The Rapid Elearning Blog

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - debate value of instructional design degree

There’s a lot of debate about instructional design and whether or not you need a formal education to create effective elearning.  We looked at that in a previous post (which includes some good discussion in the comments section).

Today I want to explore some elements of instructional design and why it’s important when building an elearning course.

Learning Happens

I’ve been in the training industry for over twenty years.  And sometimes we act as if people would just sit around in a vegetative state and not know what to do until we built a course.  But the reality is whether or not we build courses, people still learn what they need to learn.

That’s because learning happens.  It doesn’t happen because you decide to build a course.  It just happens.  We learn all the time.  We are continually learning as we take in information, explore and solve problems, and interact with people.  It’s just how we’re wired.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - always be learning

It’s as if Mitch and Murray sent Blake into our heads to remind us to “A-B-L…Always Be Learning.”  There’s never a point where we turn off the ability to learn.  Our brains just keep on working, whether we plan it or not (unless of course you’re at an Emo Phillips show).

Instructional Design

Good instructional design can make learning happen faster and more efficiently than what might happen more organically.  Instructional design is the process of assessing the learning needs and then applying the appropriate learning strategy to meet them.

I’ve always seen instructional design as an intrusive process.  It’s a manufactured attempt to make learning more efficient and effective as it intrudes on our natural learning process.  Ideally, this intrusion is beneficial and helps us learn better.

In a simple sense, there are three core components to instructional design:

  • Understand how people learn
  • Construct learning activities based on how people learn
  • Measure the effectiveness of the learning activities

Understanding How People Learn

You don’t need to be an expert on every theory, but you should be familiar with the main ideas so that you understand how people learn. Because this understanding is the foundation of how you design the elearning course to meet the instructional needs.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - instructional design and clown school

There are plenty of good instructional design books from which to learn.  We started a list in the user community.  I also think that Don Clark does a nice job collecting instructional design resources, if you want to do it on the cheap.  And of course, it makes sense to improve your craft with continued education and practice.

In either case, it’s important to learn more about how we learn so that you can develop the right instructional methodology for the courses you design.

Do you have some good book recommendations? Add them the to the comments list.

Construct Learning Activities

Armed with an understanding of how people learn, you’re able to construct effective and efficient learning activities.  Unfortunately, much of what we call elearning today falls flat; mainly because we take a very narrow approach to instructional design.

First, we treat the event of elearning as the total learning process.  But the reality is that the elearning course is just part of the learning process.  Instructional design considerations can be broader than just the immediate elearning course.  I discussed this a bit in this post on effective elearning.  Ideally, the instructional design considers the big picture including ongoing performance support outside of the elearning course.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - instructional design is more than the elearning course

The other issue with many elearning courses is that they are typically limited to presenting information with a quick assessment to determine recall.  This is instructional design at the simplest level.

Considering how people learn, there is a lot more we can do in the design of our courses.  An obvious step is to switch from info-centric design to one that is more focused on the learner.  With the learner in mind, we can create more meaningful activities that have a real impact and tap into the learner’s motivations.

Measure the Effectiveness of the Learning Activities

How do you know that what you’re doing is improving their learning? Are they able to demonstrate the level of understanding you desire? Are you using the most effective approach?  Ultimately, you want to ensure that the theory-inspired activities produce the results you desire.

For example, it takes a person two weeks to learn a task without any training.  You design a program that lets them learn it in one week.  You want to show that the learning intervention proved valuable both from a learning perspective and from an economic perspective.  You may have compressed the learning time, but at the same time introduced a negative impact on production while the person was away from their job.

I’ve worked on projects where our approach was instructionally sound, but the process didn’t work best for our learners. So we had to modify what we were doing to make the course work better for the people who actually had to go through it.

They also need to be timely and make sense based on your resources and technology.  The strategy you use with two weeks’ notice is going to be different than one if you have ninety days to plan.

Another time, I worked in a production environment where a machine operator had to do task X three times a day.  This was a critical task in the production process, so only the most proficient were allowed to do it.  When they trained new operators, they didn’t even let them do task X until about the third week because they didn’t want them messing things up.

As we were designing the training, I recommended that they learn task X right away.  This let them practice it as much as possible (part of how people learn).  Within a few days they were proficient at the task. The old way required that they wait three weeks to even start.  However with the new approach, by the third week they would have already had at least 30 repetitions on the task.  In addition, they took away some
of the dread they inserted into the process by not letting them learn it initially.

By compressing some of the daily activities and increasing their opportunities for practice we were able to decrease the time it took to train new operators from 90 days to less than three weeks.

This is a good example of how the instructional design process helped the business meet its learning goals and business objectives.  We created an artificial environment that provided more opportunities for practice in a shorter period of time.

