“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.


How to Get Students to Participate in Online Discussions

This is the first post in a triplet series on how to create effective discussions in an online learning environment. This post discusses how course instructors can shape and create robust and rich discussions, in post two I”ll share facilitation strategies to develop and sustain course dialogue, and I’ll conclude the series with methods for assessing student contributions and participation in online forums. Please note, this series addresses discussions in the context of online courses for credit – as forums in Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs} are a different animal altogether [I will share my thoughts on MOOC discussion forums next month at the close of the MOOC course I am taking].

Getting students to ‘talk’
Getting students to participate in [brick and mortar] classroom discourse can be a painful process – the blank stares or worse students absorbed with their laptops or iPhones, which is disconcerting to say the least. Yet online discussion forums present further challenges due to its ‘virtual’ space. Research suggests online discussions often fall flat- are shallow, superficial, fail to engage students and result in frustration —for students and the course instructor (Wang & Chen, 2008). From a student’s perspective, poorly designed forums can feel like busy work, a pointless exercise. Is it really worth the effort to develop effective discussions? Yes – online class dialogue is essential to developing engagement and most importantly cognitive presence, which builds critical thinking skills [for more about critical thinking in the online environment see resources below].

“It is within online discussions where learners are able to construct and confirm meaning [of course content] through sustained reflection and discourse.” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

What makes Online Discussions effective….
In the online program at my workplace, we struggled with getting students to engage in discussions forums throughout a given course. After several months, we’ve increased participation considerably after much trial and error. We found it takes more than a skilled facilitator to develop and sustain meaningful dialogue. The instructional design of the course – or  how the course is set-up is critical. Course discussions are most successful when embedded into the design, are tied to the learning objectives or outcomes, which allows for purposeful discussions rather than ‘busy’ work or forced dialogue for the sake of creating ‘interaction’. Below are key components to effective online discussions, adapted from a journal article in Distance Learning (Wade, et al., 2006). My own take on each, follows in [brackets].

  1. A solid course design strategy where discussion forums support learning objectives [students thus recognize discussions are meaningful].
  2. Clear, concise guidelines and expectations for students [I’ll share some examples in this post].
  3. Well constructed topics/questions [critical! – I’ll discuss this aspect in post 2].
  4. A skilled facilitator or moderator [in our program, most successful discussions include the instructor or students as the moderator – more on this in my next post].
  5. An assessment component for giving student feedback [we use a grading rubric – I’ll share a sample with you in my next post. Though grading participation has its drawbacks and benefits, which I’ll discuss in post 3].

Course Design
I won’t spend a lot of time on this topic, except to highlight the need to create a solid instructional strategy with clear, learning objectives and outcomes, with carefully selected content and methods where students will apply and work with the course content, (this is where discussions come into play). Consult my preferred method of instructional design, the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model, click here.

Guidelines for Students
We found clearly outlining expectations in more than one place within the course is helpful for students, and reinforces the purpose of, and expectations for discussions. I always like to include a sentence that states the purpose for the discussion, thus alleviating the feeling of pointless busy work. We include a statement such as, “Discussion forums are an important part of learning in an online ‘space’….most students find that participating in discussions helps with not only understanding of the course content, but deepens their learning and ability to think critically….”

Below is a sample of what we include in our online syllabus, under the heading of Discussion guidelines.

  • Use a subject line that relates to your post; this will help create interest and focus for the discussion.
  • Write clearly and with expression. Communicating online requires careful and concise writing, but also allows your personality to come through! Though humor is effective and at times relevant in discussion, be sure to avoid sarcasm, which does not translate well in the online environment.
  • Be supportive, considerate and constructive when replying to your classmates. Do not use jargon, slang or inappropriate language. If you disagree with a classmate please respond in a respectful and tactful manner. Any posts deemed inappropriate by the professor will be removed from the discussion board.
  • Keep your post focused on the topic, relating any class readings and materials from the current module in your post (as applicable).
  • Proofread and review your response before hitting the submit button! You have one hour to edit your response before it is posted, then, it cannot be modified or removed except by the instructor.
  • Participate regularly. Improve your learning by being an active and engaged student. Successful students follow and participate in the assigned discussion throughout the module, logging on at least three times a week while reading and participating in forums as assigned in the module.

In the instructions section for a particular module or week, we include directions and specific guidelines for participation:

“Participate in the Module xx discussion forum. Discussion forums are graded and count towards your participation grade. Refer to the Discussion Forum grading rubric in section xx of the course e-book.”

The Potential of Online Discussions
From what I’ve presented thus far, you can see there is much upfront effort required to set the stage for effective online discussion, even before the first discussion is launched, yet it is well worth the effort. Online discussions have tremendous potential to promote critical thinking skills, ‘force’ students to engage with the content, use higher order thinking skills, and ‘construct’ new knowledge. Numerous studies suggest it is the act of writing, thinking about and composing a text-based post that encourages students to engage their higher order thinking skills (Wang & Chen, 2008) – it’s the power of writing.

