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Instructional Design and Distance Education

Instructional Design or instructional project is the term commonly used to refer to pedagogical engineering, a set of methods, techniques and resources used in teaching-learning processes.

In distance learning, its role is to facilitate learning through the construction of didactic material. 

Instructional Design and E-learning

Instructional design: basic principles

In the book, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Supporting Learning and Motivation (2012), the National Research Council of National Academies states that Instructional Design must be such that students develop ‘conceptually rich and organized representations of knowledge that resist forgetting, can be retrieved automatically and can be applied flexibly across tasks and situations’.

In practical terms, instructional design is linked to the development of classes, courses and the construction of teaching materials such as video, printed materials, virtual learning environments or any other element that can be used to improve the learning experience of students.

To better understand how this is done, let’s explore some basic principles of an Instructional Systems Design (ISD).

1. Maintain an efficient pace

Taking students quickly to a point where they can begin to put their knowledge into practice is essential for effective Instructional Design. 

To do this, consider the history of people enrolled in your course when designing your classes. Focus on developing content that challenges them without overloading them. 

Offer supplementary material for students whose experiences or skills allow them to learn more quickly than the rest of the class.

Likewise, include some extra material that can help students with difficulties. Tutorial videos are a good solution. 

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Organize your online course in a logical sequence. For example, in a history course, the sequence can be chronological, while for a literature course, dividing classes by themes may make more sense. 

Divide the content into modules to facilitate learning. People learn better in  small chunks, than if you ask them to digest a lot of material at once. 

2. Contextualise information

When students can relate new information and theories to what they already know, they tend to learn faster. 

Since not all of your students will have the same knowledge and experience, using a wide variety of examples helps to convey information. If you know the background of your students, you can get examples of situations that are familiar to them. 

It is also necessary to consider how each individual learns. Some find it easier to assimilate information through written material; others with the help of graphics and many prefer video lessons.

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Use instructional design to include a wide variety of formats to best suit each person’s learning styles.

Link theoretical concepts to practical experiences. When creating a section of your course in which you have a set of instructions on how to do a task, don’t just ask them to memorize the steps. Make them practice the skill as you teach it. 

Daily experiences can also become powerful tools to help your students understand new principles. If they are learning about creative writing, for example, ask them to narrate some interesting facts of their day in prose form. 

3. Create a learning community 

A learning community, especially in distance education, plays a valuable role in the learning process.

Peer feedback not only helps the student better internalize the material, it also helps the evaluators. For example, a student learning to develop a journalistic text. If your classmates, like the teacher, evaluate your writing, they can point out what they consider right and wrong, while the teacher makes the necessary corrections. Everyone will learn from the experience.

This aspect of instructional design is important in helping individuals function as part of a team, an essential skill in a corporate environment. They will need to learn to present their ideas with confidence and apply their knowledge as part of the team.

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In distance learning it can be more difficult to connect students with each other, however, it is essential to expand learning. Encourage the creation of groups on Facebook, use the chat on your teaching platform, encourage conversation.

Debates about the contentl taught and its practical applications tend to bear much fruit when it comes to internalizing facts and concepts. Not only that, but a course that includes these opportunities can create connections that help students expand their professional networks to find more opportunities.

Ways to communicate with the student in online classes

4. Encourage critical thinking

A course that only requires students to remember information to take tests, in order to speed up teaching and “show” results, provides a terrible service. 

The task of instructional design is to promote real learning and, for that, nothing better than including opportunities for students to practice. After a reading, video presentation, or other explanation, ask students to write down their thoughts, opinions, and ideas about what was presented.

When discussing the content in their own words, they will internalize the principles presented – if only to refute them. However, require them to use reasoned arguments based on the facts they learned during class. 

Teach your students to look for contradictions, explanations and solutions. Critical thinking is one of the most transferable skills for today’s workforce. Problems often arise due to contradictions at the heart of a theory about how something works. 

Critical thinking helps students look for these anomalies, find out why something is not working, and find a way to make it work.

Discussing a point of view both for and against something makes the mind expand in search of a solution, which is sometimes something completely new.

The saying “teach someone to fish and you will feed them for life” is the focus of instructional design. 

Teach your students to ask questions, never accept the status quo. Arouse their curiosity. 

Once this seed is planted, they will never be the same. They will develop a thirst for knowledge that will keep them at the forefront of their field for life. 

5. Create assessment tools 

The old model of passing a lot of content in a class and taking a test on all of this, results in students who appeal to decorating. This, in turn, relegates information and skills to short-term memory and is therefore readily overlooked when testing is over. 

Instead, provide students with material at a pace at which they can internalize knowledge and have a chance to assimilate it.

Allow plenty of time and opportunities for them to “digest” new content before making any assessment. Smaller and less formal assessments, such as the production of articles, demos or quizzes, work better than massive tests.

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One of the advantages of instructional design is its fluidity. Evaluate test results and questionnaires to see if anything is missing or if certain questions are unfair or unclear. Observe carefully, to see if reformulating them can produce better results.

Also be careful about the evaluation method. A simple score tells the student little about what he did wrong and how to make corrections. Instructors should provide comments that help the student to identify the point where he went off track. 

Partial credit for ‘wrong’ answers that demonstrate some mastery of the material can help to encourage the student. A programming teacher, for example, whose student made a small slip that made the result not work as expected, can congratulate his efforts while making the necessary correction.

Do your best to provide immediate feedback. People learn best from feedback right after the assessment, while the work is still fresh in their minds. 

How to engage students

Instructional Design Model

Instructional Design Model

There are many instructional design models. One of the most used is known by the acronym ADDIE, which means Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. Let’s understand a little more about its steps.


In this first phase, the professional collects and analyzes all content available, separating the useful from the useless, identifying what is interesting for learning. He also gathers all extra material that can assist and support the content.


Stage in which are defined the objectives of the course, which are its target audience, which are its limitations, how many hours the course should have, among other factors. In this phase, the outline on which the material will be developed is drawn.


Time to get your hands dirty and format the course. With the information obtained in the two previous phases, the instructional designer should organize the content in a didactic way, dividing it into parts, according to a logical order and making use of resources that facilitate understanding, such as tables, graphs, videos, texts and other elements that make the material attractive to the student and facilitate learning.


To prove the effectiveness of the material produced, before it is released, the designer does a pre-test with some participants who are part of the target audience. This test is only performed when the material is fully formatted, so that the results are as effective as possible.


Finally, an analysis of the results of the course is made to see if it has reached the objectives set. This is done through an assessment of students, to test their learning and prove its effectiveness. This assessment helps the professional to devise new strategies and continue to improve their methods and results.

For online courses a good formatting job is essential to hold the student’s attention and make him learn. 

With a course design that moves forward at an efficient pace, puts learning in a practical context, engages a learning community, encourages critical thinking and provides appropriate and thoughtful feedback, instructors can provide relevant courses that will produce students who can safely assume their place in the chosen field.

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