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The place of instructional design in higher education in the computer age

Clare McBeath and Lou Siragusa
Curtin University of Technology
Universities are being forced into online course delivery on the presumption that it will be cheaper and more competitive. Both these reasons may well be questionable, but far more problematic is the lack of professional development available to support the effective development of online leaning materials. There is a forty year old body of knowledge in instructional design which could be used to guide course developers. In this paper, the authors look at some central principles of instructional design, such as the structure of the learning message, use of interactive learning activities, collaboration, constructivism and variety. Links will be made with the findings from print, audiovisual and computer based research. An argument is made for the consistency of knowledge in the field of instructional design and the need for developers to be well grounded in its principles.


It is salutary that ASET and HERDSA joined forces to jointly host the Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society conference this year. At a time when universities are rushing, or being pushed, into online delivery of units and courses, interest at higher education conferences tends to focus on the physical context of information technologies and online delivery. Not enough credit has been given to the fact that there is a forty year old body of research and development in instructional design, educational technology or learning design, as it may variously be called, which should be informing these new computer directed initiatives.

Instructional design has focused on a variety of physical, social and cognitive contexts of learning, and indeed has changed in its theoretical platform over the years from behaviourism to cognitive psychology. It has continued to offer a rich experience of theory and practice of teaching and learning which should not be ignored by developers working in higher education online delivery.

The Internet has, without doubt, provided a unique method of communication and delivery to higher education. Web sites are being created every day and students are using them as part of their course work. Trial classes are being tested and evaluated, and important information is accumulating on learning from the Internet. It is becoming clear that writing for display on the Web is different from writing for display on a printed page. But how much different, and why, are questions which are not producing the same quantity of research and debate. The cognitive dimension remains the domain of a handful of Australia's researchers, and much of the new work on metaphors and transfer is trivial and unconvincing.

Are the creators of educational Web sites effectively using the knowledge available from earlier times, from print based, audiovisual and computer assisted learning technologies, to help build the developments of today? Are the technological "experts" of the current wave of online development sufficiently versed in instructional technologies, as distinct from the technologies, to avoid reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes of the past?

In this paper, the authors will look at some central principles of instructional design, such as the structure of the learning message, use of interactive learning activities, student teacher collaboration, constructivism and variety. Links will be made with the findings from print, audiovisual and computer based research. An argument will be made regarding the stability of knowledge in the field of instructional design and the need for technical developers to be well grounded in its principles.

Theoretical foundations of instructional design

The fundamental premise underlying the theories of instructional design is that the innovation should assist rather than hinder the student in the learning process.

It is perhaps the stark simplicity of this premise that has lulled many developers into believing that there is nothing to it, and that anyone can do it. What feels or looks good to the developer must be just what the student wants and needs. And, as we move into the age of computer delivery of learning materials, the colour and visual impact of the materials often might be enough to make many developers feel good!

Colour and positive visual impact, we argue, are no more important in the online learning process than they are in print based delivery, or in any form of learning materials. At best, good visual impact can be regarded as having an entertaining or motivational impact, stimulating the student to use the materials and perhaps keep trying a little longer than they would if the materials were less attractive.

Instructional design nowadays is rooted in cognitive psychology. The more is known about how people think and how they learn, the better the instructional design is likely to be. Cognitive psychology represents one of the most difficult theoretical approaches to teaching and learning, and yet the one which has developed the most dramatically in the last decade. It deals with the refinement of intellectual operations.

Fifty years ago Piaget gave us the concept of constructivism, whereby learners construct their own knowledge according to their "stage" of development and their ability to assimilate and recode reality according to the pace and level of difficulty of the task.

Post Piagetian psychologists have taken the notions of constructivism and stages, and added concepts such as motivation and memory, and given us developmentalism or the concept that skill acquisition refers to the way in which people become cleverer at doing particular tasks. This is what learning is about, according to Briggs and Moore (1993, p.36).

