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A Comprehensive History of Instructional Design

measuring gamificationInstructional design has a long and storied history, dating back to the 1940s. The course of time has given rise to a variety of systems, methodologies and frameworks that are designed to help facilitate good learning experiences.

Our growing knowledge of human psychology and technological advances have forced these models to shift and evolve at pace. We’re about to begin a detailed journey through the history of instructional design. Before we do this, however, we should start with a definition. 

What is Instructional Design?

Some instructional experiences amount to little more than an information dump. Others are carefully crafted experiences designed to meet certain learning objectives. This is the difference that instructional design brings to the world of learning and development.

Instructional designers know that successful knowledge transfer requires an informed systematic approach. 

In simple terms, instructional design is a discipline relating to the design of instructional experiences. But there’s more to it than that. According to Robert Reiser, “Instructional design is defined as a systematic process that is employed to develop education and training programs in a consistent and reliable fashion”. 

This systematic element is key. To facilitate good learning, you need good instruction. And for good instruction, you need a systematic approach that has been informed by years of research. This methodological approach focuses on accomplishing three things: 

  • Effectiveness: Instructional designers seek to achieve knowledge transfer and meet learning objectives as effectively as possible. They ensure that information is retained and not lost over time
  • Efficiency: Instructional designers seek to achieve knowledge transfer at pace. They strive to meet learning objectives as quickly as possible and with no wasted energy.
  • Engagement: Instructional designers understand that efficiency should not be achieved at the expense of engagement. After all, effective learning requires an engaged audience.

With that in mind, we’re now ready to dig into the history of instructional design.

The 1940s: Learning Takes Flight

Humanity has been designing instructional experiences for millennia. But it wasn’t until World War II that we began to adopt a more systematic approach. The war brought with it a slew of training needs that required a methodological approach.

To help meet this need, the US Air Force began setting up research centres in 1944. Their aim was to find the most efficient way of training up new pilots, navigators and other crewmen. This resulted in the development of military training content based around principles of good instruction and behavioural science

Following the success of this applied training methodology, the world started to pay attention. Indeed, by 1946, Edgar Dale had outlined his ‘Cone of Experience’. This model details a hierarchy of instructional methods, organised by how effective each approach is.

However, Dale was quick to note that it was not the result of scientific research. Learning professionals still share ‘The Cone’ to this day, despite Dale’s warning.

The 1950s: Instructional Design in Full Bloom

The field of instructional design really hit its stride a decade later thanks to the contributions of B. F. Skinner and Benjamin Bloom. In a 1954 article, Skinner codified instructional approaches that are still heralded within the modern learning and development landscape.

He suggested that instructional materials should deliver information in bite-size chunks, utilise frequent questions and provide instant feedback. Microlearning may be in vogue right now, but Skinner was a proponent of it almost 70 years ago!

Two years later, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom devised the first version of his now-famous taxonomy. ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ aimed to place learning objectives within specific categories based on complexity. This would help instructors to understand the associated level of educational achievement linked to each task.

To this day, instructional designers still regularly utilise this formative learning theory.

Later in the decade, Donald Kirkpatrick first published his renowned four-level training evaluation model. This gave instructional designers a way to objectively analyse the impact of their learning interventions. These four levels also placed new emphasis on behaviour change and achieving targeted outcomes over and above simple knowledge acquisition. 

The 1960s: Learning With Real Structure

Throughout the swinging sixties, instructional design methodology began to take a more formal shape. Robert F. Mager introduced the idea of ‘learning objectives’ in his 1962 article, ‘Preparing Objectives for Programmed Instruction’.

These objectives detail what learners will be able to do at the end of an instructional experience as a result of the learning that has taken place. As such, they inform every aspect of a learning experience and are always a key consideration for instructional designers. 

In 1965, Robert Gagne published ‘The Conditions of Learning’. This text detailed a number of foundational instructional principles. Indeed, Gagne himself was one of the educational psychologists who worked alongside the American Air Corps during World War II.

This led him to create ‘The Nine Levels of Learning’. This model shows us that there are numerous different steps within the learning process. It also suggests that higher-order learning often requires acquiring requisite skills. 

The 1970s: The Rise of ADDIE

The 70s were notable for a proliferation of new instructional design models. First and foremost among this bumper crop, was ADDIE. The Centre for Educational Technology at Florida State University developed this instructional design framework for the US Army.

