Instructional design in academia--where theory and practice RARELY meet

I've had Cammy Bean's posts running through my head all weekend. I've been mulling over the differences between what I teach my students that instructional design and design theory are and how we actually do it. Anyone involved with the field at all knows that there is a huge gap between the two.

I remember having this conversation with a graduate school friend of mine, Platte Clark, a few years ago. Platte and I worked on our master's degrees in English at the same time, and we shared an office for about a year. Actually, Platte and another guy, Rulon Wood, are responsible for steering me to Instructional Technology, as they were both working on double master's degrees in both English and IT. At any rate, Platte left school with work still to do on both degrees. He had been offered a big job with Novell Education (I believe), and it was too good to turn down. He later went to work for Franklin Covey, but suffice it to say that Platte is HIGHLY intelligent, and a gifted designer. Again, he just *gets it.* Eventually he finished his MS in English, but not his MS in Instructional Technology. I remember talking with him about his frustrations about the academic field. At the time I was close to finishing my Ph.D., and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had done a little freelance work here and there, but nothing really substantial. Most of the ID work I had done was in faculty support. I hadn't talked to Platte in a couple of years, and as we did, he expressed frustration with the instructional technology degree. "It's just not how it's done," he told me. "All those things they taught us don't translate to the 'real world.'" I tried to tell him that we needed the theory so we could improve the practice, but to be honest, the longer I do this, the more I disagree with myself.

Cammy commented back on my post about the shifting roles of an instructional designer and said:

"But some would argue that one needs, or at least certainly benefits from, the solid foundation of academic training in ID. I’ve done alright without it, but I wonder where I would be if I had a Master’s?"

My guess? Probably not. I've read enough of what Cammy writes to know how smart she is and what kind of work she does. She's brighter than the majority of graduate students I either went to school with or have taught. She has great attention for detail, and that translates well to instructional design. Also, she writes well. She is clear, concise, and articulate. So does it matter if Cammy knows (and I have no idea if she does) what the Dick/Carey, Smith/Ragan, or Morrison/Ross/Kemp models are? What about Component Display Theory, Elaboration Theory, the Conditions of Learning, Learning Hierarchies, the ARCS model, 4C/ID, ADDIE, ASSURE, Schema theory, Cognitive apprenticeship, Social Learning theory, or Cognitive flexibility? Does she need to know those?

When I teach intro and advanced instructional design, I act as though you're no instructional designer if you don't know those theories and models. Well, I used to. Why? Well, my professors did. Now that could be because my professor wrote some of them and was/is a huge theorist. But even he has softened his stance. One of his latest, most influential pieces of work was the First Principles of Instruction. In his paper, Dr. Merrill explains:
"The premise of this paper is that first principles for instruction do exist and that one or more of these irst principles can be found in most instructional design theories and models. This premise also assumes hat these design principles apply regardless of the instructional program or practices prescribed by a given theory or model. If this premise is true, research will demonstrate that when a given instructional program r practice violates or fails to implement one or more of these first principles, there will be a decrement in earning and performance. Our survey of instructional products also demonstrates that many instructional programs fail to effectively incorporate all of these principles.
The hypotheses of this paper are that:

1. Learning from a given instructional program will be facilitated in direct proportion to the implementation of first principles of instruction.

2. Learning from a given instructional program will be facilitated in direct proportion to the degree that first principles of instruction are explicitly implemented rather than haphazardly implemented."

Basically, Dr. Merrill looked at the existing plethora of models and theories and found out what was the SAME rather than coming up with a different model or theory--a big departure for one of the leading theorists in the field.

I would argue that if Cammy read this paper, it would be all the "education" she would need as a designer. After all, what is the aim of instructional design? In my book, it is to produce effective, engaging, and efficient instruction. If Cammy can do that without the master's degree, then more power to her.

So back to her question: where would she be with academic training in instructional design? Probably at the same spot. She may or may not be making the same amount of money, but she would more than likely be in the same spot.

So what does all this mean? I spend a lot of time recruiting graduate students to our program and, as I refer to it, "preaching the gospel of instructional design." If it's not necessary, then why do I spend so much of my time saying this is so important?

Because it's my job, and I love doing it. I love the art of instructional design. Any six year old can splatter paint, but that doesn't make them Jackson Pollock. It takes a real talent to create great instruction fluidly, with purpose, and I can't teach that. You either have it or you don't.

