Introduction to Instructional Design

What is instructional design and who is an instructional designer? Read on to find some useful resources to learn more about this exciting field in education.



Have you ever wondered what it means to be an instructional designer? Are you currently a classroom teacher or a training developer in a corporate environment? Perhaps you are curious about strategies to make teaching and learning more engaging. We can both benefit from this post.

As I explored blogs related to instructional design and technology, and education in general, the following peeked my interest and they may prove beneficial to you as well.

Katie L. Inouye

As an aspiring Instructional Designer, the first post on this blog arrested my attention as Katie poses a very pertinent question— “Can you describe instructional design in 30 seconds or less?” Her post caused me to think about my own elevator speech and my response to her question.


In this blog, Jacob Webb presents insightful research from his time studying a previous offering of Walden University’s EDUC 6115: Learning Theories and Instruction. His posts are scholarly, research based and will serve to provide valuable guidance as I too progress through this course.


Bob Mulcahy makes regular and extensive posts on very practical matters relating to instructional design. His short posts, which find their grounding in both research and practice, are matter of fact and thought provoking.

Another compelling attribute of this blog is that the posts are engaging because of their rich connection to actual events.

EdTech Hot Technologies

This blog highlights new technologies and describes how they can be and are being used to leverage educational gains in the classroom. Jimmy Clark presents an extensive array of technologies, strategies, and ideas.

The blog’s home page features a very neat video tracing the history of computers in education. This showcases the close relationship between advances in technology and instructional practices.

The frequency of posts make this blog ideal for staying current with available technologies that instructional designers can experiment with.

Image credit: https://elearningindustry.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Instructional-Designer-Free-eBook-1.jpg

Defining Distance Learning

The notion of distance learning evokes imagery of students sitting at their laptops participating in a Blackboard videoconference with their classmates and lecturer who are thousands of miles away from each other. Perhaps I have this perception because as a graduate student pursuing a masters degree in Instructional Design and Technology living in St. Kitts-Nevis (a tiny Caribbean nation), I am registered with a university with administrative offices in Maryland and headquarters in Minnesota, participate in class discussions and group projects with classmates who are resident in Aruba, Alabama, Florida, Virginia and lecturers in Montana and Texas, for example. I have recently realized, however, that this is a very limited concept of what distance learning really is. In fact, distance learning is defined differently by various authorities and institutions and also has a very long and elaborate history. In this post I will reflect on these aspects of distance learning with a view to formulating a suitable definition of what it is.

The history of distance learning spans some two centuries from courses in shorthand and composition through correspondence in the 1800s, to radio programming and educational television, through to satellite television, from audio and video cassettes to CDs and DVDs and the like (Tracey & Richey, 2005). What is strikingly apparent is that the mode of delivery of instructional materials has evolved over time to capitalize on the available technologies—correspondence lessons with improvements to the post, radio transmission, television broadcasts, and so on.

Today, our understanding of distance education is connected to the considerable advancements in technology. These technologies—multimedia, audio and video conferencing and web-based tools have become more affordable and hence, more widely used to connect teachers and instructors with learners across the globe (Naidu, 2014). It is important to note that a foundational philosophy for distance education has been the provision of flexible options for delivering educational content to learners that may be separated from learning institutions and instructors by both space and time (Tracey & Richey, 2005). Several pundits have weighed in on what distance education is (or is not) and it has been called by several names—e-learning, virtual education, and even independent study.

Therefore, in redefining distance education several of these perspectives have to be examined. While Desmond Keegan offers a rather comprehensive definition where distance education is characterized by six distinctive qualities—learner and teacher separated; an educational institution’s influence; the use of technology to deliver content and unite teachers and learners; the facilitation of two-way communication; scope for face-to-face meetings; and a structured view of education (Naidu, 2014), I rather that offered by Simonson. Distance education is presented as formal education that is offered by a recognized institution that uses various telecommunications systems and/or tools to connect learners who are typically separated by distance and time to resources, other learners, and their instructors (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015). The notion that distance education is formal education that is distinctly different from independent study and learning in other informal contexts is reiterated by Naidu (2014). If we were to marry this definition of distance education with the assertion that central to enriching educational experiences is interaction (Tracey & Richey, 2005) then the mindmap in Figure 1 captures my perspective of distance education.

