A Necessary Intersection of Instructional Design and Designing Instruction

Instructional design (ID) is increasingly important and sophisticated with the prevalence of digital learning environments of the 21st century. The attention paid to understanding the needs and characteristics of the learners who engage in the instruction is critical to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The focus on problem-centred learning is a foundational component of much instructional design today. Merrill (2002) identified four distinct student phases of learning that revolve around problem-centred learning: “a) activation of prior experience, b) demonstration of skills, c) application of skills, d) integration of these skills into real-world activities” (p.44). The challenge that Merrill (2002) articulated was that such design principles often relate to creating learning environments and student-generated products rather than differentiating instruction, or promoting specific learning theories. Ertmer & Newby (2013) argued that learning theories such as behaviourism, cognitivism, or constructivism “provide instructional designers with verified instructional strategies and techniques for facilitating learning as well as a foundation for intelligent strategy selection” (p. 43). Constructivism is “considered the dominant educational theory; it has been embraced by nearly every educational reform initiative within the last two decades” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 67), and ID is no exception to this trend (Kenny, 2005). There needs to be a deliberate intersection of ID and designing instruction to meet the diverse learning needs of students in secondary and higher education settings in today’s digital age – that often seems to ignore the “participation gap” and learning needs of marginalized communities.

For all learning communities, designing instruction is more important than it has ever been, yet also more complex, with the prevalence of open educational resources (OER) and digital learning environments of the 21st century. Bates (2019) highlights that OER and open pedagogy bring new opportunities and challenges to designing instruction. Bates clarifies some of the challenges as evolving needs to provide frameworks to support open educational resources. Bates points to the work of Paul Stacey, the director of the Open Education Consortium, who has “mused that too much focus is given to licensing and content development, and not enough to collectively managing open resources so that they are sustainable and dynamic” (in Bates, 2019). David Wiley originally defined open pedagogy in 2013 and has since revised his professional stance on

“’Open’ [as] not having anything to say about the nature of learning… you can’t actually build a pedagogy foundation of open… Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order [to] get better leverage” (in Bates, 2019).

Designing instruction is more complex today due to better understandings of how learning happens, stronger advocation for learners’ needs, distance education, the ongoing need to differentiate educational strategies, a need to work with a plethora of resources (e.g., OER) and tools to find the most suitable for desired learner outcomes, and to adjust to ID that might not have done enough formative research with students and educators in the ID development process.

As a current K-12 educator looking to move into the role of a post-secondary educator, I maintain great excitement about the possibilities of online and digital learning resources. I also have many questions and concerns after engaging in this activity of delving into the differences and interconnections between instructional design and designing instruction. My most significant concerns lie in how the learning needs of students are addressed in instructional design, looking for a more productive intersection with designing instruction. I found the article by Hall, Vue, Strangman, & Meyer (2003) that articulated the implications for differentiated instruction on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to provide the most explicit intersection between instructional design and designing instruction. It was predominantly the flexibility inherent in both differentiated learning (an instructional theory) and UDL (an educational design framework) that seemed to me most suited to meet various learners’ needs, in various contexts and cultures. The answer has never been so simple: differentiating learning in ID is essential — but also incredibly complicated in this digital age of online and blended learning that embrace OER and more!



Bates, A. W. (2019). Chapter 11.4 Open Pedagogy. In Teaching in a Digital World2nd ed. BC   Campus.

Ertmer, P. A. & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance        Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71. doi:10.1002/piq.21143

Hall, T., Vue, G., Strangman, N., & Meyer, A. (2003). Differentiated instruction and implications for UDL implementation. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. (Links updated 2014). Retrieved from  http://aem.cast.org/about/publications/2003/ncac-differentiated-instruction-udl.html

Kenny, R. et al. (2005). A review of what instructional designers do: Questions answered and      questions not askedCanadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie31(1). Retrieved from https://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/26504/19686

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instructionEducational Technology Research and Development50(3), 43-59. https://doi.org.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/10.1007/BF02505024


Photo by Angel Origgi on Unsplash