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Kerry Pascall What is instructional design?

What Is Instructional Design 15 5 19

Wherever you are in your learning journey, the chances are you’ve come across the term ‘instructional design’. 

Many people do not actually know what it is, or at best only have a vague idea.

As an Instructional Designer myself, I would argue that any learning intervention should use it.

So, let’s take a ‘deep dive’ into instructional design for a typical eLearning solution.

Already an instructional design whizz?

Have a look at our free guide ‘Reviving your eLearning’ to see how you can use it as the basis of your learning modernisation. Otherwise, read on!

Download eLearning guide

The definition

For me, instructional design is about understanding the skills, knowledge or behavioural gap of the end audience and then coming up with ideas that can address that gap. It needs to tell a story, without losing the main messages.

In other words, it’s all about putting the needs of your learners first to create a learning solution that is relevant, creative and engaging.

I’m a big fan of Merrill’s definition, which remains true today despite being introduced back in 1996:

“Instructional design is the creation of instructional experiences which make the acquisition of knowledge and skill more efficient, effective and appealing.”

The key word here is ‘experiences’ - putting the learner at the heart of the learning to create immersive experiences that clearly help them address a learning need.

We can then work on translating these needs into learning objectives, before outlining what the learning intervention needs to achieve. 

The process

Instructional design must tell a story using relevant content – and it’s not as straightforward as you might think! We are often provided with reams of PowerPoint slides full of information, from which we must select the relevant content. Turning such a large amount of information into a 30-minute module can be challenging, and this is where the skill of an Instructional Designer comes into play.

What you end up with is an Instructional Design (ID) document, detailing what each page of the eLearning will contain, including any words that appear on the screen or as audio. It will also provide top-level instructions on layout and explain what will be on the page, such as graphics, interactions, animation and video.

Next up is the storyboard, which can be included in the instructional design phase, although it is often handled separately. The storyboard is usually produced by the creative team, who will come up with a ‘look and feel’, including the layouts and designs for each page.  

This descriptive ID document offers a bird’s-eye view of the flow, showing the client how the learner experiences and moves through the content. Throughout the instructional design process, we use the agile ‘SAM’ model to test and get feedback, making it straightforward for us to make tweaks as we go along.

The outcome

Once the ID document is complete and any iterative changes made, the client can sign it off as accurate and aligned with their learning needs. This means that there is no ambiguity over what should be covered, or in how much detail.

The ID document is crucial, as it is used by a range of teams that might have input into the finished learning solution. This could be anyone from creatives, graphic designers and eLearning developers, to video or audio producers, scriptwriters and animators. This is their foundation, to help them to understand how their input will fit into the overall process. Without it, you risk ending up with inconsistent assets created in different styles.

Why it matters

Thanks to the potential of digital learning, we are better placed than ever to captivate learners. Good instructional designers will consider all types of methods to really engage and motivate them. Simulations, 3D and 4D animations, eLearning, VR, video and podcasts are just some of the ways we can bring learning to life.

And that is exactly what instructional design is intended to do. Arguably, it is what instructional design needs to do in the digital age, where learners can access content on the go. Without immersive experiences that really hook the learner in, we risk turning them off with bland content that doesn’t actually help them.

So, it really is worth taking the time to get instructional design right.

Even if you feel ready to approach instructional design within your own organisation, not all L&D teams have the resources they need to implement it effectively.

With this in mind, choosing the right instructional design partner is the key to a successful solution.

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Now you’ve got a better grasp of what instructional design is, have a look at our free guide ‘Reviving your eLearning’ to see how you can incorporate it into modern learning. 

Download eLearning guide

P.S. Keep an eye out for next month’s follow-up blog, looking at the benefits of instructional design!


Kerry Pascall, Head of Digital Learning, Bray Leino Learning

In my series of blogs you can expect some tips on implementing eLearning, what to consider when commissioning eLearning, design tips, software and authoring pros and cons, and general advice on everything eLearning!

Follow @KerryBrayLeino

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