Since then, however, many people have adopted ADDIE in a wide variety of different instructional contexts. To this day, it remains popular within the corporate learning space.

The ADDIE framework describes the five different phases of the learning design process. It’s also an acronym. ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. This structured approach gives instructional designers a clear process for managing the production of effective learning experiences. 

The ADDIE framework would eventually be adapted into a practice known as ‘rapid prototyping’. This is an iterative process that combines design, development and implementation to create a working model early on in the production process. This allows instructors to take feedback onboard as early as possible, so they can use it to inform their final learning solution. 

The 1980s: The Slow Down

Whilst the preceding decades saw rapid changes within the instructional design space, things slowed down significantly during the 1980s. Indeed, a Wikipedia article on the topic even notes that there was ‘little evolution of instructional design’ throughout this decade. But that’s not to say that the decade was a complete washout. 

Rapid developments in computer technology led to the birth of computer-based instruction. For the first time ever, personal computers began to play a role within the classroom. ‘Edutainment’ computer games like Gertrude’s Secrets, Math Rabbit and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing began to rise in popularity. The seeds for what would eventually become eLearning had been sown. 

The 1990s: Constructing New Experiences

Throughout the 1990s, the constructivist theory began to exert its influence over instructional design methodology. This theory recognises that our previous experiences help to inform our world view. In fact, we use these experiences to ‘construct’ our own knowledge. This means that we play an active role in the knowledge acquisition process. 

This understanding represented a shift away from traditional cognitive theories that suggested learning was a logical process free from emotion and other psychological factors. As a result, instructional design methodology became more learner-centric.

Instead of focusing on the inputs, instructors began to focus on the learners themselves. This meant arming their students with the tools and strategies they needed to become expert learners. 

This would eventually lead to the popularisation of experience as a learning tool. This was achieved through scenario-based learning and both virtual and real-world learning environments. As Peter Senge noted in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline: “Learning only has good effects when learners have the desire to absorb the knowledge. Therefore, experiential learning requires the showing of directions for learners”.

The 2000s: Online Learning Powers Up!

Online learning first emerged in 1982. This is when the Western Behavioural Sciences Institute in California delivered their first ‘distance education’ programme. Business executives progressed through the course via computer conferencing.

From there, online learning saw steady growth in the education space. Eventually, in November 1999, educational technology expert Elliott Masie coined the term ‘E-Learning’. 

From then on in, there was no looking back. Throughout the early 2000s, the corporate world joined educational institutions in embracing online learning as a means to remove geographical barriers to training and reduce costs

At around the same time, in 2002, a game designer called Nick Pelling first coined the term ‘gamification’. This term describes the application of game mechanics to non-gaming scenarios. It soon became apparent that gamifying online learning environments led to an increase in user engagement and improved learning outcomes.

Instructional designers now had two major new strings to their bow. Online learning made their learning experiences more widely accessible whilst gamification kept users coming back for more. 

The 2010s: The Mobile Movement

By the 2010s, online learning was everywhere. This ubiquity bred a mixed reputation. The online learning of ten years ago was known for being simple, bland and boring. It was considered by many to be a ‘tick-box exercise’. eLearning units often resembled clicking through a PowerPoint slide deck. Organisations often rushed content into production without following instructional design best practice.

This led to a rise in demand for instructional designers who could bring a systematic approach to online learning production. Over the years, the quality of online learning has improved dramatically, both from a visual and an instructional design perspective.

At the same time, the size of the courses has started to shrink. This is because the rise of mobile learning and social media helped to re-popularise microlearning approaches.

Final Word

Instructional design methodology has changed a lot over the last 70 years. Technology has become more sophisticated and our understanding of human behaviour has advanced.

Instructional designers have reshaped and modernised their approaches. What’s perhaps more remarkable, however, is how durable many instructional design approaches have proven to be.

Bloom’s Taxonomy was first postulated in 1956. Kirkpatrick created his four-level training evaluation model in 1959. Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning were first set down in 1965. Instructors still adopt these three theories to this very day. The US Army popularised ADDIE in the 1970s and it’s still the most popular instructional design framework.

As such, the time definitely seems right for an instructional design shake-up. Just as World War II provided a spark for instructional designers to spring into being, perhaps the global crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic will facilitate a similar shift.

One thing’s for sure. Instructional designers are in a great place to respond to our learning needs in whatever ‘new normal’ we arrive in. The history of instructional design has already been written, but the future is up for grabs. 

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