Using Instructional Design to Inform Your Online Instruction

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
‘Instructional Design’ spelled out on a blue background surrounded by gears.

What is Instructional Design?

Instructional design is the process of planning the approaches and methods through which standards-aligned curriculum content is delivered to students. The process of instructional design should be focused around the goal of developing learning activities and assessments that lead students to mastery of the identified concepts and skills.

Key components of instructional design include establishing desired outcomes first, often referred to as backward planning; identifying the overarching concepts of the unit or lesson (the big ideas); determining the transferrable skills or concepts that students should be able to master (enduring understandings); and finally, using formative and summative assessments to monitor students’ levels of understanding (assessment evidence) (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Given the greater necessity for online learning options – especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – intentional planning on the part of teachers is all the more critical as both educators and students must transition to learning formats and platforms that may be unfamiliar.

Online learning naturally has certain limitations that are not inherent in traditional, face-to-face instruction, including but not limited to: regular access to the instructor, home environment that may be distracting for students, and technology accessibility concerns. Therefore, clear, concise, and effective instruction is necessary to ensure that all students have equal access to a high-quality educational experience.

What are the Benefits of Using Instructional Design?

One of the benefits of using instructional design within an online learning environment is the process provides a clear “road map” for the content to be taught within a unit or lesson. By beginning with the desired outcomes in mind, educators are able to identify what they need to be able to do and understand by the conclusion of each learning experience. These desired outcomes are determined by state and local academic standards and should serve as the foundation of the instructional design process.

Another benefit that results from identifying the big ideas within a particular unit is that it gives both the teacher and students overarching concepts that serve as landmarks or themes throughout the unit. This allows the teacher to easily explain the ways in which new concepts relate to the overall goals of the unit in a recurring manner that continuously draws students to the relationship between lesson content and the big ideas.

Another benefit of instructional design is that it eliminates any “guesswork” for both students and instructors. By overtly expressing the enduring understandings of the unit, the students are able to know what they will be expected to know and explain from day one. Again, this feature provides a frame of reference for students as they progress through their learning journeys by continuously tying new concepts to the overall understandings that will then be transferred to new material in the future.

A final benefit of using instructional design within an online setting is using assessment to drive the instructional process and better individualize the learning experience for each student. For example, the use of planned formative assessments throughout a unit provides the instructor with a snapshot of each student’s progress toward mastery. With this information, the teacher then has the ability to identify which concepts should be re-taught as well as those that have been mastered. Summative assessments should then be incorporated at the conclusion of the unit in order to determine whether all students have developed mastery or additional instruction is necessary with regard to specific concepts.

Critically, instructional design allows teachers to maintain a “pulse” on all aspects of their students’ progress, which is important within the traditional classroom setting but is significantly more critical within online formats in which students naturally are more isolated from their teachers and peers.

Ways to Use Instructional Design to Inform Online Instruction

Instructional design can be used to inform online instruction in a variety of ways. One aspect in which instructional design is extremely beneficial relates to the aspect of reduced time to deliver instruction and provide remediation as necessary. By following a backward planning model (identifying desired outcomes before developing anything further), teachers are able to pare down the scope of the topics covered within a unit to only those concepts that are critical in building mastery of their identified big ideas and enduring understandings.

This improves the efficiency of online instruction by eliminating unnecessary information and reducing the volume of consecutive screen time hours for students. In this manner, teachers can deliver instruction using a video conferencing platform in a more concise manner and then direct the students to other resources or learning activities as opposed to simply delivering online lectures day after day.

Another way in which instructional design proves beneficial in informing online instruction is through the ongoing use of assessment evidence. Nearly every online learning platform features an application that can be used to design survey-style questionnaires. By utilizing this tool frequently throughout the unit, teachers can develop a series of brief and basic quizzes that allow them to monitor students’ progress. This is especially valuable within an online setting because teachers can then create video conference breakout sessions while the class is working on other activities in order to provide remedial instruction to students who may be struggling with specific concepts.

Instructional design also provides a sense of cohesiveness to the learning process within an online setting by providing both teacher and students with a clear sense of direction. Essentially, they are able to identify their starting point and ending point and understand the steps required for a successful learning experience.

Ultimately, incorporating instructional design is considered best practice regardless of the instructional setting; however, online instruction without intentional planning and design is a formula for student and teacher frustration and inefficiency. As a result, teachers should invest the time necessary to complete the instructional design process before instruction begins in order to save time while online learning is in session so it can be utilized to provide students with meaningful, personalized instruction.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Pearson.
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