The launch of the much-heralded Storyline from the Articulate stable (now believed to be scheduled for early May)  increases the opportunity for anyone – well, anyone who can use software deftly – to produce technology-delivered learning materials. In many ways, this puts the ‘traditional’ skills of the professional instructional designer – a profession even older than the learning technology industry – under even further pressure.


Instructional design (ID) was used a great deal in the 1980s. It then dropped out of favour but, by the turn of the century, in the USA – at least – there were professors of ID.


Best practice in terms of instructional – or learning – design:

  • is based on identified learning needs,
  • is related to organisational needs,
  • is based on clearly defined objectives,
  • effectively structures and sequences content,
  • chooses the appropriate delivery media and
  • provides feedback and assessment.


Putting learning ‘online’ provides the opportunity for interactive, one-to-one, self-managed distance learning and the opportunity for student management. In addition to all this, online delivery allows for human support through synchronous and asynchronous tutoring, chat room access and so on.


Basically, ‘we’ve got the technology and can do amazing things’. Yet merely possessing the technology doesn’t guarantee that the learning materials it helps to develop and deliver are amazingly effective. Unfortunately, the technology also allows us to do unhelpful and unproductive things in terms of learning. Although rarely recognised as such, learning technologies are really the accessory. It is the learning that should come first.


Merely having the learning delivered via technology does not make it effective. The content of an effective learning programme should match the user’s immediate learning needs. Online learning can be ‘just-in-time’ and learners can be provided with performance support for their jobs.


The real difference between effective and ineffective learning materials is the ID. Well-designed learning presents content, guides the student in practice, provides for independent practice by the learner and assesses how well the learner is doing. This – plus interactivity between learner and programme, and motivating the learner – makes a sound foundation for deriving the principles of ID. Where ID comes a poor second to the technology that delivers it, it produces barriers to learning. The ‘clever’ means of delivering learning via technology can distract people from the learning they’re meant to be delivering.


Some people suggest that what makes technology-delivered learning effective is interactivity. This takes many forms and should make the learner feel in control of the learning experience. Those who believe in the value of ID argue that the learning technologies world needs to address the issue of (ID) standards – and make them even better and higher than ever before. Such standards could be based on, and cover:

  • learning needs
  • target audience profiles
  • instructional strategies or ‘blueprints’
  • briefing and specification documents
  • programme-ready materials
  • graphics and programming being subservient to instructional needs


A short history of learning technologies and ID (1974 to date)


These issues and tensions between ID and the technology that delivers the learning materials are not new. They have been faced in the past and, if the learning design world isn’t careful, they’ll be faced again and again.


In the UK, between 1974 and 1977, there was the Government-funded National Development Programme in Computer Assisted Learning (NDPCAL). In the 1970s, Barclaycard also developed technology delivered learning programmes. The decade was characterised by mainframe delivery and pump-priming by the Government.


The 1980s saw the advent of micro-computers. These allowed training to be done anywhere but trainers lost the central control of training materials. The National CBT Forum – later known as the Forum for Technologies in Training (which merged with the British Learning Association to form the British Institute of Learning and Development (BILD) – was founded in 1982. ‘Project Author’ began in 1983/84 and then there was the advent of laser disc and interactive video. This technology used lots of kit, took up a great deal of space and instructional developers found themselves working alongside video producers. These video producers dominated the instructional designers and the video element of the resulting programmes outweighed the learning.


Overall, the 1980s were a mixed decade. Standards were set, but there was conflict between the technology and the training.


The 1990s were the decade of multimedia computers, CD-ROMs, the internet, intranets and online learning. There was amazing technology, coupled with atrocious ID.


In the 2000s, technology – especially delivery technology – continued to develop rapidly and, by the end of the decade, mobile learning was well established as an additional and complementary ‘learning technology’. Rapid authoring tools were also well established – and these enabled a wider range of people, such as subject matter experts, as well as specially trained, professional instructional designers to produce learning materials.


Comment: Those who still champion ID would argue that there’s a difference between being able to do something and being able to do that thing well. Of course – as ever, especially in difficult economic times – there is always the question of whether those whose decision it is are prepared to spend money to have things done well.