Why Online Courses [Really] Need an Instructional Design Strategy

In this post I examine and define instructional design, and share why it’s essential to the development of online courses.

Design brings forth what would not come naturally  Klaus Krippendorff

Developing an online course that is engaging, promotes interaction, motivates learners, and above all facilitates learning is easier said than done.  It’s even more challenging when trying to modify a face-to-face course for the online format. I know because I worked at a four-year college as lead curriculum designer where my job was to collaborate with faculty to transition their face-to-face courses to a 100% online course. During the process of converting more than fifteen courses I became even more appreciative of the principles and process of instructional design.

The Design Process for Online Courses, by Giulia Forsythe (Flickr)

I have over twelve years experience as an instructional designer, which includes creating management development courses and employee training programs. I’ve also developed courses for K-12, including math enrichment curriculum and education programs for parents. I almost always adhere to instructional design principles and a framework for all course design projects, though I’ve found online courses to be the most dependent on sound design principles. In 100% online classes, not only is one building a course, but also a virtual classroom and community.

In this first post of a four-part series my aim is to provide an overview of what instructional design is and why it’s essential to the development of online education. In subsequent posts I’ll cover learning theories and their role in course design, models of instructional design, and I’ll present my own framework for online course design.

What is Instructional Design?
Though I’m an instructional designer and call myself such, I realize the term is vague. My definition in one sentence—“Instructional design is creating an environment for learning by structuring content and creating activities that engage students and facilitate meaningful learning”.  Also critical to the concept of instructional design is acknowledging that it supports the process of learning rather than the process of teaching. Skilled instructional designers are not the subject matter experts, but collaborate with the experts to create environments where students can participate in rich, meaningful learning experiences. Of the many formal definitions of instructional design, I find the following the most accurate:

Instructional Design is defined as “a systematic process that is employed to develop education and training programs in a consistent and reliable fashion” (Reiser & Dempsey, 2007). In addition, Instructional Design models or theories may be thought of as frameworks for developing modules or lessons that 1) increase and/or enhance the possibility of learning and 2) encourage the engagement of learners so that they learn faster and gain deeper levels of understanding (www.nwlink.com).

Why Instructional Design?
Some critics of instructional design suggest that with abundance information available on the web, anyone can learn just about anything on their own terms and customize learning to their own needs. Instructional design is not at all relevant many argue—the models are inflexible and outdated. I disagree. Even though we have access to unlimited content and can learn just about anything on the web, I suggest that this is all the more reason that structure is needed to guide the learner, frame the experience, even for students seeking a self-directed learning program.

Principles of Instructional Design
In subsequent posts I’ll be writing in detail how readers can apply instructional design principles when developing their own online courses. Below I provide an overview of the  principles that establish a foundation for course development. I’ve summarized the principles into three phases:

I. Analyze: Integral to the design process is analyzing the learners, learning contexts and the purpose for the instruction. Though this step is often overlooked, this phase shapes the course. Included in the learner analysis is examining students’ skill level [technical and education], cultural background, attitudes and motivations for learning. Another consideration—how will students access content and instruction, e.g. what platform will be used [learning context]. Finally instructional analysis includes identifying the learning objectives [institution established or student created] and the purpose of the instruction e.g. credit, certificate or personal interest, etc.

II. Develop/Select: This phase is the most time intensive. Goals for the course are identified and articulated. Goals may be specific or general depending upon results from the analysis. This phase includes identifying and selecting content sources on the web and/or developing new content, as well as developing an instructional strategy. The instructional strategy includes: selecting delivery methods or platforms for instruction/interaction, developing/selecting instructional materials/content, selecting the applications and methods to support group interaction, selecting or developing tools or methods for student assessments and course evaluation.

A critical activity in this phase is developing thorough and detailed instructions for students, ensuring the delivery platform is user-friendly and that content and information is presented in a logical and intuitive format.

III. Implement: This phase is about putting course into practice with students. Garnering feedback from students is critical to revising and updating the initial design of the course. Conducting formative and summative evaluation is necessary to modify the course interface, materials, content and/or instruction, to better meet the needs of learners. Though revisions and updating to online courses is an ongoing process, as learning and teaching are dynamic, always changing and evolving.

Closing Thoughts
In traditional education settings, classroom walls act as boundaries for instruction and learning. But online education has no walls and uses a delivery method that shifts the course development process entirely. This shift suggests instructional design principles and models are critical, are needed to address the complexities inherent to the web as a delivery mode. Following instructional design principles for online courses ensures the focus is on student learning and not on the technology or platform.

In my next post I’ll review instructional design models, and examine the merits of each in the context of online course development.  Update: Post two in this series, How Course Design Puts the Focus on Learning Not Teaching.