaviors, motivations, and cognitions that our instruction is intended to produce or add to our learners repertoire. Knowledge engineering, in computer science, is a close cousin to this area of instructional design. An information-processing analysis, typically, results in a variety of flow-charts, diagrams, and other visual representations of expert behavior related to our instructional goal(s).

Writing Instructional Objectives: What, specifically, do we want learners to be able to do?

Objectives should define, as precisely as possible, what a learner will be able to do after instruction. Objectives should be measurable and directly relate to fulfilling elements of the information processing analysis. In addition, a complete set of objectives defines precisely what learners must know prior to entering the instructional episode (i.e., entry level skills), and the sequential order of objectives if such a sequence is necessary for effective instruction.

It is important to note that traditional "behavioral" ISD models have relied on limited descriptions of potential learning outcomes. Recent developments in cognitive science and the study of motivation have provided instructional designers with a much broader palette of outcomes from which to select. Indeed, motivational design is a relatively new addition to the set of skills an instructional designer should include in his or her skill set.

Selecting Strategies, Tool Selection and Materials Development: What to do and how to do it?

Designing an instructional or learning environment that facilitates the accomplishment of our instructional goals requires deliberate planning, the selection of media appropriate for our objectives, and the development of "materials" (broadly defined). The following list of questions is a sample of those asked and answered at this stage of the design process:

  • What are the technologies / media available to our target audience(s)?
  • What are the internal and external administrative, technical, or other constraints framing our instruction?
  • What are the specific attributes of the learning environment required for each objective?
  • What are the resources available to create the learning environments?

Answering each of these questions helps to narrow the set of possible media and learning technologies for our instruction. In addition, these answers help ensure that our instruction is not only available to learners but is as effective as possible by matching our objectives to our selection of media / environment.

Formative and Summative Evaluation of Instruction: Are we doing what we intended to do?

Evaluation can be defined broadly to include assessment. Formative evaluation refers to data collected with the intention of revising. Complex instructional systems are best viewed as living organisms that require regular care and feeding (i.e., attention and updating). Summative evaluation refers to data collected directly relevant to the needs identified at the beginning of this process (i.e., the reasons for doing anything!).

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