Burns and Brooks (1970) saw the development of cognitive processes in terms of problem solving skills, while Briggs and Moore (1993) defined four modes of learning which develop through time, experience and practice - the sensori-motor, the ikonic, the concrete-symbolic and the formal and post-formal modes. These have provided the richest source of theoretical bases for research into the effectiveness of instructional design, and have provided valuable knowledge on how students might learn from particular kinds of learning materials.

This is not the place to launch into a definitive overview of a vast and complex field of study and research. We wish only to indicate that there is a body of knowledge informing us of much of what we are currently guessing at when we rush off to develop a new online subject or course or a computer based student activity.

Some myths and legends

Most of the "rules" developers hear about are little more than simplistic adages and not based on research at all.

One of the most frequent admonitions we hear is, "You can't just put your lecture notes up on the Web!" The practice has been dubbed shovelling, and the argument against the practice is usually made by the instructional designers who of course want to "design things properly". This is not true, however. You can just put your lecture notes on the Web, if you want to. A more appropriate admonition should be " as long as you know what you are doing and why as long as your objectives and purposes are clear to you and to your students ..."

You can put anything you like on the Web, as long as it assists students in the learning process. The important thing is that you are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the online materials and you let the students know how they may best use them to their advantage. This involves exactly the same principles as designing learning materials for print or any other medium.

We are also told to keep the designs simple. We are advised against using distracting colours, particularly strong colours and dark backgrounds. We are advised to keep the icons and animation to a minimum and take care not to distract from the learning message. In many cases, this is sound advice. A significant number of recent evaluation studies reiterate that students prefer the learning message to be simple, fast and unencumbered. However, this approach is hard to reconcile with the amount of decoration used typically on a commercial Web page. Marketers and educators are both concerned with communicating messages. Why then are they governed by different sets of rules? We believe this deserves some serious research.

Web page designs are new and different from instructional designs of the past, we are told, because Web page instruction must include interactivity to engage the learner. As with the first myth mentioned above, this surely is a matter of choice. Interactivity is an effective learning device which can be used in print, audio-visual and computer based designs. There are many advantages in using it to enhance the learning process. However, in the same way as workbooks and text books have different function in the learning process, so do interactive and non-interactive online learning materials. Again, as long as you are aware of the purpose of the design, as long as your expectations of how the students will use them are realistic and clearly justified, we can design our online materials in any way we like.

The issue of whether the students should read from the computer screen or send the pages to the printer for later reading is another question which most designers grapple with at some time or other. Some students seem to think that they are supposed to read from the screen and are apologetic if they "give in" and produce hard copy for any reason or another. Again, it is not really our concern. We need to be aware that students will behave in the way which best suits them at any particular time. (Much of our beautifully coloured and illustrated online materials may indeed be wasted if it is being printed in black and white for student use.)

These stories could go on indefinitely. Most designers have a collection of good arguments against the myths and legends of instructional design. We have included this small sample here to indicate that the "rules" we keep hearing about are usually quite different from the cognitive principles underlying instructional design.

Instructional design issues

The use of the Internet for learning has provided new challenges for instructional designers creating online learning environments. The Internet is ever evolving with new technologies that can create Web-pages with entertaining uses of graphics, animation and sound. The challenge is to decide which elements of these technologies will enhance the learning experience and how best to use them for learning rather than just for their entertainment value. Instructional design principles developed for earlier computer assisted learning applications should not be neglected in new developments or else we may find ourselves reinventing the wheel. Many of the guiding principles developed for computer assisted learning can be applied directly to online learning, as indeed can those developed for print based and audio visual learning materials.

The following points will focus on instructional strategies which should be taken into consideration at the design phase of all learning materials.


Structure has been identified as an instructional strategy which shows students how the instructional material is organised within the learning environment and how it relates to previously learnt material (Bill & Martin, 1997, p.4). Smith and Pagan (1999, p.303) described learning-related structures as those which organise information in such a way that new learning builds on relevant prior knowledge. In other media, structure is developed carefully in the contents page of a printed book, or in the Outline of a Study Guide, the introduction to an audio-visual program, and so on.