Distance Education
Figure 1: Mindmap of Distance Education

Although distance education has made considerable strides there are still several barriers that limit its widespread adoption. For example, there is the perception among employers that an online degree is inferior to that of traditional instruction (Columbaro & Monaghan, 2009). However, I concur with the assertion that distance education is a disruptive technology because it has the potential to radically revolutionize education (Simonson, n.d.). I envision that as more institutions of higher education implement distance learning solutions, K-12 schools embrace it as a viable model for supporting classroom instruction, and industry recognizes the returns on investment if they give careful consideration to the marked effectiveness and efficiency of distance education implementations, that its true potential will be unleashed. As technology tools improve and the needs of learners continue to change, we may very well see distance education evolve to a state where learners can ‘mix and match’ courses from different institutions to satisfy their unique needs.


Columbaro, N. L., & Monaghan, C. H. (2009). Employer Perceptions of Online Degrees: A Literature Review. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(1). Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring121/columbaro121.html

Naidu, S. (2014). Looking back, looking forward: the invention and reinvention of distance education. Distance Education, 35(3), 263–270. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2014.961671

Simonson, M. (n.d.). Distance education as a disruptive technology. Distance Learning, 12(1), 47–48.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. M. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Tracey, M. W., & Richey, R. C. (2005). The evolution of distance education. Distance Learning, 2(6), 17–21.



Over the past eight weeks I have been engrossed in an exploration of the theories surrounding learning and instruction. I have unearthed valuable nuggets about how people learn, discovered a deeper understanding of how I learn, connected the theories about learning to learning styles and technology, and noted strategies that I can apply to my professional practice as an instructional designer. Smith (1999) posits that learning can be treated as the resultant change in behavior caused by our experiences. Therefore, an understanding of how people learn is foundational to designing instruction and instructional materials (Laureate Education, n.da.).

Although the prevalent perspective of learning has been in a state of flux many practitioners seem to favor one theory of learning over another—behaviorism over cognitivism or constructivism, for example. Although logical, this notion it is flawed because “no single theory can adequately account for all learning” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.6). For instance, mastery of particular content can be effectively facilitated using a behavioral approach, cognitive strategies aid in teaching problem-solving, and for complex and ill-defined problems the constructivist approach may be better suited (Ertmer, & Newby, 2013). This is corroborated by Kapp (2007) who advocates that lower level learning such as memorization and labeling requires a behaviorist approach, cognitivism is better suited to procedural and rule-based learning, while problem-solving, collaboration and creativity require a view of constructivism. In essence therefore, the theories can “coexist because they address different aspects of learning” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.10).

When we consider how the brain functions in processing and storing information my appreciation for how I learn was further strengthened. Two points are of significant personal value. First, while rehearsal may be a good strategy for me to store information in long term memory, its retrieval is enhanced if I can associate it with information I already know or with situations where it might be useful as well as if it is encoded in multiple ways (Laureate Education, n.dc). Second, self-regulation plays an integral role in offering strategies for checking my comprehension on an on-going basis and maintaining motivation (Laureate Education, n.db). A further consideration is the peculiar benefit that instructional activities that are situated in real-world examples and authentic learning tasks bring to bear in enriching my understanding (Smith, 2008).

Learning theories seek to capture the events that occur in order to facilitate learning (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009), whereas a learning style is a preference on the part of the learner for a particular modality in which information is presented to them (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009). ‘Traditional’ learning theories such as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are not entirely compatible with the twenty-first century learning because not only are learners changing—prefering to learn by doing, desiring more informal learning settings, and are digital natives who think differently, but technology is also transforming the learning process (Ertmer, & Newby, 2013). In fact, Siemens (2004) argues that many of the processes that were accounted for by learning theories are easily supported by technology to the extent that understanding where to find knowledge appears to be more valuable than the know-how and the know-what. We see an expansion in online learning which requires more careful consideration of strategies to maintain high levels of interest in learners.

It is indeed an exciting time to be an instructional designer. This course, EDUC 6115 – Learning Theories and Instruction, has offered me a toolkit of strategies and their associated supporting philosophies to develop programs of instruction that recognize the situated nature of learning (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), using various technologies as an efficient delivery system for learning experiences that arouse the attention of learners, providing content that is relevant to their individual and collective needs, with enough scaffolding that they can confidently complete challenging tasks and derive the satisfaction of achieving their personal goals (Keller, 2008) .


Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71

Kapp, K. (2007). Out and about: Discussion on educational schools of thought. Karl Kapp. Retrieved November 8, 2016, from http://karlkapp.com/out-and-about-discussion-on-educational/

Keller, J. M. (2008). First principles of motivation to learn and e3-learning. Distance Education, 29(2), 175-185. Retrieved from http://www.fp.ucalgary.ca/maclachlan/EDER_679.06_Fall_2008/Motivation_Keller_eLearning.pdf

Laureate Education (Producer). (n.da.). An introduction to learning [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author

Laureate Education (Producer). (n.db.). Information processing and problem solving [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author

Laureate Education (Producer). (n.dc.). Information processing and the brain [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Custom edition). New York, NY: Pearson

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6053.2009.01038.x

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age [online]. Retrieved November 22, 2016 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Smith, D. S. (2008). A case study in situated cognition. Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved November 8, 2016, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/index.php?title=A_case_study_in_situated_cognition

Smith, M. K. (1999). Learning theory. The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm

Fitting the Pieces Together

A few weeks ago I had occasion to reflect on my own understanding of how learning takes place and the theories surrounding learning. Since that time I have been able to read more about learning and to re-visit my initial thoughts. We may each have our own learning style—a particular preference for how we would like information to be presented in order for it to be of the most benefit to us. However, this learning style, whether visual, verbal, or the like, is not the same thing as a learning theory and one may not necessarily determine the other.

There are numerous perspectives on what constitutes learning. These provide a framework for discussing how and why changes occur in learners. On one hand there is behaviorism which captures the essence of what Pavlov and Skinner suggest as a change in behavior effected by stimuli in the environment. There is also cognitivism whose proponents, Piaget and Bruner, argue that learning is a mental process. Then there is constructivism—the notion that learners are constantly constructing knowledge as they encounter new experiences.

Aside from these ‘traditional’ theories of learning we have seen the introduction of additional theories that seek to account for changes in technology, changes in learners, and changes in teaching methods. In this category of ‘modern’ learning theories are social learning theory, connectivism, and adult learning. What has become even more obvious to me is that although they each describe learning in different ways, each theory bears relevance for specific types of learning activities—no single theory completely explains all learning. So, rather than thinking of myself as learning purely through the methodologies prescribed by any particular theory, I can point to specific tasks, skills, and concepts that are better served by various theories.

This highlights my realization that learning is indeed a dynamic and fluid exercise, albeit a complex one,  that demands careful and intentional planning and crafting on the part of instructional designers and facilitators to maximize the benefits derived from instructional activities. An implication of this realization is that learners are unique, possessing distinct preferences for the modality of instruction, and special affinities—what Gardner describes as multiple intelligences. This leads me to another realization—learners are just as actively involved in the learning process as are their instructors. As a learner, I must constantly make decisions about which bits of information are important to me, set goals for myself, and engage in meta-cognition and self-regulation in order to remain committed to accomplishing those goals.

One of the most transformational things I realized is that whereas previously learning was perceived as an individual and personal endeavor, now I understand that learning occurs at the intersection of personal experiences, social interactions, as well as the context and culture within which those interactions and experiences occur. Importantly, these interactions and situated learning experiences model real-life problems and require considerable collaboration as I learn within a community of practice alongside others with a wealth of knowledge, that I may not necessarily have, and who share my personal development goals. All this can occur without being in the same physical space but by utilizing the vast array of technologies at our disposal.

Reflections on My Learning Connections

In their consideration of connectivism, Davis, Edmunds, and Kelly-Bateman (2008) observed that we cannot possibly experience everything that we need to learn. Hence, we must create learning connections or a crude sort of network through which we exchange ideas. This is even more obvious as we come to realize how much technology is changing the very way we learn. In this information age an understanding of where to find the knowledge we need, rather than know-how and know-what, seems far more critical (Siemens, 2004). It is in this regard that George Siemens, elaborating on his theory of connectivism, points out that our knowledge is “distributed across the networks of human beings, technological devices” and also adds that this network should include the “broader environment in which we are situated” (Laureate Education, n.d.).

This, and my understanding that “learning does not occur in a vacuum” (Davis, Edmunds, & Kelly-Bateman, 2008), has lead me to trace my own personal learning network to include the people, systems, and technologies that I interface with.

olstons-mindmapAs I interact with teachers, students and members in my community such as my own family, church members, and parents, they share their personal experiences which offer insight for me about the issues at play and the type of impact they are having. In recent years this has been an invaluable source of feedback about the effectiveness of the initiatives of the Curriculum Development Unit to refine the curriculum in our primary schools. Other subject coordinators with whom I work and my classmates in my masters degree program provide an unparalleled perspective that takes into consideration widely varying experiences and cultural contexts.

