8 years on, reflecting on my MSc dissertation: what we mean by instructional design

As part of my job hunt (new role starts soon!) I have been going back through various old notes, resources, etc. This is, in part, as the role will see me making use of knowledge and skills that I have not used for a couple of years or more so I have been giving myself a bit of a refresher.

One thing I came across was my MSc dissertation’s initial literature review, methodology and themed findings. In hindsight an interesting bit of this was the attempt to define instructional design as a baseline to what my dissertation was focusing on (copied below). The emphasis (that I have added to the original text in the final paragraph) is to show an interesting conclusion I made – a few years before the mainstream conversational shift to LXP platforms and the multiplication of “learning experience designers”.

Towards a definition of instructional design

ID is a term that can be seen as having various meanings, having been associated with “process…discipline…science…[as well as practical] reality” and sometimes synonymous with “instructional system[s]…technology…[and/or] development” (Berger and Kam, 1996). This complexity has contributed towards there arguably having been a “poor research basis…[for] a lot of instructional design practice” (Elen and Clarebout, 2001, p.4). Indeed the ADDIE model, often seen as the “typical” ID process (Anagnostopoulo, 2002), has been criticised for its lack of evidence-base, especially when used outside of higher education (Ruark, 2008). ADDIE’s pervasiveness extends beyond practice to use as the template for ID literature, including in the chapters of Armstrong ed. (2004). Thus, ADDIE can be seen as the “conventional core” from which other models are built (Tan, 2010). However, whilst ADDIE is often central to ID practice it should not be seen as synonymous with ID as a discipline, instead simply as one of the systematic tools and processes in the designers’ toolbox.

The works of Charles M. Reigeluth remain key texts for instructional designers, such as Cammy Bean, in defining what their profession relates to, including the demarcation of curriculum design and ID (Bean, 2010). Reigeluth’s definitions, of ‘curriculum’ as “what to teach” as opposed to ‘instruction’ that is “concerned primarily with how to teach”, are important in establishing what the discipline of ID focuses upon (Reigeluth, 1983, p.6). This focus on teaching has been seen as one reason why ‘ID’, is a term that, has not appealed universally outside of the United States where it “was conceived during the period when the behaviorist paradigm was dominant in American psychology” (Molenda, 1994, p.3) and is closely associated with the “objectivist tradition” (Duffy and Jonassen, 1992, p.2). More recent shifts from behaviourist models in education to constructivist models can be seen as having encouraged the use of ‘learning design’, and other terminology, although some ID theorists would see constructivism as simply part of the “wide variety of instructional-design theories” that influence instructional designers in their work (Molenda, Reigeluth, and Nelson, 2001, p.5). Indeed Reigeluth identified many of the criticisms of traditional ID definitions and advocated changes in educational practice, which have since become mainstream. The changes called for included a need for a “‘learning-focused’ paradigm” in which “instruction must be defined more broadly as anything that is done to facilitate purposeful learning” (Reigeluth, 1999, pp.19-20). Thus we can take instructional design as being the discipline of developing valid learning experiences following systematic theories and models in the way that has been “accepted in business and industry” and is increasingly acknowledged in education (Gustafson and Branch, 2002, p.23).

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