“Start Here”: Instructional Design Models for Online Courses

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 2.07.01 PMAn instructional design model is the place to start—it is a framework, a tool that guides the structure of a course, that leads the learner to a topic, that removes distractions, provides focus, but still allows a learner to take control. Effective instructional design also helps an instructor to teach, to guide and support learners, and to promote meaningful and active learning. When an online course is not well-designed, often the student doesn’t know where to start, is not sure where to find resources, how to interact, or how to learn. Furthermore, if a student is preoccupied about technical aspects of the course due to ambiguous instructions, glitches, or cumbersome applications, the focus becomes not on learning, but on the technology—more barriers.

This is why I am an advocate for instructional design, why I believe it’s essential now more than ever as learning moves to virtual classrooms. This is the third in a blog post series on instructional design, and my aim here is to share with readers the numerous approaches to course development.  In a previous post I reviewed why we need instructional design and in another post, the role of learning theories in instructional design. In the final post of the series, I plan to introduce a model that I’ve adapted for online course development from the models I’ll review here.

There are numerous models for instructional design as mentioned, yet few exist that are specific to online course design. Though I’ve found one, and included it here for readers to consider, as it has a learner-focused orientation. The remaining are traditional models, [often applied to online design] and likely familiar to readers—the ADDIE principles, Dick Carey & Carey, and Rapid Instructional Design.

ADDIE the 5 phases of instructional design: Analyze, Design, Development, Implement, Evaluate

1) ADDIE : The Classic
ADDIE is not a formal instructional design model; there is no documentation to be found that outlines or describes the origins of ADDIE as a formal model or even framework, yet there is reference to the ADDIE as far back as the 1970’s in select educational literature. ADDIE is best considered as a classic representation of instructional design principles; its acronym associated with the five key principles of course design: AnalysisDesign, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.  The principles are solid, the five phases are universal to education and training development, so much so that the great majority of instructional design models build upon these five components.


Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model
Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model

2) Dick, Carey & Carey Model: Traditional [1978]
This is a systematic model of instructional design, first introduced in 1978. It is sequential in nature similar to the ADDIE model, yet the model’s authors were influenced by the work of Robert Gagné, an educational psychologist and academic researcher—Gagné is best known for his ‘conditions of learning‘ which focus on real-world settings. The model assumes the learner is active in the learning process,  integrates the learner needs, skills and learning context into the design. It is a well-researched model that relies heavily on theoretical principles of learning, which no doubt is why it is a respected and widely implemented model in higher education.

I’ve used this model extensively when working with professors to transition and adapt face-to-face courses to the online format. When studying instructional design in graduate school, we studied this model extensively. One of the texts I still refer to today is, The Systematic Design of Instruction, 7th edition [Dick,Carey & Carey, 2009].  The text also suggests that this model is appropriate for e-learning [p 2 ]. However, there are drawbacks, critics suggest it is rigid, cumbersome, driven by predetermined objectives, thus incompatible with learner-determined objectives. The model is also instructor-focused, assumes the learner is a consumer of content and materials, and not active in the learning process.

I do agree with some of the criticisms, however there are foundational principles within the model that are as applicable to the design of learner-centered, online courses as they are to classroom-centered courses. To create learning environments for learners that are learning online or following  a self-directed course for instance, a structure that guides and leads the learner to engage with the content, to apply and develop knowledge is essential. Creating this kind of seamless learning experience is best accomplished when a systematic process is followed or adapted (as per a course design model such as the Dick, Carey & Carey model) to shape the course for the most effective learning outcomes.


Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 12.38.51 PM
Screen Shot of the 11 of the 24 dimensions of the Instructional design for online learning (IDOL) model for higher education [Siragusa, Dixon & Dixon, p 933]
3) Instructional Design Model for Online Learning (IDOL) [Siragusa, 2005]
This model  draws from the ADDIE principles, and the Dick, Carey and Carey model. It’s perhaps best described as a ‘framework’, since the authors of IDOL suggest it be used in conjunction with another design models, not as a replacement for. It presents 24 pedagogical dimensions for consideration during the design process [Siragusa, Dixon & Dixon, 2007].  However, I do see this framework as a stand-alone model; it is particularly relevant for online course development given its consideration of pedagogical philosophy.

4) Rapid Instructional Design, [Meier, 2000]
According to the model’s creator, David Meier, Rapid Instructional Design (RID) is a replacement for traditional models of instructional design. Proponents suggest this model is applicable because of the dynamic and rapid shifts in educational priorities and learning technology [Meier, 2000]. RID uses accelerated learning design strategies, and encourages course prototypes that are not time-consuming to develop, and can be adapted and modified on-the-fly.

5) Rapid prototyping is similar in scope to the above method. The goal of rapid prototyping as it relates to instructional design is to “develop learning experiences in a continual design-evaluation cycle that continues throughout the life of the project. This cycle, known as the spiral cycle or layered approach, is considered to be iterative, meaning that products are continually improved as they cycle continues” [instructionaldesign.org]. I’ve used this model, even taken a graduate course in this technique for designing curriculum, and though I see the benefits I find it lacking in the depth, particularly the analysis phase. It lacks a visual representation of the model, which I suggest is needed for clarification and communication when working with a design team on a course project.

There are numerous instructional design models as discussed, though very few address the changing dynamics in education, and in the scope of course design, the different delivery methods used today. There is  a need to adapt and change how curriculum is developed, how teachers teach, how learners are assessed, and even a need to consider how knowledge is constructed. Though one component that I suggest that can address at least a small aspect of these challenges, is a tool and method to create learning experiences that will support learners, help them be successful in meeting their needs. Though traditional instructional design models provide a starting point for review, a new, flexible instructional design model is needed for a fresh start. A fresh approach to support focused and specific learning that can be used by faculty, educators and students; a model that helps to remove barriers, break down walls, and open up learning like never before. Stay tuned for my next post in this series.