Hierarchy of Instructional Design

I drafted the following comparison of instructional design theory versus instructional design models and developed the accompanying hierarchy of instructional design back in 2006 as part of one of my comprehensive examination responses for my Ph.D. I’m sharing here it on my blog at this time for my students and others who may find the commentary and diagram comparing ID theory versus ID models helpful.

Brief Overview of Instructional Design Theory

Analysis of a complex concept such as instructional design theory begins with defining key terms used. Instruction can refer to “any activity that is intended to foster learning” (Goodyear, 1997, p. 86), whereas design focuses on improving the quality of subsequent creations (Smith & Ragan, 2005) while considering the many factors that may affect or be affected by the implementation.

A theory is simply “an organized set of statements that allow us to explain, predict, or control events” (Smith & Ragan, 2005, p. 23). Another, more expansive definition of a theory is “an organized set of propositions that are syntactically and semantically integrated” (Snelbecker, 1999, p. 33). Instructional design theory is drawn from an assortment of abstract communication, systems, and learning theories (Richey, 1986) which form a basis for practical models for instructional design and development.

Many scholars have attempted at providing succinct definitions of instructional design theory (Merrill, Drake, Lacy, & Pratt, 1996; Reigeluth, 1999; Richey, 1986). Reigeluth (1999) defines instructional design theory broadly as, “A theory that offers explicit guidance on how to better help people learn and develop” (p. 5). In its most basic form, ID theory is simply a collection of assumptions that specific approaches to ID are built upon. ID theories describe instructional methods and situations for proper use and define how complex methods can be broken into component methods (Reigeluth, 1999).

Hierarchy of Instructional Design
Hierarchy of Instructional Design

ID theory is build upon the adoption of one or more procedural and conceptual models (Richey, 1986). The resulting theory enfolds the beliefs concerning general systems theory, communication theory, and learning theory. Conceptual models of instruction are built upon such theoretical foundations, upon which specific ID models are applied to real-life educational challenges. The figure above depicts this hierarchy of ID formation as described by Richey (1986) and Smith and Ragan (2005).

As Reigeluth (1999) notes, ID theory is not synonymous with learning theory, ID process, or curriculum theory. However, ID theory is inextricably connected to each. Learning theory is predominantly descriptive, serving to describe how learning takes place. ID process details the procedures that the instructional designer or educator ought to use when planning and preparing the instruction. Curriculum theory is based on a set of values and offers suggestions for methods of instruction. ID theory surpasses all of these individual viewpoints and aims to answer the questions of both “what” and “how” in a proposed educational experience.

Numerous working definitions of ID exist, many of which exude similar connotations. ID is defined as, “The development of learning experiences and environments which promote the acquisition of specific knowledge and skill by students” (Merrill et al., 1996). In a similar vein, Smith and Ragan (2005) define ID as, “The systematic and reflective process of translating principles of learning and instruction into plans for instructional materials, activities, information resources, and evaluation” (p. 4). Richey’s definition (1986) is quite detailed, referring to ID as “The science of creating detailed specifications for the development, evaluation, and maintenance of situations which facilitate the learning of both large and small units of subject matter” (p. 9).

Recently, even the term “instructional design” is being examined and compared to an alternative of “learning design” (Gibson, 2006; Ip, 2006; Taylor, 2006). While some consider the terms to be synonymous, the latter more closely aligns with contemporary constructivist views of the roles of the instructor and learners. Throughout this paper the term “instructional design” (ID) will be used inclusively to refer to the processes of creating a blueprint for successful learning experiences, whether they be more self-paced and instructivist or student-centered and constructivist.

When considering ID theory, one must acknowledge the personnel who take theory and apply it to the design of learning: the instructional designers. The role of the instructional designer is crucial to student success (Liu et al., 2005). Yet, what is the role of the instructional designer? This is a question that has been raised in many professional and collegial venues, with the debate as divided today as ever before (Klein, 2006; Spector, 2006a, 2006b; Wissing, 2006). The International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (IBSTPI) has taken on the monumental task of identifying and compiling the competencies for someone involved in the many diverse tasks of ID (“Instructional design competencies”, n.d.).

In reality, the role of instructional designer is multifaceted, requiring a unique and varied skill set. The instructional designer has been referred to as an engineer (Smith & Ragan, 2005), creative scientist (Richey, 1986), and project manager (Mager, 1997), making every effort to create a blueprint for the further development and implementation of the learning initiative. The instructional designer recognizes the difference between the design processes and products (Glaser, 1971), forming a structure that future development and implementation to be built upon.