There are three systems that distinctly factor into my learning. First, there is the St. Kitts-Nevis Ministry of Education in which I am employed. This is the context in which my experiences with instructional design and education in general are framed. Next, there is Walden University where I am enrolled in its MS Instructional Design and Technology program. The extensive online repository of resources in the library and course reading material are a treasure trove of valuable educational material for me. The ease of access and extensiveness of the collection are important selling points. Third is the community of practice that I am a part of. This group of instructional design practitioners have been and continue to be a vital group that expands my experiences with various concepts. The exchange of personal experiences enrich my own understanding.

The various technologies allow me to search for, save, organize and share with the people that are in my network. For instance, Google‘s search engine is my first stop when I need to find quick answers to my questions about not just what but where I can locate resources, documents and such like. For breaking news, job listings, airline and ferry schedules and information about what is happening in my country the SKNVibes portal is readily available. The various blogs that I am subscribed to, the discussion board in my online courses and the learning management system (BlackBoard) give me a platform to interact with other individuals in the field of instructional design. Google Drive and Gmail provide a communication tool and file storage and organization facilities that help me manage all the information that I am exposed to.

I have come to realize that the sum total of my interactions with these people, systems and technologies, though seemingly unrelated, have lead to an elaborate network that helps me to self-regulate and provides me with the types of knowledge I need to not only perform my professional duties but also to navigate an increasingly complex world.


Davis, C., Edmunds, E., & Kelly-Bateman, V. (2008). Connectivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved November 22, 2016, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/

Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Connectivism [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age [online]. Retrieved November 22, 2016 from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Are You Left-Brained or Right-Brained?

As neuroscientists unearth more about the physiology and functions of the brain, our fascination with this organ grows. Rightly so, because the brain features prominently in the work of cognitivists such as Lewin, Piaget, Bruner, and Gagné since learning is perceived as an internal mental process (Smith, 1999). We can further rationalize our preoccupation with the brain as much of today’s classroom instruction is met with reluctance and seems ineffective. In their discussion of this, Chamberlin and Chambers (1991) intimate that there is dissonance between how the brain processes information and the structure of school.

Ormrod, Schunk, and Gredler (2009) suggest that the body of available research on the brain can provide insight to refine our current understanding of learning and cognition. Consider for example what we know about the cerebral cortex. It has a left and a right hemisphere. The left hemisphere controls the right side of theleft-brain-right-brain body, appears to be the control center for speech production and language comprehension, reading and mathematical skills, and handles details whereas the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and appears to be dominant in visual and spatial processing, and synthesizing the global perspective (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009).

What about you–are you left-brained or right-brained?

This apparent specialization of each hemisphere–what McCall (2012) dubs ‘brain laterality’ has gained popularity and has been cited as the science that supports left-brain and right-brain teaching.

Many individuals even reference this ideology to explain their perpetual struggle learning math concepts. Others use it to validate their uncanny ability to conceptualize the big picture.

The let down

I am sorry to be the one to break it to you but if you subscribe to the notion of a left-brain right-brain orientation, you have been misled. This is one of the instances that neuroscientists lament where educational practitioners misrepresent their research. McCall (2012) points out that the the concept of the lateralization of brain function is a “gross oversimplification” of how the brain works (p. 44). She also hastens to admit that although both sides process information differently, the assimilation of new information involves the entire brain. Chamberlin and Chambers (1991) lend support by indicating that both hemispheres are linked by the corpus callosum with its millions of nerve fibers that transmit information in both directions. Hence, they conclude, the brain really is not separate parts operating along side each other but really operating as a whole.

This rebuttal does not discredit what we know about the brain. Neither does it suggest that we do not attempt to use information about the brain to devise instructional strategies. What it does however, is prime us to be cautious in the way we apply findings about how the brain works. An important consideration is that as instructional designers we need to develop concepts, strategies, and programs to help learners grow by targeting the various modalities through which the brain processes information (Chamberlin, & Chambers, 1991). Glisczinski (2011) advocates for a balanced use of the brain’s parts to facilitate the type of learning that will result in sustained behavioral changes in our students.


Chamberlin, L. J., & Chambers, N. S. (1991). A brain primer for educators: Implications for learning. Clearing House, 64(4), 228.

Glisczinski, D. J. (2011). Lighting up the mind: Transforming learning through the applied scholarship of cognitive neuroscience. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 5(1), 1-13.

McCall, L. H. (2012). Brain-based pedagogy in today’s diverse classroom: A perfect fit-but be careful! Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 78(3), 42-47.

Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York, NY: Pearson.

Smith, M. K. (1999). Learning theory. The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm

Image Credit: http://en.es-static.us/upl/2013/08/left-brain-right-brain.jpg