Instructional Designers’ Roles

Click here to enlarge | Source: e-Learning Infographics

The Instructional Designers’ Roles Infographic shows that the instructional designer is part engineer, part architect, part artist, and part craftsman. It definitely entails a lot of flexibility or the ability to balance roles. What other roles would you suggest be added to this diagram? Feel free to leave a comment with your ideas!

Here are a few other resources related to instructional design that you might find helpful.

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

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

Ip, A. (2006, April 10). Instruction design verse learning design [Msg 6]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at

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

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

Spector, J. M. (2006b, April 20). You’re an instructional tech, yes [Msg 15]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at

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

Wissing, G. (2006, April 20). You’re an instructional tech, yes [Msg 11]. Message posted to ITFORUM, archived at