Action Plan

If this is all new to you, I’ve included a few ideas to help you get going:

  • Grab an instructional design book.  Find a book that interests you.  Read it and then plan on applying what you read to your next course.
  • Start small.  Build mini modules on simple topics, like how to make toast.  Play around with some ideas.  Keep it simple so it’s not overwhelming and it’s easy to modify.
  • Solicit feedback.  Create a portfolio page or blog where you can host your modules.  Jump into the user community and ask for feedback.  Write simple blog posts on what you tried and how it worked for you.
  • Be proactive.  Unfortunately many times we’re stuck doing projects the way the client wants them because we’re invited into the process too late.  Figure out how to get in on the process early.  This gives you a place at the table to share ideas on better instructional design.
  • Don’t worry about being perfect.  I look at some of the courses I did early in my career and they’re not very good.  That’s OK.  Over time, I got better.  So will you.

If you want to build effective elearning, you have to learn more about how we learn and then how to combine this understanding with the courses you create.  What are you doing today to make your elearning courses instructionally sound?


Free E-Learning Resources

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40 responses to “E-Learning & Instructional Design 101”

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Great Article! What are some of your favorite instructional design books?

Thanks! I can’t help but tell you how much I agree with you.

The first and best thing I learned as a trainer and designer is Presentation, Application, Feedback.

Also thanks for reminding us to not be perfect. How else can we expect to be better if we are perfect when we start.

I’d add one more core component: how people communicate. You hint at its importance by including socialization in your learning process definition. Communicating with learners in perfect English (i.e. Composition 101) can sometimes make it harder for your target population to understand what you’re saying. Given that many never make it to college designing instructional materials and experiences using a colloquial communication style can offer a more inclusive learning environment.

I’ve lately been considering how we perpetuate structural inequality in instructional design without realizing it. Communicating with learners in the style they prefer sounds like the right thing to do.

February 15th, 2011

I completed my degree in Instructional Design ten years after I learned instructional design. Prior to that, I was taught instructional design methods by former members of the nuclear Navy. It was thorough and it was everything I needed to know about Instructional Design – or so I thought. When I enrolled in my master’s program at Penn State, I realized that there are things that are difficult to learn by being trained in instructional design – namely, the underlying learning principles that form the concepts that the designer uses and the “big-picture” tie-in that show why instructional design works as a educational discipline. What I didn’t learn in my academic programs was what works in real-life. It seemed that often times what the so-called experts espoused had little to do with what happen back on the job. In that case, experience trumps degree. While I agree with the one does not need a degree in instructional design, it helps to have a balance between theory and practice. A degree provides the theory but experience provides the practice.

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Hi, Tom: Thank you for the recommendations — I’ve gotten through Beyond Bullet Points, and I’m now in the middle of The Back of the Napkin and The Non-Designers Design book. I especially enjoy the latter.

Question: would you ever consider doing a quick-n-dirty post on HOW people learn? I apologize if you’ve already done so. Might you also recommend a book or two on the subject?

Thanks for all your help. –Daniel

Hi Tom,

Great Blog!

I’m a firm believer of effective instructional design. One thing really important is to learn who your learners are and try to meet them at their level. This is why the ANALYSIS part of design (ADDIE) is so important. The reasons are; you determine what training is needed, who the learners are; what the learners know at this point; what is lacking (the gap); find out what has worked and what hasn’t. The list goes on Tom. I also try to design learning objectives that match learning strategies and assessments/evaluation.

As far as design, I try to find creative ways to engage the learner. Whether it is a thought provoking question to a short video presentation at the beginning of the course. I believe that if you tie emotion to the process (depending on the training) you engage your learners. It is like finding that hook. Colors and images are good also to the presentation of the course. Whether live or cartoon images -if you can find a way to tie them to content, learning will take place. Training has to look good as well.

My ultimate goal is to not make the course a total page turner. I try to add an activity after a few slides. Scenarios are wonderful! I write a lot of scenarios to make the training relevant to the job. Yes, I have had some courses that did not look so good but the more I design the better I get at this. I also look at example courses that are already built in the LMS or examples online. There are websites that showcase examples. The Articulate website, grafefuly 🙂 is one of them. Here are some books that I’ve been using that assist with the design process.

Figuring Things Out by Ron Zemke and Tom Kramlinger
Better Than Bullet Points By Dr. Bozarth
Designing Web Based Training by Horton
Writing for the web

Great reference. One of the great movies scens of all time. And a good post also.

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February 15th, 2011

Interesting narrative. Couple of observations…

A big thing missing from his narration from my perspective is the role of the training “need” and behavioral objectives. It’s not just understanding how people learn and then designing activities. The instructional designer should first understand two key items:

1. The need for the training (what performance problem must be solved).
2. The desired outcomes or objectives of the learning experience (what behavior changes will solve the problem).

