Instructional Design

Any institution that seeks to develop its own content for distance education should invest significant time in researching and understanding the key principles of course design. Why? Because the design of the course content can affect student learning, the primary objective for educational institutions. A large part of the student learning experience is accomplished through interaction with the course content. The academic quality of the distance program relies on the excellence of the institution's online course content. To offer content that will engage and hold students and at the same time achieve the course objectives, institutions must follow strong instructional design principles.

Traditional instructors who have been charged with creating content for online courses require online instructional design support. Faculty cannot be expected to automatically understand how to adapt their existing classroom content to an online format. An institution that seeks to have content developed for its program should assist the faculty content creators by either providing instructional designers or relevant books and other resources regarding online instructional design.

Instructional Design Theories

Numerous instructional design theories exist. It is important to remember that the course should be designed for the specific type of learners enrolled and the medium in which course content will be presented. Solid course design, based on sound pedagogical principles, brings about successful course management.

Online education has so far been a format used primarily for an alternative delivery mode for distance learning. Distance learning has traditionally served older, adult students rather than traditional students. While the demographics of the online student are rapidly changing, adult learners are typically still the target student. Each institution should evaluate its goals and objectives for the online program and for the course to best understand the audience for the course content.

Pedagogy, by definition, is the art and science of teaching. However, most practitioners in the discipline of instructional design refer to any mode of teacher-led, didactic instruction as following the pedagogical model. Malcolm Knowles introduced in the book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy, the concept of andragogy, which he defined as "the art and science of helping adults learn" (1970,p.35). Today, instructional designers have broadened this definition of andragogy to refer to any instruction that is student-centered, experiential-based education regardless of the age of the student.

Probably the least effective online instructional design method is what we call the "Dump Truck Model" or what Dr. Alistair Fraser, professor at Penn State, termed as "Shovelware." In some of the earliest online education experiences, instructors and course designers simply gathered up all the materials from a traditional lecture course and dumped them into an online format. These materials were not normally student-centered or written to stimulate student interaction. The act of simply putting existing lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations online had poor results.

Courses utilizing this method had high attrition and poor student performance. It was from these early experiences that more successful models were developed. Unfortunately, this method is still used much too often and results in a less than ideal learning environment.

The andragogy model works exceptionally well in online education because of the student-centered and experiential-based education it provides. It follows what many people describe as a true Socratic method of learning. The pedagogy model used in traditional lecture style courses in most institutions today does not. That difference in instructional design models and the way in which they integrate with the technology available to institutions is precisely why course content must be redesigned before being offered over the Web.

Instructional design is important for online delivery because of the non-linear nature of the Internet. In a traditional classroom, the instructor is the gatekeeper of information, choosing how and when the content is delivered. In an online class, students access various points of instruction and related information non-sequentially.



Following a step-by-step model provides a methodical and systematic approach to introducing and improving any process. The ADDIE model of instructional design was one of the first models to propose an organized process for developing and improving instruction. The ADDIE model is a systematic, five-step, cyclical process for developing learning materials and activities. Following these five steps when seeking to create content ensures that important issues are not overlooked or forgotten.



The instructor and course developer should analyze the course topic and audience, and should look for examples of other material similar in nature being delivered on the Web. The goals and objectives of the course should be examined for relevance. If the course has previously been offered, the outcomes should be taken into consideration.

A course designer should ask a series of questions before beginning the design process or placing content in the course:

  • What is the topic of the course?
  • What are the course objectives and the learning objectives?
  • Who are the students? Adult, traditional, or both?
  • Does the instructional design theory fit the type of content being offered?
  • What textbook will be used?
  • Will synchronous activities will occur?
  • Will groupwork be incorporated?
  • Will kinesthetic (hands-on activities) assignments be necessary?
  • What type of exams will be offered? Objective, subjective, or a mixture of both?
  • Can traditional materials be converted to the Web if necessary?
  • How will the material convert into lesson units? For example, a traditional Monday-Wednesday-Friday course should be refocused into a single session with all of the material covered in one complete session.


The design phase will build a framework and outline for the course. Online education and the computer-based medium from which it is delivered possess unique characteristics. To maximize these characteristics, examinations, assignments, and class interaction should be designed specifically for online education. Each lesson unit and content chunk should be formulated in such a way to provide interaction within the course.

At this stage, the nine principles of instruction by Robert Gagne should be utilized to determine the types of course content that will be needed.