So I find myself the longer I do this I come back more and more to my conversation with Platte and having conversations like this with Cammy. Theoretical instructional design needs to mirror practical instructional design more. And when it does, and as our field shifts to more designers-by-assignment, then we'll be on to something important.

My gosh, what kind of posting maniac has Cammy unleashed?


  1. There's no doubt that the theory of instructional design is different from the practice of instructional design and vice versa. I learned that immediately after being employed as an instructional designer for the first time.

    To explain the difference between theory and practice, a M*A*S*H episode stuck with me - if you're familiar with the show, it's when Charles Winchester is first deployed; he's used to the hospital environment and is quite unnerved by the fast-paced MASH setting and surgical practice.

    In theory, surgery/instructional design happens in sterile environments with unconscious patients working at the doctor/ID's pace. In reality - near the trenches of a conflict or classroom - we do meatball surgery/instructional design working with patients (faculty) that are often arguing against sound online learning best practices. ID in the trenches has to be fast and "just good enough" to allow us and our patients to survive the trauma. It's messy; there are shortcuts, and it's not always by the book.

    HOWEVER, knowing the theory informs the practice; no matter how sloppy or quick it has to be, knowing the theory may make things go more smoothly and enable the practitioner to generate innovative ideas and approaches along the way.

    I don't think the theory is necessary to be an instructional designer, but I firmly believe an intelligent individual with a knack for instructional design will be a better instructional designer if they do engage formal training in the field.

    -Chris "I survived Curry" Duke

  2. My Instructional Technology education gave me some terminology to better explain what I was doing. The theory is useful in "selling" our practice to others. I don't know about other folks enviroments, but having that type of ammunition in my corporate environment has been invaluable.

  3. David Merrill was saying the same thing 15 years ago (at least he was when we discussed this issue). I even used his initial CBT training software which was based on "proven" instructional design theory. The software was not very good.

    As much as I respect Dr. Merrill, I haven't seen a lot of advances in instructional design in the past decade. I remember when reusable learning objects were all the rage with the Cisco folks (and Merrill & Clark) and before that when Oracle, with its OLA, was going to change ISD big time. It didn't.

    The real disconnect, IMO, is between the Academy and the learners. Not only can any six year old splatter paint, but any six year old can learn. It takes standardized curriculum and instructional systems design to ensure that a six year old learns to hate school and associate this experience with learning.

  4. Being new to the game I am not really sure how qualified I am to comment, but here it goes.

    I got into education before I had ever had any formal training - I found my calling quite by accident. Now, the more I am exposed to the educational environment, the more I realize what is wrong (and right!) with it. I am in the process of completing my masters in Ed Tech and am looking specifically at the engineering educational environment. One comment you made struck me as so very true in all fields...teachers seem to teach the way they were taught ("Why? Well, my professors did.") Unfortunately, the more we learn about human learning, the more we (I) realize that it isn't always the best way.

    Now, I have been through the ID courses and I know the theories (Ok, sort of!) and I do believe they are useful in defining the process. But no matter how good the process/model is, if there are not competent, passionate, and dedicated teachers on the other end, then it is all for not. If I design a remarkable learning experience and then the instructor delivers it in a dry, monotone way, then all my hard work is wasted.

    Like all disciplines, whether it be ID or engineering, what we teach must be meaningful to the people learning it. The theories and models are needed to deal with the "politics" while the passion and desire are needed for the delivery. So while practice and reality may be distinctly different, both are needed for the whole process to work.

  5. I'm a firm believer in the idea of "never enough knowledge". The more we learn, the better we know our field. At the same time:

    1) Learning has to come from many sources. If we stick exclusively to theory, we'll be unprepared to break out of the sterile academic environment and actually put our knowledge into practice. Learning must include a wide variety of opinions and backgrounds, as well as real-world experience.

    2) We've all been students, so we know what Instructional Designers often subject us to. I think anyone involved in the field has the built-in ability to recognize good ID, even though they may not be able to explain why it's good. Thus, given enough time and exposure to feedback, I think we can all become decent designers.

    I've been involved with e-learning for 6 or 7 years now and have seen all sorts of projects come and go. My background is in business, not training or technology, so I tend to naturally focus on business outcomes - productivity, profitability, etc. However, I feel I have picked up a great deal of theory - thank you bloggers of the world! - to complement my practical experience. Often I get lost in the details, skipping over academic references I've never heard of and vocabulary that is obscure at best, but in the end I generally get the gist of the topic. And while learning about this or that model is generally not something I can directly apply, I have no doubt the added knowledge makes me a better designer.

