Designing e-learning

Instructional Design for e-learning

Instructional design is the process of designing learning experiences so as to maximize learning effectiveness. This document describes some of the major issues involved in designing beneficial instruction. It is primarily aimed at those creating online/distance learning experiences for mature learners, however the principles described may be applied to all kinds of learning. It also serves as a portal to the best Web and print resources available for those seeking further information.

What is Learning?

Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge/skills so as to bring about some increased capability of the learner. Effective learning empowers the learner. Teaching is the creation of conditions under which learning can take place. Effective teaching/instruction inspires the learner, but teaching alone cannot induce learning. For learning to take place there must be effort on the part of the learner.

The true test of the efficacy of learning is its transferability. Learning is transferable if it can be generalized, or applied in novel situations.

Though the vast majority of the world’s knowledge is publicly available either in print, or ever-increasingly in digital form, eg the World Wide Web, learners still seek formal courses of instruction. Their reasons for doing so include the need/desire for the following:

  • A complete learning experience, rather than the passive reception of knowledge.
  • Guidance through the mass of available knowledge.
  • Certification, eg to prove competency or fulfill licensing requirements for a particular profession.
  • Interaction with teachers and/or fellow students.
  • Feedback on performance.
  • Clarification on problem issues.

In each of these the teacher’s role is that of designer / creator / manager of the learning experience, not merely to parrot what may be found in textbooks.

The Changing Face of Learning

As we enter the 21st century it is said we are moving from the industrial to the information age. The information age is characterized by rapid progress fueled by exponential improvements in information technology. The associated complexity and pace of change creates a demand for more and better learning than ever before. As well as creating a greater demand for learning, information technology also provides a means of meeting this demand, eg through online / distance learning.

Both traditional classroom based (ie face to face) and online / distance learning experiences require careful design and construction based on sound educational principles if learners are to obtain maximum benefit, there are important differences, however. The entire instructional design, creation, support process for traditional education may be carried out by a single individual, often on an ad hoc basis.

Creating online / distance learning requires far more initial planning and a team approach with contributions coming from subject experts, instructional designers, educational technologists and various technical specialists. The functions of course creation and tutorial support may also be separated.

Young Learners, Adult Learners

There are some important differences in designing instruction for adult and young learners.

Adults are generally self-motivated. They have chosen to study, and have further chosen the subject and study method to be employed. Adult education should, as far as possible, be learner centered with the learner driving the process and the teacher acting more as facilitator or guide.

Adults may bring relevant prior experience and participants in a group environment may often learn much from one another. Paradoxically greater peer learning may take place in an online rather than a face-to-face environment as discussions are less likely to be dominated by the few most extrovert individuals.

Adults generally need a reason to learn. Their reasons may include the desire for a new job, to satisfy new requirements of an existing job (eg computerization), to gain access to a higher level of education or purely for interest or satisfaction.

Note that on occasion adult learners may also need to be motivated. For example engineering students may be reluctant to study mathematics until the purpose for doing so is made clear to them.

Young learners (eg school students) may not be motivated and often need to be encouraged to learn. The motivation for their study is likely to come from societal, parental or peer pressure.
Thus learning experiences should be made as engaging and enjoyable as possible. Young people are less likely to carry prior experience and juvenile education is likely to be more teacher-centered than its adult counterpart.

Horror stories abound of schoolteachers of yesteryear forcing their charges to learn through threat of violence / humiliation. Whilst such an approach may lead to short-term rote learning it is highly unlikely to promote real understanding, and worse breeds a deep detestation of learning. Furthermore, any gained knowledge is quickly lost as the learner expunges the experience from his/her memory.

For more information on the particular characteristics of adult learners see andragogy. The notion of andragogy has been around for nearly two centuries. It became particularly popular in North America and Britain as a way of describing adult learning through the work of Malcolm Knowles. This article from infed addresses what it actually means, and assesses how useful a term it is when thinking about adult learning.

Designing Learning

Learning must be designed at different levels of granularity, ie:

  • Program, degree
  • Course, module
  • Unit, block
  • Lesson, session
  • Individual activity

In each case the design process is similar.

Initially, a need for a learning component is identified. At program or degree level it might be to satisfy learner demand, or a skill shortage. At lower levels the need is to satisfy a particular part of an existing syllabus, or to create a reusable learning “object” that can serve multiple higher level components.

The target audience and mode of delivery are defined, eg age range, gender, profession, geographical region, face to face, distance, blended, online etc. Note that in online/distance learning the target audience may be a very diverse group. The level of learning must be determined, as well as any required prior knowledge.

Next, the learning objectives / learning outcomes are specified.

Finally, the actual instruction is designed to satisfy the learning objectives / outcomes.

Goals of Instruction


The aim is to move information from the learner’s short-term to long-term memory. This is most likely to occur where the information is of high interest or relevance (learners may need to be shown why it’s relevant). Periodic practice also serves to reinforce long-term retention and understanding – Tell me and I’ll forget; Show me and I may remember; Involve me and I’ll understand. Practice is all the more effective if it uses different contexts and combines material in different ways.

G A Miller (The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, The Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, pp. 81-97; available online at found that short term memory can only hold between five and nine chunks of information at a time. Therefore if there is a need to present numerous items they should be split into groups of between five and nine with “processing time” allowed between each.


Transfer of learning occurs when the learner is able to apply learning in novel situations. Transfer is the result of genuine understanding, not mere rote learning. Transfer is more likely to occur when new material can be associated with, or follows a similar pattern to, existing knowledge, and where it is of high importance to the learner.

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