Yet, even with the tasks of an instructional designer defined, because ID is such a complex practice, there are countless ways whereby a learning program can come to fruition. Hence the need for ID models!

Instructional Design Models versus Theory

Instructional design (ID), also referred to in the literature as “systematic instructional planning” (Kemp, 1985) is an umbrella phrase used to refer to many differing aspects of the design of educational experiences. ID is often used to refer in general terms instructional systems development (ISD). Numerous ISD models exist, all of which typically refer to the phases of analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation of instruction. Today much indeterminism and ambiguity exists with regards to the use of the terms ID and ISD. Yet, a clear distinction does exist between ID and ISD. Whereas ISD models include a “major emphasis on front-end analysis, implementation strategies including train-the-trainer, maintenance of the instruction, and external or summative evaluation” (Dick, 1997, p. 364), ID models generally focus upon the steps necessary to transform a goal statement to instruction that is ready for development and implementation. Models are valuable because they serve as a visual representation of the relationships among various components of the ISD process.

Instructional design endeavors to guarantee that a learning activity is developed according to specifications. It culminates in a framework outlining how instruction should be developed given the outputs of various design tasks (K. A. Conrad & TrainingLinks, 2000). A number of principles underlie this framework (Spector, 2001), which accounts for the varied and increasing approaches being used to design instruction today.

A host of ID models exist that aid in depicting the complex and interwoven tasks necessary in order to design quality learning experiences. The true value of an ID model is not in providing a concrete order whereby effective instructional development takes place, but rather in providing a “meaningful organizing framework within which development activities can be described, discussed, actualized, and assessed” (Spector & Muraida, 1997, p. 61). ID models generally tend to simply modify and elaborate upon a basic problem-solving model tailored to meet the needs of the educational endeavor (Smith & Ragan, 2005).


Conrad, K. A., & TrainingLinks. (2000). Instructional design for web-based training. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

Dick, W. (1997). A model for the systematic design of instruction. In R. D. Tennyson, F. Schott, N. Steel & S. Dykstra (Eds.), Instructional design: International perspectives. Volume 1: Theory, research, and models. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dick, W., & Carey, L. (1996). The systematic design of instruction (4th ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

Gibson, D. (2006, April 10). Instruction design verse learning design [Msg 11]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at http://listserv.uga.edu/archives/itforum.html

Glaser, R. (1971). The design of instruction. In M. D. Merrill (Ed.), Instructional design: Readings (pp. 18-37). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Goodyear, P. (1997). Instructional design environments: Methods and tools for the design of complex instructional systems. In S. Dijkstra, N. Seel, F. Schott & R. D. Tennyson (Eds.), Instructional design: International perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 83-111). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Instructional design competencies. International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction. (n.d.). Retrieved February 3, 2006, from http://www.ibstpi.org/instructional-designer-competencies/

Ip, A. (2006, April 10). Instruction design verse learning design [Msg 6]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at http://listserv.uga.edu/archives/itforum.html

Kemp, J. E. (1985). The instructional design process. New York: Harper & Row.

Klein, J. D. (2006, April 20). You’re an instructional tech, yes [Msg 12]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at http://listserv.uga.edu/archives/itforum.html

Liu, X., Bonk, C. J., Magjuka, R. J., Lee, S.-h., & Su, B. (2005). Exploring four dimensions of online instructor roles: A program level case study. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(4), 29-48.

Mager, R. F. (1997). Making instruction work (2nd ed.). Atlanta, GA: CEP Press.

Merrill, M. D., Drake, L., Lacy, M. J., & Pratt, J. (1996). Reclaiming instructional design. Educational Technology & Society, 36(5), 5-7.

Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Vol. 2). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Richey, R. C. (1986). The theoretical and conceptual bases of instructional design. New York: Nichols.

Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional design (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Snelbecker, G. E. (1999). Some thoughts about theories, perfection, and instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Vol. 2, pp. 31-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spector, J. M. (2006a, April 20). You’re an instructional tech, yes [Msg 3]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at http://listserv.uga.edu/archives/itforum.html

Spector, J. M. (2006b, April 20). You’re an instructional tech, yes [Msg 15]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at http://listserv.uga.edu/archives/itforum.html

Spector, J. M., & Muraida, D. J. (1997). Automating instructional design. In S. Dijkstra, N. Seel, F. Schott & R. D. Tennyson (Eds.), Instructional design: International perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 59-81). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Taylor, M. (2006, April 11). Instruction design verse learning design [Msg 16]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at http://listserv.uga.edu/archives/itforum.html

Wissing, G. (2006, April 20). You’re an instructional tech, yes [Msg 11]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at http://listserv.uga.edu/archives/itforum.html

Online instructional design “toolbox”

My “toolbox” of important concepts, processes, and tools for the design of instruction within a distance education program is by no means complete nor is it neatly organized. As my practical understanding of online instruction continues to grow with my theoretical basis of knowledge, I become evermore cognizant of the complexities of the design process. While this list of important considerations is by no means complete, it serves as a preliminary basis for further research and discussion.

**Online training must be convenient, compatible, and revisable (Welsh & Anderson, 2001). This includes a variety of important technical elements that must be considered by designers. “Chunking” of training content into small manageable chunks for delivery is an important means to this end.

**Articulation of online pedagogy for the given online learning system is critical. In fact, the unique attributes of the online pedagogy need to be capitalized upon during development (Dabbagh, Bannan-Ritland, & Flannery Silc, 2001). Dabbagh et al. note, “In order for WBI to be effective, it must be pedagogically driven, dynamically designed, interaction oriented, and content specific. Focus should be placed on designing a pedagogical approach appropriate for the content, inclusion of organization and interaction strategies that enhance the student’s processing of the information, and integration of the medium’s attributes to support the designated goals and objectives of the course” (p. 352-353).

**All members of the learning community need to have equal access to the necessary technology (Hedberg, Brown, Larkin, & Agostinho, 2001). This goes beyond simply making sure people have Internet access, but to ensure that they have the necessary software and computing skills to successfully navigate the online learning environment. The idea of accessibility for all is an increasingly important consideration for both web designers and online instructional designers alike (Nielsen, 2000). Online content should be designed for the “lowest common user” – in which I am referring to those users with the least level of accessibility or computing skill.

**The open, flexible, and distributed learning environment of the Web should be maximized in the development of training that is accessible for all. The elements of Khan’s Web-Based Learning Framework (Khan, 2001) should be addressed in the development process, which includes the following dimensions: pedagogical, technological, interface design, evaluation, management, resource support, ethical, and institutional.

**Bandwidth is also an important limiting factor to consider, which refers to the volume measure of information flow (Moore & Lockee, 2001). Bandwidth places formidable limits upon what can occur at any given time during the instructional event. Moore & Locke (2001) state, “In web-training environments, the delivery network infrastructure must be considered so that training developers can avoid creating instruction that diverts a learner’s attention due to unnecessary delays” (p. 274). This coincides with the concept of keeping training accessible and for all learners.

**An element of self-assessment should be included in the design (Hedberg et al., 2001). Learners should be encourage to reflect upon their learning experience and share those reflections with others in the learning experience.

**A sense of community among learners should be developed (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Online learning provides the opportunity for engaging collaborative learning experiences based on a constructivist approach to education. The development of community is among one of the key processes in the development of a collaborative learning environment. As learners feel connected with the instructor and fellow students, they will not only feel much more engaged but they will be more apt to contribute to the discussion that takes place.

I could continue to list important attributes to the design of an online learning program, but I am quickly realizing that this assignment could turn into a term paper or a thesis if I’m not careful! I will stop typing for now, and I look forward to adding additional “tools” to my “toolbox”.

– Jason


Dabbagh, N. H., Bannan-Ritland, B., & Flannery Silc, K. (2001). Pedagogy and web-based course authoring tools: Issues and implications. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Hedberg, J. G., Brown, C., Larkin, J. L., & Agostinho, S. (2001). Designing practical websites for interactive training. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Khan, B. H. (2001). A framework for web-based training. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Moore, D. R., & Lockee, B. B. (2001). Design strategies for web-based training: Using bandwidth effectively. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Training Publications.

Nielsen, J. (2000). Designing web usability. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Welsh, T. M., & Anderson, B. L. (2001). Managing the development and evolution of web-based training: A service bureau concept. In B. H. Khan (Ed.), Web-based training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Critical factors to instructional design

The World Wide Web provides unprecedented access to learning institutions, as learners are no longer inhibited by geographic boundaries (“Culture, cognition and instructional design for the world wide web: An Australian inquiry,” 1998). Technological advancements present political, social, economic, and instructional challenges (Potter, 1990) that designers must address.