  6. Rats! I wish I'd had something like this to use towards a paper I recently submitted on my postgrad course. I was exploring whether or not it was necessary for trainers to have an understanding of learning theory/pedagogy in order to do their jobs effectively. This would have added an extra dimension. What I have found is that many people intuitively employ the practices/models (or at least many of their principles) put forward by theorists whose names we speak in hushed tones, and they see no need to know any more than that.

    I vacillate on the subject, but I will suggest that the theorists did not invent their theories from out of the ether. They presumably based them on research into successful existing practice, much of which would have been intuitively applied before the theory was introduced to tell them why it was a good idea to do what they were already doing.

    Oh dear, what a convoluted sentence!

  7. The gap between ISD theory and practice is not unlike gaps in other fields, I think. I've heard my step-father, a retired (many yrs ago) engineer with Shell say that when hiring newly minted engineers, they had to be trained to do the job. It's a constant struggle in any program of study to keep it connected to the field of practice. My point is that the field of instructional design is like many others in that respect, but also to point out that in all these fields it is important to continually strengthen the connection between the program of study and the field in which the graduate will be expected to function. This is slightly different from the (dis)connection of theory and practice, but related.

    I do instructional design and from time to time I teach instructional design. But I only had one course, strictly speaking, in ISD in the doctoral program. It was quite valuable -- familiarizing the terminology, providing me an overview of the field, and forcing me to work through one project in a more systematic way than I would have otherwise. I've learned more about the field -- the theories, the history, the names, etc... -- through further readings and through teaching. That's all background, but occasionally a problem with a project will make me reflect a bit and sometimes I'll find a solution in all that theory.

  8. [...] yesterday Cammy has responded to my post on the disconnect between academic instructional design and practical instructional design. Subsequently, the last five hours or so has been interesting. First of all, I see that Stephen [...]

  9. I agree with the fact that ISD is a constant struggle in any program of study. Therefore, a very well established strategy is needed in order to keep the design of the instruction connected to the field of practice. However, how many instructors are able to do this and how much support do they get from the institutions they work for? We agree on the fact that the theories aren’t enough if we cannot put them into practice. They are strictly interrelated and for an effective and efficient strategy we need both of them. The practice of instruction is actually what gives life to the theories.

  10. [...] Bean is having an interesting dialog with John Curry on whether you need to know the underlying theories of ISD to do effective design. He’s [...]

  11. John, I've found this post interesting enough to blog it. In short, while I like Merrill's search for common ground (though I note that he's gone through two different theories himself, CDT and then ID2 :), I think you need to know some of the underlying learning theories to fill in gaps where principle clashes with pragmatics. Cammy, I'll suggest, 'gets it' because she's continually reflecting, and I can't say I see that in a lot of ID out there. So I'll put my money on either a reflective practitioner OR someone schooled with the theories (NB: where they *apply* it, not just recite it). Good topic!

  12. [...] bookmarks tagged academia Instructional design in academia–where theory an... saved by 2 others     narutoluver999 bookmarked on 02/17/08 | [...]

  13. [...] Called an Instructional Designer?”. I then followed some jumps to Karl’s response and Clark’s response, which stressed the importance of formal degrees and/or a wide range of background knowledge [...]

  14. [...] and what they really do and what we teach in academia. So I wrote about that disconnect in my post Instructional design in academia–where theory and practice RARELY meet. And that post really started things going. Stephen Downes mentioned our conversation on OL~Daily, [...]

  15. [...] on instructional design and certification. They were interested in the conversations Cammy Bean and I have had about those topics, and wondered where those conversations were going. Today Cammy [...]

  16. [...] Bean and Dr. John H. Curry had several friendly exchanges about this at his blog Effective Like Cammy, I have learned a great deal on the job and [...]

  17. Interesting I came across this when I was researching on Instructional Design for the purpose of pursuing a master's program in IDD.

    Very often, i've been confused by what role an instructional designer plays in an institution. I once interned at a college where the Instructional designer doubled responsibilities; as an instructor, grader, proof-reader, technical troubleshooter and this made me wonder what really should be the role of an instructional designer in real world?

  18. [...] actually played.  BINGO! This is exactly what has happened to instructional design, and could by why theory and practice don’t meet. So much theory has been introduced that we can no longer see how instruction is actually designed. [...]

  19. [...] is exactly what has happened to instructional design, and could by why theory and practice don’t meet. So much theory has been introduced that we can no longer see how instruction is actually designed. [...]