Defining Instructional Design

The furrowed brow. The pursed lips. The nods of feigned recognition. These are the familiar looks confusion that meet me when I explain that I am studying instructional design and technology. Fortunately I am accustomed to these looks, having started my higher education career in the Business Practice Improvement Office of Emory University as a Strategic Consulting Fellow. Can you say mouthful? I quickly learned to have an elevator speech of sorts prepared to explain what I do to those who ask and, without fail, want more information.

This is why I was thrilled to have been challenged by Dr. C to define instructional design on the first day of my Foundations of Instructional Design and Technology class. Thus far, I have been defining instructional design as:

The practice of utilizing systematic methods (aesthetics, psychological research, technology, etc.) to create optimal learning experiences for students. Instructional designers often utilize subject matter experts (SMEs) to ensure the delivery of accurate information. Instructional designers may also be or work with graphic designers, programmers, teachers, and others to create superlative learning environments for said students.

What do you all think? Am I on track?

In relation to this there has been some robust discussion in the field about whether to refer to a person who does the above as a learning designer, instructional designer, or something else entirely.

One of my favorite IDT blogs, Experiencing E-Learning by Christy Tucker, committed a recent post to this discussion. SPOILER ALERT: Tucker likes the term Learning Experience Design or LX Design and I have to say, it’s a pretty sexy title for the work. In her post on the evolving field Tucker also referenced a blog post by James Tyer in which he collected over 60 different titles for  people in the learning and development field. Another one of my favorite IDT blogs, (a great resource if you have an interest in e-Learning), recently published a list of the top 10 TED talks for e-Learning professionals. I love TED talks and think they are incredibly informative. I’ll be spending the next few days watching these and seeing if and how my definition of instructional design changes.  All in all, it’s fascinating that our own personal definitions of the field and experiences in the field can define our chosen, and sometimes assigned, titles.

As a “newbie” in instructional design I’m still learning. I am at the very beginning of my journey and I think instructional design can encompass many things. That is why I titled my blog “Learn.Dev.Grow.” There is learning, there is development, and most importantly there is constant growth in this field– for the practitioners and the students.

As the child, grandchild, and niece of teachers and the sister of a future speech therapist, I am surrounded education all the time. I’d like to remain in higher education and I see great potential for schools like Emory, my current employer, to focus more on e-Learning. I am pursuing this degree to bolster my expertise in this burgeoning field. Maybe one day I can help develop e-Learning programs and degrees for the university. Learning design combines principles of aesthetics, graphic design, education, psychology, and technology– all things that interest me. I look forward to learning more throughout the semester and reflecting upon the evolution of my definition in this blog.

4 thoughts on “Defining Instructional Design

  1. May I quibble a little with your working definition? First, I’m not thrilled with using “optimal” and “superlative” in definitions. I think you could leave out both of those words and your definition would still have the same essential meaning. That’s a minor issue though.

    Second, tell me why you include the phrase “for students” in this sentence: “The practice of utilizing systematic methods (aesthetics, psychological research, technology, etc.) to create optimal learning experiences for students.”

    Do instructional designers only create formal learning experiences? Do they only work in universities and schools? What about corporate learning, where the audience is usually called participants or learners, not students? What about job aids or performance support? Are the consumers of a one-page job aid “students”?

    I like the rest of that sentence minus those three words though: The practice of utilizing systematic methods (aesthetics, psychological research, technology, etc.) to create learning experiences. “Systematic” is an important word there; it shouldn’t just be haphazard or based on whatever “feels right.” I like the attempt to show how we tie together multiple fields.

    Although we usually use SMEs, that isn’t 100% true in every case. Could you tweak that part of your definition to show that we “often” or “usually” work with SMEs instead of implying we always do?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Christy,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response! I wasn’t expecting to hear from anybody on this blog– it’s actually a part of an assignment for a Masters class I’m in but I guess that’s part of putting yourself out there isn’t it?

      I appreciate your feedback. I used “optimal” and “superlative” in the definition because I think that as practitioners we should always strive for the best for our students. However, I am not married to these terms. I’m still learning so there may be a reason to avoid those particular words. Why do you take issue with them? Do you think there are better words I could use?

      In regard to me referring to learners as students, perhaps it is my higher education background taking over but I do think that anyone who learns is a student, even if not a formal student sitting in a classroom. I actually did hesitate to put student there but I went back to it because it just felt right to me.

      I will correct the bit about SMEs because I totally agree. Not all instructional designers utilize SMEs.

      Thanks again for your feedback. I really enjoy reading your blog. You’re part of the reason I have decided to study instructional design.

      — Imani


      1. This is part of the joy of blogging and putting yourself out there in the big, wide world–sometimes other people outside of your professor get to see what you wrote! When people link to my blog, I often get a pingback and notification. I’m always interested to see who’s linking to me.

        I guess “optimal” and “superlative” feel like they belong in a mission statement more than a definition. I think of definitions as being more neutral in tone. If you’re going for more of an ideal of what IDs should do though, then I think those words are OK.

        If you see corporate learners and people using performance support tools as “students,” then you should keep that word in your definition. I wouldn’t use that language to describe my own work because it would turn off a lot of my corporate clients. My situation is different though. I mostly work with adult learners in professional settings, although I do some higher ed work too.

        I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog and that it helped inspire you to study ID. Good luck with your master’s program! Keep writing and having these thoughtful discussions!

        Liked by 1 person

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