Exploring Instructional Design in Education

When you think of an educational setting, generally the first thing that springs to mind is the picture of a teacher standing in front of a class of students, delivering a lecture while everyone jots down pearls of wisdom. Every so often, the teacher will stop to ask or answer questions. Students who have been paying attention are quick to raise their hands, while the others do their best to avoid eye contact with the teacher. Finally, the teacher will deliver a quiz, a test, or assign some other activity designed to evaluate the student’s progress.

While this visualization is true of the delivery stage in education, it overlooks a significant aspect of a teacher’s job responsibilities. Teachers not only deliver educational content, they must also plan out what needs to be learned, and how the students will learn it. That is the essence of instructional design in education.

Teachers begin the instructional design process by asking some key questions:

  • How much do the students already know on this topic?
  • What are the students going to be ready to learn at this stage?
  • What activities or examples will keep them engaged?
  • How can this topic be designed as a meaningful learning experience?
  • How will the academic standards of the school be translated into examples that will make sense to the students?

Student-Centered Instructional Design

Designing instruction that only includes activity planning, without regard for learning outcomes, is very superficial. Student-centered instructional design emphasizes not only what students are going to learn, but also how they will demonstrate learning. Classroom activities will still need to be developed, but only after the teacher has planned learning outcomes.

Goals of Student-Centered Instructional Design

Focusing on student needs, rather than activities, can have several benefits. Student-centered learning can:

  • Motivate students to start learning more quickly
  • Help students persist in the learning process, and continue to learn
  • Accommodate multiple learning preferences
  • More effectively assess student learning outcomes

Instructional Methods

The traditional teacher-centered model of instruction is largely lecture-based. In the student-centered model of instruction, many other instructional methods may be used. A few examples include:

  • Role Play. This method allows students to “try out” an experience.
  • Case Study: Case studies are good for complex issues, such as critical thinking.
  • Problem-Based Learning: Students seek to solve problems while the teacher facilitates the solution.
  • Competitions: Creating friendly competitions can inspire students who normally might not be that engaged.

These are just a few examples. Each class and topic will lend itself better to some activities over others. Care should be taken to match the method with the nature of the content, and the willingness of the students.

Instructional Design for eLearning Programs

The use of eLearning has become the “new normal” in most business organizations today. This approach to learning is being used in every aspect of ongoing operations, including:

  • Onboarding
  • Sales
  • Customer Service
  • Information Systems
  • Product knowledge
  • Compliance with government regulations
  • Soft skills (e.g., communication, performance management, etc.)

Seemingly there is no topic that can’t be delivered through eLearning. Unfortunately, not all of the training being delivered this way is well designed. Some of these programs are nothing more than “data dumps” that leave learners frustrated and bored. Worse still, learners do not achieve the desired learning objectives. They simply are unable to retain the content presented, let alone apply it to their jobs. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Instructional Design for eLearning Programs

Tell a Story

One way to transform eLearning programs is to use story-based methods. Essentially, story-based Instructional Design uses real-life events to create compelling learning scenarios. These events can include:

  • Customer complaints
  • Product recalls and defects
  • Legal infractions and lawsuits
  • Customer success stories
  • Solutions to everyday problems

The training content is embedded in the story, creating a highly-engaging learning experience. By making the information personal, learners are no longer bored, and comprehension and retention are dramatically improved.

Story-Based eLearning Instructional Design

To use the story-based eLearning design approach, Instructional Designers must learn how to transform technical data, legal information, policies, rules, and procedures into believable and engaging scenarios. Stories used for eLearning (also known as Storytorials) are a creative Instructional Design approach that creates an immersive and engaging learning experience.

Instructional Designers still work with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to identify critical information; however the emphasis shifts towards finding relevant examples and incidents that illustrate key concepts. Importance is placed on creating eLearning courses that are shorter, easier, and faster for the learner.

Key Benefits

It’s not difficult to understand why using a story-based approach can totally transform an eLearning program. Everyone loves a good story, and they can make learning fun (or at least not as boring as reading policies and procedures). And because people generally will remember a good story, this approach leads to higher retention rates and application back on the job. Even dry and difficult content can be made more engaging with a good storyline.

Keep it Real

Whether the Instructional Designer decides to use a narrative approach, or a case study, the story should be realistic and relatable. That is a foundational principle behind using this approach to Instructional Design. This is the only way to achieve the desired instructional impact.

Instructional Design Training

What is Instructional Design?

In short, instructional designers create learning products and experiences for employees of a company, or students in an educational establishment. The most widely followed model in Instructional Design is the ADDIE model, short for analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate. Within each of those steps, there exists considerable knowledge, skills, and abilities that will need to be developed in order to become proficient as an Instructional Designer.

Degrees in Instructional Design

Many educational institutions offer degrees in instructional design. The curriculum for instructional design vary, but most include classes on the following:

  • Instructional design theory and practice
  • Adult learning principles
  • Assessment and the instructional design process
  • Selection of instructional materials
  • Educational media design
  • Developing online courses
  • New design models and emerging needs

This is only a partial list. Getting an instructional design degree will demonstrate to future employers that you are committed and competent enough to learn at a high standard. Also, a degree may be required to progress to higher level positions in instructional design. But getting a degree does not mean that you are done with your training. While a degree will provide a good foundation for becoming an instructional designer, success in the field will depend upon gaining real life experience and additional training.