Click here to read the next post in this series, which reviews strategies the course instructor can implement to continue the momentum of developing and sustaining effective course discussions, and here for the final post on discussion assessment.

Wang Y. & Victor Der-Thang Chen (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence, Journal of Asynchronous Communication. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3-4 (12).

Wade, D. A., Bentley, J. P. H., & Waters, S. H. (2006). Twenty guidelines for successful threaded discussions: A learning environment approach. Distance Learning, 3(3), 1-8.

Related Posts: Critical thinking in the Online Classroom, Onlinelearninginsights 
Post Two: How to facilitate robust discussions online, Onlinelearninginsights
Post Three: The method and means to grading student participation in online discussions, Onlinelearninginsights
MOOC Mythbuster – what MOOCs are and what they aren’t, Onlinelearninginsights

Providing relevant learning online…outside the [LMS] Bubble

Let’s face it – the learning management platforms (i.e. Moodle, Blackboard) as they exist today, are restrictive, limiting for both the learner and online educator. The flexibility, value and learning potential available with Web 2.0 tools far exceed the teaching limitations that exist within the LMS platform. CT’s s recent article, Rebuilding the LMS for the 21st Century reaffirmed what I’ve written about before – working within an LMS platform feels as if I’m trying to communicate (from the student perspective) and teach (educators’ perspective) through a brick wall – I said A BRICK WALL – can you hear me? Sorry for the big caps, but that is how it one feels inside an LMS – the need to shout.

Now more than ever as LMS platforms merge into one (Blackboard recently acquired Moodlerooms)* educators need to be independent for lack of a better word, move beyond the walls of the LMS, explore and embrace the multiplicity of tools available to teach, instruct and foster learning online. The agility of  innovative software developers to provide new tools and  applications for collaboration far outpaces what traditional LMS providers can offer, in fact this says it better than I could,

 “Web 2.0 enables and accelerates the transition to a more connected world in which open, user-centered and self-organising networks create value, including public [educational] value. That’s the Web 2.0 proposition with which…people …around the world are experimenting to see ….eGovernment Resource Centre

Why use Web 2.0 tools in Online Teaching?
Just as in the classroom, utilizing a multiplicity of tools and methods is part of instruction though with online there are additional reasons, relevancy, and learning through collaboration with peers. A blog reader, a professor of communications class, shared her approach, “I believe they [students] should be using web applications and not be inside the LMS silos … learning how to make use of the possibilities offered on the web.joanvinallcox.ca. Exactly – an illustration of relevant learning.

This clever illustration below uses Bloom’s Taxonomy with its levels of cognitive learning domains presented in the familiar pyramid image, but inserts applicable web 2.0 applications into each, which illustrates Web 2.0 tools that support instruction. I would like to reiterate here, that it is only through a sound instructional design strategy that instruction is effective, with appropriate tools chosen to support learning objectives (my model of choice: Dick, Carey and Carey).

Bloom's Taxonomy and Web 2.0 Applications, by Samantha Penney

The other reason, emerging research suggests students learn better when there is a visual representation of course content to work with, [beyond the text] either through knowledge maps, or graphs with text within boxes [used in context of the visual mapping] (Suthers et. al., 2006). Though the research focuses on collaborative learning and interactions with knowledge maps, this is an interesting concept to consider.  What it does suggest is that online learning needs to move beyond the threaded discussions in the LMS platform.

Where to start…
There are a plethora of tools available and I will admit it will take some legwork to find relevant and applicable tools to meet the needs of the course objectives – I will provide just a few examples below to get you started. Also consider revisiting the instructional strategy, reviewing the learning objectives, the course content, and select learning activities that will support student learning. Next, I like to identify the appropriate level within Bloom’s Taxonomy, which helps with my choice of appropriate tool. Using the verbs associated with the learning level are also helpful – for example, analyze, synthesize will require different learning activities than verbs such as identifying or describing.

  • A collaborative mapping tool, MindMesister
  • Mindamo, Online Mind Mapping Software, available in Google Apps
  • Collaborative Data spreadsheet tool (think Excel), EditGrid
  • 35 Best Web 2.0 tools for Teachers, Edudemic

Keep Learning 🙂

Related Post: The LMS Divide
* Correction to my original post which incorrectly stated that Blackboard had acquired Moodle, it should have read Moodlerooms.  Moodlerooms is a support provider to Moodle, an open source platform.

Suthers, D.D., Vatrapu , R., Medina, R., Joseph, S., & Nathan Dwyer. (2008, May). Beyond threaded discussion: Representational guidance in asynchronous collaborative learning environments. Computers & Education. Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 1103-1127