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Instructional Design in a Nutshell

Here is a set of instructional design guidelines that are short and to the point. This quick checklist is a reminder about what teaching and learning are all about. These guidelines also reinforce the importance of the environment and the support infrastructure in teaching and learning. Happy designing.

1. Know your students.

Who are your students? What do your students already know? This is very important because, as constructive learners, we can only build on what we already know. Those students who have an established foundation in a field can learn more, and learn more quickly. Remember, “The more you know, the more you can know!

2. Determine the goals and objectives for the course.

What will the students know that they do not already know? What will the students be able to do that they do not already know how to do? What will the students think about the content and the possibilities of the content?

3. Visualize the environments in which the students will be learning.

Will the students have their own computers to customize and store content and interaction? Will the students have 24-hour access to a computer? Will the student’s computing resource support the latest version of the Web browsers, such as Netscape and Internet Explorer? Do the students do most of their studying while surrounded by children, in a car, or very late at night? Will the students be doing joint projects with other students in the library, over the phone or over the Web? Will the students have their own learning resources, their own books, their own CDs, their own subscription to online resources?  How, when, where and with whom will students be learning?

4. Plan the learning assessment and visualize the environments for the assessment.

How will the students know they are learning? Will there be self checks? Will there be practice activities? Will the students be evaluated weekly? monthly? In what ways will the students be graded?

5. Plan for the types of learning activities to take place.

Design activities with a balance of dialogue of faculty to student, student to student, and student to resources. Design with a balance of types of resources available in print, audio, and web format, if possible.  Plan for activities that introduce concepts, apply concepts, reinforce and extend concepts.  Plan for learner-controlled and led activities.

6. Effective communication and interaction requires planning; it just doesn’t happen.

This statement is particularly true in the new Web environments. The different Web applications now available each have their own particular niche for use in teaching and learning. Here are some examples.

Mail and Discussion List

This is most effective for general communications to one or more people. This is very well designed for faculty-to-student communication, such as announcements, reminders about upcoming events, and deadlines; and for answering general questions. This type of application is also good for students to communicate with each other. The faculty member does not need to answer all the questions. In fact, to save time, a student can be assigned to moderate and answer questions on a weekly basis, and only direct a question to a faculty member as needed.  Some type of mail or discussion list is essential in a Web course. For faculty and students new to learning on the Web, e-mail can be the only tool used for the first Web course experience.

Online seminar and conference applications.

Online seminar interaction is designed for extended discussions of a focused topic. For example, in an American History course, a student might convene a seminar or conference on the beginning of the Vietnam War. In a computer science course, a conference might be held on breakthroughs in chip technology. In these applications, faculty can assume or delegate a variety of roles, and then monitor the discussion and solicit summary statements.

Team projects

Simple tools, such as chat rooms, telephone meetings, and physical meetings can support group work. America Online now provides a handy tool, called AOL Instant Messenger that does not require a person to use AOL. This small application is available free by just downloading it from the AOL site. It is easy to use. Your “buddies” share their online names, and every time you sign on to AOL Instant Messenger, your name and any buddies’ names that are online also appear. This provides an instant, convenient, no-cost chat room. Another similar free tool is also available from MicroSoft.

7. All media require an infrastructure.

In the process of instructional design, effective decisions on the use of media is one of the most important. At the same time, most instruction can effectively be delivered through more than one medium. When selecting media for a course, here are two good questions to ask ourselves:

What are the unique educational characteristics of each technology or Web application?

What is the minimum set of media to use to create an effective beginning teaching and learning environment?

When planning a web course, it is easy to be tempted into using a number of the new media tools and applications. When starting, however, the best rule is to “Keep it Simple,” because every type and choice of media requires access and familiarity with the media and support. Here are a few types of media used in web courses, and thoughts on the infrastructure that is needed to support them.

Textbooks are media, too

Even assigning a textbook to students can cause numerous difficulties if your institution doesn’t have a process whereby students can easily purchase books and other resources without coming to campus.


As discussed earlier, use of a course website requires that a faculty member have technical support to ensure stability and reliability of the site. Use of a course website also requires that student and faculty develop habits for using this type of media. In addition, a course website needs to be maintained over the life of a course, and possibly beyond, depending on the role of the course in a department or program. We also forget that a course website is not a book. Using the term “Web page” causes us to think that a Web page is like a printed page. It is not. It is a fluid medium to be nurtured and updated as needed.