Getting Certified

Although a degree in instructional design may be preferred by most employers, a certificate in instructional design can provide the needed skills to get started in the field. Also, many instructional designers choose to pursue a certificate in instructional design in addition to holding a degree. Many of these programs can be completed online and at a self-directed pace. These certificate programs vary considerably from place to place, but should include training on the following skills at a minimum:

  1. Conducting research, and synthesizing information from various sources.
  2. Communicating clearly, both visually and verbally.
  3. Identifying expected outcomes, based on audience analysis
  4. Selecting the most appropriate learning platform
  5. Building the appropriate structure with the right instructional strategy
  6. Designing course material on time, and within budget, including pre-class activities, presentations, practice problems, case studies, and more.
  7. Problem solving, with the ability to overcome setbacks and obstacles
  8. Creating fair and effective assessments and evaluations

Don’t forget, to be an instructional designer, you don’t have to be a subject matter expert (SME) on the topic you are designing. That’s why you need all of the above skills to be successful in this field.

Instructional Design for e-Learning

Instructional Design for e-Learning

Some might argue that instructional design techniques and principles are all the same, regardless of whether you are designing for instructor-led training, online courses, or blended learning. To a point, that is correct. There are, however, a few useful differences that should be pointed out.

Instructional Design for e-Learning

Learning Objectives

Objectives are the core of any instructional design effort. They guide all stages of design and development. They tell instructional designs what to include, and what to leave out. They should always be drafted first, before any design takes place.

What’s different for e-Learning is the nature and scope of those learning objectives. When taking learning online, the content needs to be even more tightly focused than in an instructor-led training course, where the facilitator has some ability to adapt and adjust on the fly. That’s not usually the case in e-Learning courses (with the possible exception of live webinars).

When selecting objectives for e-Learning courses, be careful to list specific, measurable outcomes that can be assessed in a virtual setting. Also, attention spans are very short, especially for online courses, so don’t overload the amount of material you intent to cover.


While you can use a storyboard for traditional instructor-led training, instructional designers typically go from learning goals and objectives directly to creating course materials. This would be a mistake for e-Learning design.

Using storyboard helps the instructional designers organize content, while visually displaying how the pieces of the course fit together. It helps create a narration for how the lesson will flow, and how each piece of content will build on the next. It will also help the instructional designer avoid overloading the course with too many concepts.


One of the beautiful things about e-Learning is the ability of the learner to branch out and drill down on topics they want to know more about. This can’t really be done in a face-to-face setting. Instructional designers need to keep this in mind as they create e-Learning courses.

Start by creating a list of topic and sub-topics. The main “road” through the e-Learning course should include all of the “must know” topics – things that are crucial to achieving the objectives. It should also include “should know” content that learners will need to understand in order to complete the course. In an e-Learning setting, it’s possible to allow learners to skip forward over any concepts they already have mastered in the “should know” area. Designers need to include this functionality in their courses, or they will quickly bore the more advanced learners.

Finally, there is the category of “nice to know” information. Any traditional course will likely leave this content out of the course, or offer it as supplemental handouts. In an e-Learning course, this “nice to know” information can have links for interested learners to follow. This technique also allows the learner to be in charge of their own experience. That’s a win-win for designers.

There’s More

There’s much more to know about instructional design for e-Learning courses. This brief primer has introduced some of the more basic, and important points. Also, e-Learning is changing and expanding all the time, so keep reading!

Instructional Design in Education

Learning is learning, whether it’s in the corporate world or in the field of education. The job of instructional designer is similar in both settings, but there are a few distinct differences. If you’ve ever wondered what those differences might be, read on.

Instructional Design

Designing for Corporations

If you work for a corporation as an instructional designer, you will most likely work with Human Resources to identify course content and manage the implementation of courses that you design. In business, instructional designers will work with subject matter experts (SMEs), and spend a great deal of time working alone on the actual development and design of courses. It’s up to them to decide on the appropriate instructional strategy, and assessment methodology, and the SME isn’t involved in the delivery of content.

Also there is the question of pace. In a corporation, instructional designers will be under constant pressure to produce content better, faster, and cheaper. There are usually several projects under development at one time, so it certainly will not be boring.

Designing for Education

Instructional designers in education will work directly with professors or other educators to build and maintain courses. Generally faculty members prefer to work in committees, and projects can last an entire semester. The academic world loves collaboration, so instructional designers can expect a lot of input and feedback on their course design and selection of instructional strategies. Also, the educators will be intimately involved in the ultimate delivery of the content, so there is much more of a vested interest.

The salary for instructional designers in education will be lower than their corporate counterparts, but there may be more stability in the position. While corporations can cut training when budgets get tight, in academia learning is the name of the game.


When it comes to designing learning for corporations, typically instructional material will be closely tied to the competencies of the various jobs within the corporation, or about company standards, policies, or procedures. There will be very specific requirements to influence behaviors, with measurable outcomes in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities.

On the education side, it’s all about expanding horizons, creating “aha” moments, and trying to make learners think differently about the subject. There is greater emphasis on critical thinking, which definitely impacts how an instructional designer will approach the course development.

One Last Thought

In academia there is much more room for experimentation on different technologies and approaches. If it’s not successful, then it was a learning experience. That doesn’t track on the corporate side, where the emphasis is always on results, addressing specific problems, and improving performance. So although the job may have the same title, instructional designers in education approach their work much differently.