“A variety of social factors affect the development, implementation, and spread of technology” (Surry & Farquhar, 1996). Common categories of social factors impacting the adoption of new instructional strategies include: 1) educational need, 2) user characteristics, 3) content characteristics, 4) technology considerations, and 5) organizational capacity (Surry & Farquhar, 1996). These social factors which affect adoption and utilization of instructional strategies should be considered as strongly as the effectiveness of the strategy (Surry & Farquhar, 1996). The time and resources expended toward developmental efforts may be in vain if the social conditions prevent the adoption of a given instructional innovation.

“Instructional design for Web-based learning systems cannot, and does not, exist outside of a consideration of cultural influences” (“Culture, cognition and instructional design for the world wide web: An Australian inquiry,” 1998). These cultural affects parallel the social considerations previously mentioned but can be more specific in nature. A society can contain a multitude of varying cultural norms and mores which undoubtedly influence perceptions and should be considered within the scope of the instructional design.

I agree that cultural, economic, social, and political factors do undoubtedly affect the design and implementation of instructional strategies. The challenge for designers is to identify the factors specific to their application context and to determine what accommodations can be made to ensure accessible instruction.


Culture, cognition and instructional design for the world wide web: An Australian inquiry. (1998) Retrieved April 2, 2004 from, http://node.on.ca/networking/july1998/feature2.html

Potter, G. (1990). Computer-related media portability in international distance education: Making informed decisions. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 23(2), 284-298.

Surry, D. W., & Farquhar, J. D. (1996). Incorporating social factors into instructional design theory. In M. Bailey & M. Jones (Eds.), Work, Education, and Technology. DeKalb, IL: LEPS Press.

A revised methodology of instructional design for online learning

While not an entirely new educational concept, online learning is one which has received much attention recently. Early instructional design models were based on an interactive design model (Sims & Jones, 2003) which at times could prove to be very inefficient. As the field has continued to progress, many additional models and methodologies have been utilized as foundations for instructional design for online learning. While I recognize that many existing techniques and processes have proven successful, I contend that current methodology can be revised to ensure that primary emphasis is placed on learners and the learning process rather than focusing on the technology used. Modification of current methodology will require active leadership at the highest possible level (Rogers, 2000).

A myriad of crucial elements must be considered when designing online instruction, including: learning design, interface design, interactivity, accessibility, assessment, student support, and utility of content (Sims, Dobbs, & Hand, 2002). While the combination of these issues creates a seemingly daunting task for any instructional designer, effective and successful online instruction, “facilitates collaborative learning, active learning, and independent learning and exceeds the traditional classroom in its ability to connect students and course materials on a round-the-clock basis” (Riedling, 1999).

Relationships between teacher, learner, content, and fellow learners should be among the first elements to be considered (Sims & Jones, 2003) as learning processes are established to facilitate these desired interactive learning experiences. Effective implementation of online learning environments requires a paradigm shift from “teaching” to “learning” (Rogers, 2000) in which the instructor doesn’t view himself as a dispenser of knowledge but rather a facilitator and guide in addition to providing learners with introductory information necessary to begin the learning process. I agree that online learning, “be conceptualized as an environment that integrates collaboration, communication, and engaging content with specific group and independent learning activities and tasks” (Sims et al., 2002).

Another key to any instructional design effort is to have a clear process and team approach linking members of the development team with educators (Sims & Jones, 2003). The focus of these efforts should always be on the students, providing them with both support and critical thinking strategies which will foster success in any context (Sims & Jones, 2003). The participants of the instructional design process such as the educational designer, faculty, and the development team (Sims & Jones, 2003) have an important role in ensuring that the learners remain the focus of the development. While the level of influence for the various team members in this process changes at various phases (Sims & Jones, 2003) their commitment to the success of the learners should remain constant.

Proactive evaluation, described by Sims, Dobbs, Hand (2002) should be another design attribute as participants in the design process develop an understanding of essential elements of the successful learning environment. Strategic intent is a key element of any online pedagogy, as the purposes for online instruction are clarified.
I believe we must be mindful of both methods and media as both influence the way individuals learn today (Kozma, 1994). While a variety of media and methods can be utilized in delivering instruction (Clark, 1994), these learning tools must never usurp the instructional objectives or learner needs. The learners needs, context requirements, and teacher constraints should be focused on before selecting a delivery strategy (Riedling, 1999).