Once you have that info, you can then start defining the audience characteristics and learning environment. These two factors in combination with the need and the objectives shape the overall recommended instructional methodology.

Been at this game going on 23 years and it still amazes me how much training is built without precisely defining the outcomes.



Kathie, thanks for the mention! And thanks, as ever, to Tom K for being so very generous with good advice and concrete ideas. To extend the must-read list, I’d also recommend Clark & Mayer’s wonderful “eLearning and the Science of Instruction“.


As requested by Daniel above, great book on how people learn:

Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.

The author covers thoughts about success and motivation, much of the core concepts and those that motivate and lead to success are about how people learn and how to teach to that. Super book.

Kathy Sierra’s Crash Course in Learning Theory
provides an excellent visual review of how people learn.

February 16th, 2011

I highly recommend any ISD book by Ruth Clark. You can’t go wrong with her writings!

What you have provided is a grain of sand in the great sandbox that is Instructional Design. Though you have provided a perspective, it is hardly comprehensive. I guess I’m still recovering from your post where you mention that one does not need an instructional design degree to do eLearning. I guess one does not need a medical degree to diagnose a disease. They could observe a lot and get lucky with an estimated guess.

And yes, I have a degree in educational technology. I know people who have developed the equivalent in life-long learning experience, but it involved a lot of reading and self-directed learning.

I’ve been rough on the academic side in the have vs. nots, but I have to agree with Kristina. There’s much to this craft. The comparison with a medical degree to diagnose a disease might seem off. But complexity wise I think it’s really up there in problem complexity. Particularly since the symptoms aren’t always obvious.

I would say that it takes more than a lot of reading. And if you don’t have coworkers / mentors that have that education to discuss and work out those problems you’re going to have a really rough go of it. I was fortunate to have some really brilliant mentors and coworkers. Couple that with a regular reading binge well into 3AM and I’m still hungry for more:) If you are willing to put in the work without education to acquire the skills, you are going to kick ass in an academic program!

@Kristina: It’s interesting how people reframed the question. The question is do I need an instructional design degree to build elearning courses? It’s not a question of whether or not the ID degree is important or valuable.

I think the answer lies in whether or not you know instructional design. If you know it and can prove it in your work, then you don’t need a degree. On the flip side, having an ID degree doesn’t mean you can or can’t build effective courses. The proof is in the pudding.

With that said, I think one of the best places to learn ID is through a formal program.

February 18th, 2011


I enjoyed your article. Effective and motivating learning is designed with the learner in mind. Instructionally sound elearning needs to be more content rich with feedback, case studies and surveys a critical part of its design. How do we know that are learning are learning and engaged in the course. feeback and results are the only true means of getting that answer. When I went to school, it was in hopes of learning content that I could practice in my every day work life. That was encouraging and motivating to me.

Tom, I absolutely agree with your last comment. As a professional in the field of educational technology, I see so many people who consider themselves qualified to build a course because they read a book or two, and developed a few courses, which is problematic in my perspective.

Now I work as a manager and director and I don’t have an MBA, so I would be a hypocrite if I said that one cannot learn a lot of what they need to know to do a job outside of a formal programme. But even after 7 years of working in management and even working as an educational technologist for almost 3 years on MBA programmes, I still feel that there are things I’m missing because I don’t have a formal education in the field. Then again, I bring other perspectives to management.

The feedback that I get is that I perform very well at my job and that my lack of formal education isn’t a huge hindrance. So my lack of degree doesn’t stop me from being able to do my job. That said, it might help me do it better.

A formal degree helps one discover theories, understand them, analyse them, apply them, debate them, build on them and create links between them. This doesn’t guarantee that someone will be good at their job, but presumably better equipped to do it.

February 19th, 2011

Hi Tom,

Great article! I am an Instructional Design student at LaSalle Unveristy and your blog is both inspiring and informative. I am espeically grateful to see your, “Don’t worry about being perfect ” idea as it establishes for me that with time, I will get better. Thank you!

February 19th, 2011

You mention in the article that ID don’t have to master all of the learning theories. However we should be familiar with some of them at least. Which I totally agree. One learning theory that comes to mind is Transformational Learning. I can use myself as an example I have never blog until this week however according to Geir’s theory of Transformational learning “The mental construction of experience, inner meaning, and reflection are common components of this approach”(“Learning in Adulthood by Merrian,Sharan, Caffarella, Rosemary et al.This a new experience for me and albeit an exciting one. And as you can see I am reflecting on it as well. As an ID it you can design your training in a way that it could foster Transformal learning my Professor has done this week in our course. The learning will not only be effective it can be engaging and fun. Here a webiste you find interesting

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I must say this indeed an interesting perspective on the field. Instructional design is part of a fundamental framework in the elearning realm. However, I am inclined to agree with some of the posts that this is just ONE perspective, and thereby not entirely comprehensive. I think that this post DOES bring up some shining example of specific theories and methods (such as increasing practice opportunities and engaging in activities and specific examples as opposed to just “page turning”). I missed the last major conference, but do you think going to an e learning conference (the closest one is in late March, see the link for the list of speakers and sessions) such as the E-Learning Summit would provide me with greater exposure to a wider ranger of theories and platforms for remote learning and of course, instructional design? It seems like as good a place as any to start, besides of course online reading. Thanks.