Gagne's Events of Instruction

1. Gaining attention
2. Informing the learner of the objective
3. Stimulating recall of prerequisite learning
4. Presenting new material
5. Providing learning guidance
6. Eliciting performance
7. Providing feedback about correctness
8. Assessing performance
9. Enhancing retention and recall

Gagne, R. (1985). The conditions of learning (4th ed.). New York: Rinehart and Winston.


Online education is a relatively new field. Academia is just beginning to explore the uniqueness of this medium. Alistair Fraser provided one of the best analogies to illustrate this concept with a look back at motion pictures in his paper, "Colleges Should Tap the Pedagogical Potential of the World-Wide Web." He explained that in the late 1800s, when the motion picture was invented, many of that time period saw motion pictures as primarily a way to distribute existing materials, such as stage performances. He then asked the readers to consider any movie they had watched in the last ten years and try to imagine it being performed live on stage. Finally, Fraser posed the question, "What aspects of effective communication would be lost?"

Just as the motion picture evolved into a medium unique to itself with its own advantages and disadvantages, online education is following the same path. We are fortunate to be at a point in time to help shape that evolution and watch this medium grow. Online education also has its advantages and disadvantages. Only when we understand the uniqueness of the medium will we be able to take full advantage of what it has to offer.


Implementation is the actual teaching of the course. This stage of the ADDIE model is the least focused on in the design of the course, but is probably considered the most important stage of the development of the online program. Successful teaching in an online course does not happen automatically. Instructors need guidance, support, and examples of how to effectively teach, communicate, and build learning community in the online environment.


The final stage in the ADDIE model is evaluation. The course should be evaluated by both the instructor and course developer. The course developer will use actual student feedback and results from course measurements to reorganize or redesign the course for future delivery. The instructor will use student feedback to modify exercises, course discussions, and the pace and order of the content and when it is released to the students. In many cases, the course developer is also the instructor.

The instructor should evaluate the course by measuring the effectiveness, clarity, and understandability of the content chunks. The instructor should communicate to the course developer the need to update, clarify, or supply missing content. The instructor should analyze how content was released and if the order or pace should be changed for the next course offering. After several course offerings, the instructor should be able to anticipate the sections that will require extra time for students to absorb the material and the sections that can be delivered at a faster pace.

The course developer should solicit feedback from instructors about the effectiveness and delivery of the content. Feedback regarding the organization of the course should include how the content was comprehended by the students and what content should be incorporated or removed in the next course development cycle.

The course developer or institutional effectiveness office should perform an analysis of student performance in exercises, quizzes, and exams across as wide a sample of students as possible. This analysis should yield results that show which content chunks and other sources of instruction were effective and which were not. If possible, this analysis should also compare against traditional classroom performance and allow the institution to evaluate the effectiveness of the online course as a whole. The online course should meet or exceed student performance in the traditional classroom. This data will be needed when the institution performs assessment of the overall online program and for the institution's accreditation processes.

Examples of Questions for the Evaluation Process

  • Did students achieve the desired and stated outcomes?
  • What did students learn?
  • How did they learn it?

  • - Observed students using materials, interacting with each other
    - Collected data from surveys
    - Analyzed grades and course completion rates - Academy of Teaching Excellence , Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Formative evaluation is a method of evaluation shown to be effective in the ADDIE model. It is easily adaptable to online education and should be used whenever possible. This evaluation method should provide feedback that will allow both the instructor and course developer to improve the course and the effectiveness of future students. The formative evaluation consists of six stages:

  1. Evaluation Goal Specification
    • Specify the goals of the stakeholders for which the evaluation is performed.
  2. Preparation
    • Arrange necessary personnel and measurement instruments.
  3. Data Collection
    • Hire and train data collectors.
    • Elicit feedback from target audience and experts.
  4. Data Analysis
    • Tabulate statistical data.
  5. Revision
    • Modify product to improve effectiveness and efficiency based on data collected above the stakeholders goals.
  6. Recycling
    • Retest product; move to summative evaluation and dissemination after removing weaknesses - Science, Math, & Technology Education, Idaho State University College of Education.

The final aspect of the online course that should be examined during the evaluation stage is the course completion rate among students enrolled in the course. When the first online courses were offered, course completion rates tended to be low. As online education became more advanced and refined, more and more students finished the courses. Today, it is possible to have course completion rates that are equal to those in traditional classes.

The course completion rate can be an indicator of both class and program effectiveness. If a particular class has a low course completion rate when the completion rate for other online classes is higher, this should signal an alarm that course redesign is necessary. Likewise, if the program experiences a low course completion rate overall, it should be examined for changes that will precipitate program improvement.