Much is yet to be learned about online learning environments both in terms of effectiveness and achievement outcomes (Sims et al., 2002). The undeniable fact exists that a student body requires diverse learning experiences to target a variety of learning styles (Franklin, Peat, Lewis, & Sims, 2001). As the needs of the learners are kept in proper perspective as a high priority for instructional designers, online learning solutions can be utilized to provide these varied learning experiences.


Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Franklin, S., Peat, M., Lewis, A., & Sims, R. (2001). Technology at the cutting edge: A large scale evaluation of the effectiveness of educational resources. Paper presented at the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications.

Kozma, R. B. (1994). A reply: Media and methods. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(3), 11-14.

Riedling, A. M. (1999). Distance education: The technology – what you need to know to succeed, an overview. Educational Technology Review, 1(11), 8-13.

Rogers, D. L. (2000). A paradigm shift: Technology integration for higher education in the new millennium. Educational Technology Review, 1(13), 19-33.

Sims, R., Dobbs, G., & Hand, T. (2002). Enhancing quality in online learning: Scaffolding planning and design through proactive evaluation. Distance Education, 23(2), 135-147.

Sims, R., & Jones, D. (2003). Where practice informs theory: Reshaping instructional design for academic communities of practice in online teaching and learning. Information Technology, Education and Society, 4(1), 3-20.

Instructional design models that relate to specific learning or training environments

As a novice of instructional design, I’m experience the “growing pains” of trying to get up to speed on the terminology and theoretical premises for the various models. Nonetheless, I keep reassuring myself that eventually I’ll make it over this learning ID learning curve.

Prestera (Prestera, n.d.) presents a succinct and tangible overview of ISD models. He referred to Gustafson’s classifications of ISD models into three categories, include: classroom models, product development models, and systems development models. It is easy to identify the instructional context will help the instructional designer to determine which model, or combination of models, will prove most effective. I wholeheartedly concur with Tennyson’s claim that, “for each learning problem there may be more than one solution and approach to instructional design” (Tennyson, 1997).

Each model reviewed employed a specialized framework in order to develop learning strategies within a specific context. The Dick and Carey model, while presenting a foundational approach for converting a goal statement instruction ready for implementation (Dick, 1997), has been accused of only being feasible in unrealistic circumstances. Tennyson (Tennyson, 1997) presents an accommodating system dynamics approach to instructional system design which, “dynamically adjusts the authoring activities by direct reference to the given problem situation” (Tennyson, 1997). His model stems from the understanding that the actively engaged learner who is solving problems while learning will best be able learn complex systems (Tennyson, 1997). Gerlach and Ely present a classroom model which examines content first prior to objectives and describes key interactive procedures while refraining from articulating any concrete practices (Prestera, n.d.). Sims, Dobbs, and Hand (Sims, Dobbs, & Hand, 2002) stress the importance of proactive evaluation and strategic intent in any ISD model selected. Kemp presents a model similar to Gerlach and Ely’s, in which he expands upon the concept of flexibility within the ISD process while keeping content at the core of the development (Prestera, n.d.).

Ultimately, I’ve learned from the ISD models presented in this unit that elements of flexibility and customization should be paramount in any model chosen. The characteristics of the learners, the learning context, and instructor are among the many elements which need to be considered when choosing a model to utilize.


Dick, W. (1997). A model for the systematic design of instruction. In R. D. Tennyson, F. Schott, N. Steel & S. Dykstra (Eds.), Instructional design: International perspectives. Volume 1: Theory, research, and models. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Flechsig, K.-H. (1997). Cultural transmission, teaching, and organized learning as cultureembedded activities. In R. D. Tennyson, F. Schott, N. Seel & S. Dijkstra (Eds.), Instructional design: International perspectives. Volume 1: Theory, research, and models. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Prestera, G. (n.d.) Instructional design models. Retrieved April 2, 2004 from, http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/g/e/gep111/html/m4/l1%20-%20isd/m4l1p1.htm

Sims, R., Dobbs, G., & Hand, T. (2002). Enhancing quality in online learning: Scaffolding planning and design through proactive evaluation. Distance Education, 23(2), 135-147.

Tennyson, R. D. (1997). A system dynamics approach to instructional systems development. In R. D. Tennyson, F. Schott, N. Seel & S. Dijkstra (Eds.), Instructional design: International perspectives. Volume 1: Theory, research, and models. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.