Web-pages on the Internet allow for a variety of structures to be created to organise content and to guide the students' progress through the unit. Developments in online course environments (such as WebCT and TopClass) have provided a framework that tends to lead the instructional designer into a predetermined structure. Care needs to be taken to avoid relying on the server to provide the structure. Principles of structure can be found in earlier developments of instructional technologies and can be applied to the online learning environments of today. Course environments usually provide enough flexibility within their frameworks to allow for the development of suitable structures for the online unit being developed.


We have been informed by those working in the area of computer assisted learning that interaction is critically important in providing an effective learning environment. In online learning environments, interaction provides the learner with the means of being actively involved in the learning activity (Bill & Martin, 1997, pp.4-5). Computer applications can be used to facilitate interaction by providing the learner with both control of the learning process and communication with the content (Sims, 1999). The use of the Internet for learning allows for varying levels of interaction such as interaction between the learner and the application, between the learner and the online educator and interaction between the learners themselves. We have, for example, seen the increased use of email in recent years as a primary communication tool between the learner and the online educator. Indeed, online educators have reported on their increased work loads with the dramatic increase of incoming email from their students that require reading and a response.

From the instructional designer's perspective, the task is to determine how best to design the computer-based learning activities which promote the most effective use of interaction. This is a well established principle, and has not changed with the arrival of online delivery. The Internet provides the instructional designer with tools that allow for varying methods of interaction. The instructional designer now needs to know what tools are available and how best to apply these in the pioneering learning environment of the Web.


Graham and Scarborough (1999) described collaborative learning as the acquisition of knowledge, skills or attitudes, which takes place as a result of people working together to create meaning, explore a topic or improve skills. Online educators have followed earlier educational technologist in identifying collaboration as an important learning strategy (Brown, 1997; Sims, 1999). Higher education teaching in traditional face-to-face teaching was not very good at collaboration, even though the literature of adult learning has long advocated its importance (Knowles, 1984). Interestingly, collaboration has become much more important in online learning and presents a significant shift in the support provided for adult students (Oliver, Omari & Knibb, 1997; Oliver & Omari, 1999).

The communication tools offered by the Internet allow for relative ease of collaborative work between students. Some learners on the Internet may be isolated from others. The Internet, however, provides the opportunity for learners to be active participants and, with appropriate learning strategies in place, can participate in team work and are able to seek advice at their convenience (Forsyth, 1996).

Variety of appearance and activity

Research and development in the area of instructional design has for a long time informed us about the importance of effective page design. In the context of online materials, this can be interpreted as screen design. Smith and Ragan (1999, p.325) remind us that, "Paying attention to screen design not only makes it possible to ensure that functional elements are provided on-screen as needed, but also allows the designer to lay out the screen in a consistent manner."

The use of flow charts and storyboards have been with us from the 1960s (the audio-visual materials debate) and appeared again in the 1990s (multimedia and computer assisted learning applications debate). The storyboard provides us with a platform in which planning the appearance and activities of the learning environment remains consistent. There are still Web-sites appearing that ignore the importance of this type of planning. Educators are usually rushed into the development of a Web-based learning environment without being given the time and resources to research and employ an effective planning process.


Smith and Ragan (1999, p.160) suggested that "To be easily learned, recalled, and used, new declarative knowledge must be tied to the learners' existing (i.e., prior) knowledge." The instructional designer has to ensure that the incoming information must be meaningful to the learners by providing links to prior knowledge. The use of the Internet for collaborative learning and the sharing of multiple perspectives allows for learners to construct their own knowledge (Murphy, Drabier & Epps, 1998, p.297). The instructional designer has to decide how to create activities that will allow learners to collect and interpret new information to build upon what they already know.

