Instructional Design vs Learning Design – New Perspectives, or Conceptual Semantics?

Merrill’s (2002) seminal paper asserted that there are profoundly similar core principles of learning shared between various instructional design theories; and cross-compared distinct models, which identified standard ideologies.  While this paper was written nearly twenty years ago, the identified fundamental principles are still widely used as an effective tool for analyzing the pedagogical quality of course design.  Several scholars have supported the effectiveness of these identified principles since publication, including Gardner’s (2011) study on the impact on student performance when these standards were put into practice.  These principles synthesized by Merrill (2002) resulted in a pragmatic framework that has provided a standard blueprint for instructional designers to use; nevertheless, what about the consideration for the modernized shift from instructional design to learning design?  Muddy is the waters surrounding the distinction of these terms.  There has been a shift in design approach over the past decade with rapid advances in educational technologies, and open pedagogies.  The focus is much more learner-centered, with significant consideration of the needs of learners, and the design of the learning activities (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013; Conole, 2014).  As I begin to carve out my designer identity, (current title ‘teaching and learning with technology strategist’), I acknowledge that my role is underpinned seemingly by both models, and I am toggling between them throughout my practice; Merrill’s (2002) principles can provide a foundation on which to build in these modernized approaches.  Are new considerations required which demand a re-thinking of pedagogical approaches? Otherwise, are we just wrapped up in job title semantics?


Beetham, H., & Sharpe, R. (2013). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed.). Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Conole, G. (2014). The 7Cs of learning design: A new approach to rethinking design practice. Paper presented at the 9th International Conference on Networked Learning 2014, University of Leicester, pp. 502-509. Paper retrieved from

Gardner, J. (2011). Testing the efficacy of Merrill’s first principles of instruction in improving student performance in introductory biology courses. (Doctoral dissertation, Utah State University, United States of America). Retrieved from

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.

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2 thoughts on “Instructional Design vs Learning Design – New Perspectives, or Conceptual Semantics?

  1. Thanks for your thoughts and shared perspective, Lisa! Your current role as ‘teaching and learning with technology strategist’ and efforts to “carve out [your] designer identity” are indeed underpinned by both instructional design and learning design! What an ideal mix for someone engaged in the MALAT program AND this course. I am most interested to see and hear how you develop different programs and supports for your post-secondary institution.

    I liked the title of your blog post… At first readings and thoughts about the Merrill (2002) and Bates (2019) articles, I initially wondered about whether it was a matter of “conceptual semantics,” but I soon came to see the important difference AND NEED for the intersection of the two elements of design. In fact, when I was thinking about ‘conceptual semantics,’ part of my thinking was, “Well, you can’t have one without the other… hence the semantics.” But upon further, deeper reading and reflection, I see that instructional design and learning design (incorporating specific learning theory models in design and approach to teaching and evaluating learning) are not necessarily intertwined, as I assumed was just Best Practice. Lots to think about… and apply!

  2. Thanks for your comments, Leigh. The landscape of our emerging field is complex, and the differentiation between these concepts is becoming increasingly important in our pedagogical approaches to the design of online learning environments.

    I am so grateful to have this opportunity in which I can put into practice the concepts being explored in the MALAT program into my support strategies!


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