What is Instructional Design?

“So, what is it you do?” “I’m an Instructional Designer!” “A what?!” and so, usually, ends the conversation. Yet instructional design and those who carry out this role, is fundamental to the success of all learning provision. Here Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at what instructional design is all about.
I will be completely honest with you, I just hate it when people ask me what I do! Talk about a conversation stopper because just how can I explain in ‘elevator-pitch style’ what I do? Yet, what I do is becoming increasingly popular with all the advances in technology, and the growing abundance of eLearning courses and programmes. So here, in non-elevator-pitch language is how I see what I do.
What is it?
Connie Malamed, the eLearning Coach, says that the purpose of instructional design is to “identify the skills, knowledge and the attitude gaps of a targeted audience and to create, select and suggest learning experiences that close this gap”. In this way, instructional design saves learners’ time by making learning easier and more effective for them. It compresses the learning process, and fills knowledge and skill gaps in the most effective way possible.
Of course learners can do all this for themselves but if you just think for one moment about all the information that bombards us on a daily basis, it becomes obvious that, with the assistance of a skilled Instructional Designer, making sense of a subject or topic will be that much easier and quicker.
What Instructional Designers do
For starters, an Instructional Designer designs learning (instructional) materials usually in the form of units, modules, courses and programmes. But this is not the most important part of their job, which is to help people make sense of these materials and other online resources. Their role is to turn information into clear, meaningful and contextual content, and to point learners in the right direction; very much as a learning guide if you like. One of the most important characteristics that all good Instructional Designers have, is that they are ‘content neutral’, in that they can work with any type of content. It is a fact that subject matter experts usually make the worst Instructional Designers!
An Instructional Designer will commonly undertake all or some of the following steps:

Conduct a needs analysis to identify the needs of the targeted group, which may be very wide and diverse.
Determine which needs can be met by learning and how they can be satisfied.
Define learning objectives/learning outcomes that will be the yardstick of successful learning.
Acquire information about the targeted group in order to assess entry skills and knowledge, attitudinal and motivational factors, and behaviour patterns.
Based on all of the above devise an instructional strategy (a blue-print for the learning), and select the techniques (eg case studies, story-telling, scenarios) and delivery media (eg online, face-to-face, mobile, blended) for the learning provision.
Follow-up on the learning outcomes to see if they have been achieved and, where relevant, performance has improved as a result.

What instructional design doesn’t do

It doesn’t put information in front of people. Instead it makes sense of it.
It doesn’t use technology to increase learning significantly. Instead it creates learning environments that mimic as closely as possible real life learning and the workplace.
It doesn’t produce materials that address as many learning styles as possible. Instead it identifies the learning needs of the targeted group and helps everyone to meet their needs, by allowing people to learn at their own speed and in ways of their own choosing.

Instructional design is essential
As the use of eLearning increases in popularity, the demand for quality eLearning provision has also increased. In the hands of a skilled and experienced Instructional Designer the desired quality will be ensured. Instructional design and the person who is responsible for it equates to the central and indispensible cog in the whole process of eLearning provision.