Instructional Design for Online Learning


Developing an online learning environment is not a simple task because it takes a lot of thought and planning to make sure the learners in the course reach your learning goals and objectives. Applying an instructional design strategy can help you build the course with content, activities, and assessments that not only engage the learners but enhance the learning process as well. Part of the design process is integrating theories of learning that best support online learning environments. Learning theories such as congnitivism, constructivism, and connectivism are good theories to model when designing online courses for higher education, continuing education, or professional development.

According to Bates (2015), cognitivism focuses on the mental processes that are considered essential for human learning. Basically, when we get new information we process it by comparing it to and updating our previous knowledge. Bloom’s taxonomy is based on this theory where the cognitive domain is made up of levels of thinking which include: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and (more recently) creating. The idea is that the learner moves through the process from understanding to ultimately creating as knowledge progresses. In this way, the learner is actively participating in the learning process, constantly changing and updating their knowledge (Dabbagh, 2016). Constructivism is somewhat similar in that knowledge is processed cognitively and it is constructed not acquired (Bates, 2015). Constructivism represents more of a social process to learning and understanding through social interaction supported by reflection, analysis, discussion and relationships. Connectivism is one of the newer theories that consists of a web of connections and the flow of information across them. Knowledge is attained by forming, nurturing, and maintaining connections for continual learning where the knowledge is kept up to date. Connections are made and maintained as needed and the knowledge is no longer as important as the connections and knowing which connections to make to get the most up to date information needed at the time. In the instructional design process, it is important to consider that students have different learning styles. Therefore, it is a good strategy to use a combination of learning theories in order to better personalize the learning experience for the students. My course, Fundamentals of Mobile Learning in Education, was developed with a combination of these so that the learners could engage with the content and each other while participating in authentic tasks that were meaningful to them.

Throughout my course development, I used the Understanding by Design (UbD) course design method and the UbD template as a guide for mapping out the course. Basically, UbD is a “backward design” method where you first identify the desired results then plan the learning activities and assessments that will allow the learners to reach them. My original UbD template for my course organized the course building process into 3 stages: desired results, assessment evidence, and the learning plan. First, I identified the course goals and what I wanted the learners to know and be able to do after completing the course. Once that stage was complete, I then developed specific tasks and other assessments that would provide evidence of learning. In the last stage I developed all of the learning activities that I wanted to incorporate in the course, however I did make some changes on a few activities in the final course design. Overall, UbD helped me focus on “good” design and creating assessments and learning activities that enable students to reach the desired outcomes of the course.

Rapid advances in technology have totally changed the way we do things such as work, socialize and communicate in the 21st century. In addition, technology is changing the way we learn. As educators, it is important to update our role in the classroom and the teaching methods we use in order to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need in order to be successful in this technology-filled, digital world. Content and activities that are structured in an online learning environment, whether fully online or blended into face-to-face classes, helps us tap into the wealth of knowledge and rich media content available through online technologies and the Internet. Using the SECTIONS model, educators have the opportunity to evaluate and integrate a wide variety of media sources such as animations, videos, simulations, and other content that promotes active learning and enhances the learning experience. In addition, online learning environments developed with effective course design methods, along with the TPACK framework, can increase learner engagement and collaboration while reinforcing the other skills needed in a digital age such as learning independently, digital skills, communication, higher order thinking skills and knowledge management. Lastly, online learning environments give the instructor the ability to transform their traditional role as a deliverer of content into a facilitator of learning that fosters peer-to-peer learning and knowledge building.

Overall, studying instructional design for online learning has taught me that online courses and online learning environments can be developed for significant learning to take place. Using course design methods like UbD and Fink’s learning goals outline (the 3-column table) can help organize, develop and map out learning goals, activities and assessments that will lead to a successful course design where learners are engaged and participate in meaningful learning activities. The backward design process and Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction emphasize the importance of first setting the desired outcomes; the outcomes reflect how you want the learners to apply what they have learned to their own unique situation. Other valuable tools like the SECTIONS model and Mayer’s multimedia design principles help educators evaluate and choose appropriate and relevant media to integrate into the course content. It keeps the focus on the learners needs and drives the consideration and purpose of the selected course materials, activities, assessments and ultimately the Learning Management System (LMS) you choose to host your course. Furthermore, I have learned that no matter how well your course comes together it is always a “work in progress”. Online courses will need to be evaluated, revised and updated continuously as time goes on therefore, student and peer-to-peer feedback are essential for continuous improvement. In closing, the critical need for instructional design in online learning in the 21st century and beyond is indisputable.

Bates, A.W. (2015). Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. Retrieved from

Dabbagh, N. (2016, Nov. 02). The Instructional Design Knowledge Base. Retrieved November, 2, 2016 from Nada Dabbagh’s Homepage, George Mason University, Instructional Technology Program. Website:

Pappas, C. (2015, Nov 18). Applying Gagne’s 9 events of instruction in eLearning. Retrieved from


Hello! I am currently an eLearning Support Specialist at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. I just completed the Digital Learning and Leading program at Lamar to earn my M. Ed. degree. Thank you for visiting my site!

Posted in Instructional Design in Online Learning

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