Learning strategies such as these were developed long before the Internet was used for delivering Web-based learning. However, collaborative and contructivist learning strategies are strikingly lacking in many online learning environments (Brown, 1997; Sims, 1999). Further research is needed to determine how to effectively implement these learning strategies into Web-based learning. The decisions made at the design phase will inevitably influence student learning strategies.

This discussion of instructional design issues for online learning has attempted to demonstrate how the development of online delivery of units should be clearly informed by existing research literature into learning as applied to print-based materials, audio-visual and computer assisted learning.


This has been a difficult decade, marked by shrinking Government funding for universities and a seemingly mindless rush down the path of economic rationalism. Many of the so called reforms of the past decade are now being re-examined in the light of their educational effectiveness. It has been suggested that executive decisions to restructure educational institutions are often no more than "a form of game playing, a charade, a rearrangement that gives the appearance that the nature of work [within the institution] will change." (Sarason, 1995).

Similarly, we might question the headlong race into online education in universities, often without a carefully worked out plan nor with any genuine commitment to staff development. We have been told that we have to get our units and courses onto the Internet to remain competitive, and this may well be the case. In the past we had to get our units and courses into books and Study Guides to remain competitive. But many didn't, and the universities survived.

It is important to remember that there are many ways of doing things and we need to retain our choices in a time of rapid change. Especially we need to remember that any development of teaching and learning materials for our students, be they delivered online or by any other medium, can find a rich and long history of research and practice to call upon.

New technologies do require new skills and creative responses to new technological challenges. Nobody will deny this. However, the underlying principles of designing learning materials are not new and are not technology driven. They are rooted in the theories of how people learn and how they process new knowledge.

It is important at a time when all around us is changing and preparing to change that we respect the stability of knowledge in the field of instructional design and advocate the need for technical developers to be well grounded in its principles.


Bills, C. G. & Martin L. (1997). Effects of structure and interactivity on internet based instruction. Paper presented at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (Orlando, FL, December 1-4, 1997). U.S., Ohio. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED416317)

Briggs, J. B. & Moore, P. J. (1993). The process of learning. Australia: Prentice Hall.

Brown, A. (1997). Designing for learning: What are the essential features of an effective online course? Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 13(2), 115-126.

Burns, R. W. & Brooks, G. D. (1970). Processes, problem solving and curriculum reform. Educational Technology, May, 10-13.

Forsyth, I. (1996). Teaching and learning materials and the Internet. Kogan Page. London.

Graham, M. and Scarborough, H. (1999). Computer mediated communication and collaborative learning in an undergraduate distance education environment.Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 15(1), 20-46.

Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. (3rd ed). Houston: Gulf.

Murphy, K. L., Drabier, R. & Epps, M. (1998). Interaction and collaboration via computer conferencing. Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Presentations at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) Sponsored by the Research and Theory Division (20th, St. Louis, MO, February 18-22, 1998). U.S., Texas. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED423852)

Oliver, R. and Omari, A. (1999). Using online technologies to support problem based learning: Learners' responses and perceptions. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 15(1), 58-79.

Oliver, R., Omari, A. & Knibb, K. (1997). Creating collaborative computer based learning environments with the world wide web. Proceedings ASCILITE'97.

Sarason, S. B. (1995). Foreword. In A. Lieberman (Ed). The work of restructuring schools: Building from the bottom up. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sims, R. (1999). Interactivity on stage: Strategies for learner-designer communication. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 15(3), 257-272.

Smith, P. L. & Ragan, T. J. (1999). Instructional design (Second edition). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York. ISBN: 0-471-36570-X

Authors: Clare McBeath, Faculty of Education, Curtin University of Technology. Tel: (08) 9266 2182 Fax (08) 9266 2547.

Lou Siragusa, Faculty of Education, Curtin University of Technology.

Please cite as: McBeath, C. and Siragusa, L. (2000). The place of instructional design in higher education in the computer age. In Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference. Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July. ASET and HERDSA.

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