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What is Instructional Design?

If you’re an adult, interested in education (which is very likely being that you’ve stumbled upon this blog), welcome! Now here is what I’d like you to do. I want you to take a moment and think back to your learning experiences throughout your life. What stands out to you? Were there really good experiences? Seriously awful ones? I’m sure there was a mixture of both; and at the center of these memories are probably the faces and voices of your teachers, professors, and instructors, right? Why not? They are the ones who ultimately shape these experiences and share some connection to your feelings regarding what made that education “good” or “bad”. I can very clearly remember as an undergrad, investigating whose class I should register for. I wanted to know which professor was considered “a good teacher”, and which one I should stay as far away as possible from. It’s kind of funny when you think about right? Because Professor Wade and Professor Waller both taught the same subject, they used the same textbook, and they delivered the same content; but in one class I felt like I couldn’t comprehend a thing, and in the other’s class (yes I withdrew and registered for the other professor’s class) I was thriving and even able to comfortably discuss and apply the information.

So what was the difference? Both were highly educated competent professors. You might say, “Well, the first one just wasn’t a good teacher.” You may be right….but what I’ve learned is that there is really only one thing distinguishing a “good” teacher from a “bad” teacher, and that is instructional design.

See, one professor went beyond providing accurate information, they taught and essentially designed their class content in a way that was meaningful to their students; and this my friends, is the purpose of instructional design. Traditionally, the belief has been that instruction can follow many paths to facilitate learning. This philosophy explains why Professor Wade and Professor Waller’s classes were so different, each educator chose the path they felt comfortable with in the delivery of the course content. However, instructional design says that instruction should have an appropriate destination and the right road to get you there.

You see, what we’re learning is that by putting out content without considering its effectiveness for those who will hear it, we’re putting learning roadblocks in the way of our students. We are essentially hindering their ability to learn. This is where the science of instructional design comes in. Instructional design is a series of methods, rules and guidelines that make sure educational content is designed for how people learn. In other words, we are constructing courses with the needs of the student in mind. The goals of the course, the desired learner outcomes, and an analysis of the students who will be interacting with the content are the foundation of how the material will be delivered.

An instructional designer is someone who specializes in learning theories and instructional design methods and principles. They use that knowledge to map out course content. They ultimately identify:

  • the knowledge needed for the learner be successful
  • the media format that would best support the required knowledge
  • what skills the learners need to develop
  • the learner’s attitude towards the education
  • environment factors preventing the learner from being successful
  • needed support for learner success
  • and clear goals

All of these factors can look very different depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with your desired training…and it’s a big job, but when knowledge is taught in a way that’s aligned appropriately to the course goals, it’s just magical.