@Alex: while I enjoy going to conferences, I would say that they are mostly broad on topics but usually not very deep.

I read your article about instructional design. You make some good points. At the same time though, it’s important to note that if you want to facilitate learning and achieve good results, you have to design the learning so it is motivating and meets the particular needs of the learner.
There is a researcher by the name of David Berliner. One of the things he talks about re making learning meaningful is creating novelty in the learning. I think this is something that is an important part of instructional design.
There are other factors, e.g. making learning meaningful, context based, etc .to consider when designing instruction. If you’d like more information, you contact me. I have spent a considerable amount of time researching and applying my learning regarding how to design effective instruction. You can also check out my blog posts at my site.

Hi Tom,

This is a great blog and you bring up some interesting points. I agree with your views regarding the construction of learning activities and then measuring the effectiveness of those activities. Learning is a process and timing is a significant piece of that process. My organization learned this the hard way. In past years, our web-based training “dumped” a massive amount of information on the learner with a quick assessment at the end to test their memory. This was ineffective. Most learners did not improve performance and could not demonstrate the tasks asked of them.

We have constructed new training in phases that allow the learner to digest the information in smaller portions, complete an assessment and use a hands-on approach to demonstrate those behaviors. Once this is complete, there is a certain amount of feedback and coaching involved to enhance the learning before the learner moves on to the next phase. The next phase of training is disabled until the allotted time has passed to prevent the learner from skimming through just to say that it is complete. This has proven to be the most effective approach. Taking shortcuts in the learning process may be more effecient but is disastrous from a productive standpoint.

A timely measurement process is also important to gauge the learner’s strengths and challenges. This will assist with an effective follow-up plan that focuses attention to areas that need further development.

March 22nd, 2011

It’s so true, people learn regardless. Instructional design makes learner, in my opinion, easier. Instruction that is organize and considers the learner’s needs makes it easier for the learner to achieve. Great article.


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[…] There are plenty of good instructional design books from which to learn. We started a list in the user community . I also think that Don Clark does a nice job collecting instructional design resources , if you want to do it on the cheap. And of course, it makes sense to improve your craft with continued education and practice. In either case, it’s important to learn more about how we learn so that you can develop the right instructional methodology for the courses you design. E-Learning & Instructional Design 101 » The Rapid eLearning Blog […]

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Hi Tom and All. Although this thread is over a year old, a colleague and I had a similar conversation today, over a year later.
Your comment: “Armed with an understanding of how people learn, you’re able to construct effective and efficient learning activities. Unfortunately, much of what we call elearning today falls flat; mainly because we take a very narrow approach to instructional design.”
Is there a growing difference between instructional designers and eLearning developers? As I read the above statement, I thought, “It seems to me that eLearning falls flat because instructional designers have a very narrow approach to eLearning” (myself included). I believe eLearning developers are naturals with technology. Of course, eLearning developers must go through the same process to identify gaps in skills, knowledge, information, attitudes and beliefs and employ a learning methodology that improves performance and/or changes behavior effectively (and ultimately evaluates the ROE and or ROI). Beyond that, it seems an eLearning developer will naturally work to optimize LMS features and functionality, as well as any other online technology (social media, smart phones, tablets, etc.) and development tools to create an optimal online experience for their learners.
-Do you think that, in general, instructional designers have the same natural tendencies with online technology to do the same?
-If yes, do you think instructional design is now a component (albeit a large component) of eLearning whereas in the past eLearning was just another delivery medium for instructional design?

@Margo: the challenge for many is that they have to build elearning courses and often aren’t given the resources to build effective ones. Elearning means many things. I typically work with people who are the ID and elearning developer. They usually also have to do the LMS implementation and all of the graphic design.

To simplify it the challenge is that when we build elearning courses we need to consider all facets of the course design. I don’t really separate the ID from the other stuff. In some cases, one may do just the ID part of the course design. And in others it may be that the person does everything.

In either case, the key is to leverage the technology to craft the best learning experience.

Tom, agreed. I’m fortunate as I get to work with another instructional designer and I leverage her knowledge, but those that work alone can seek guidance through forums such as this one.