Classroom or teleconferencing room

Any place that the class meets is part of an infrastructure somewhere. It needs to be designed, scheduled, maintained, and accessed.

Online resources and databases

Faculty and students need to have access to required and recommended materials that are online.  They also need to know how to use the resources, and develop habits for its use.

8. The More Hours of Teaching and Learning to be Designed and Developed, the More Time and Resources That Will Probably Be Needed.

The most basic principle of instructional design is that the more hours of teaching and learning to be designed and developed, the more time and resources that will probably be needed. Another way of saying this is that the instructional design of a program will impact the budget of a project, and that the budget of a project impacts the instructional design.

In corporate training courses, one goal of instructional design is effective analysis of the goals and objectives of learning, so that the learning program can be condensed into the shortest possible time. On the other hand, when instructional designers are trying to maximize learning, while trying to reduce the number of hours devoted to learning, the cost per hour can increase. Well-designed — read efficient —materials can take more time and resources to design and develop. For companies paying their employees’ time while being trained, however, the higher cost per hour of development can quickly be offset by fewer hours of employee training time. However, reducing the amount of time for learning is not generally one of the goals of on-campus learning, at least at this time.

For campus courses, it is best to plan for a certain amount of time to be required for every hour of teaching and learning that is shifted from the classroom environment to the Web environment. The best estimate right now for planning is that for every hour of teaching and learning to be moved to the Web, a faculty member should plan for anywhere between 5 and 23 hours, with a standard of 18. This means that if you are building a WebCentric course and moving 30 hours of instruction to the Web, it will take a minimum of five times 30 hours, or 150 hours. This assumes familiarity with the tools and applications for doing this work.

9. Course Delivery Requirements Impacts Design and Budget

Most of us are familiar with the cartoon showing a person rolling on the floor, laughing out loud, and saying, “You want it when?” This cartoon is great at conveying the fact that the delivery time can be a critical piece of design requirements. If a program needs to be launched quickly, it will cost more than if availability is unimportant.  Another common saying in the training field is: “Good, Fast and Cheap… Pick two!” In other words, quality instructional programs generally cannot be built quickly with limited budgets.

In translating these guidelines to higher education campus courses, this means that if a provost, dean, or department chair wants a full masters degree program to be launched within 18 months, a serious commitment of resources will be needed. On the other hand, if there is time to move the program gradually to the Web, fewer resources will be needed.

So, important questions that need to be asked are as follows:

When is the program needed?

What human and infrastructure resources can be allocated to this project?

What financial resources can be allocated to this project?

10. Instructional Goals and Objectives Impact Design, Media and Budget

This principle of instructional design has two main corollaries. The first corollary is that complex hands-on skills programs are generally more time consuming and expensive to design, develop, and deliver than traditional seminars or lecture courses. It is more expensive, for example, to run a lab course than to run a traditional lecture course.

A second corollary is that if the skills and knowledge to be acquired can only be taught by very highly trained and compensated individuals, the cost of the resources will be higher. This is easily seen, for example, if the skills to be taught are piloting skills, surgical skills, or theoretical math. In some of these cases, the learning environments need to be very sophisticated simulations, also requiring expensive, highly skilled mentors and teachers.

Some additional questions that we need to ask for designing instruction are as follows:

What kinds of learning need to be developed?

What instructional strategies will be used to enable the learning?

What are the unique educational characteristics of each technology?

11. Summary Principle: Match the instructional goals and objectives to the best media that can be used within time, budget, and infrastructure constraints

This summary principle combines the instructional design principles of goals and objectives, media, budget, time, and infrastructure capabilities. Instructional design is not simple or straightforward. This principle reinforces the need for up-front planning and course design using a variety of media and infrastructure support structures. When a teacher is not easily accessible, the infrastructure and the media used must have backups.

These basic guidelines for designing instruction have been developed from both the training field and the field of higher education materials development. They contain a wealth of wisdom. It is good to keep them as part of any project planning handbook, and to review before submitting any proposals for doing materials development.


Revised June 4, 2006
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2010