A Brief History of Instructional Design

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Instructional Design has come a long way. From ‘training’, which was merely considered a passive function in an organization, the emphasis has now shifted towards making learning and talent development an integral part of corporate culture. A 2015 research by ATD, titled ‘Instructional Design Now’, which is based on a survey of 1,120 instructional designers provides a current snapshot of ID in organizations and the challenges that they typically face. “The field of instructional design (ID) incorporates a rapidly growing and changing array of learning strategies, tools, and approaches into training experiences that appeal to today’s workers while meeting their complex learning needs.”

Like everything else, this drastic change in approach hasn’t been fast. It has been a slow process of evolution dating back to World War II – from where ID finds its roots. Here is a brief history of how ID has changed over the years to take its present shape.


World War II, by virtue of its sheer scale and size needed a humungous amount of trained military men. Consequently, training programs which were based on the principles of learning, instruction and human behavior, began to be developed. A large number of psychologists and educational researchers were summoned to develop training materials, as well as to apply their knowledge of evaluation to assess trainees’ skills.

The Programmed Instruction Movement – Mid-1950s to Mid-1960s

In 1954, B.F. Skinner through his article called “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching” pioneered the concept of programmed instructional materials – materials that include small steps, require overt answers to frequent questions, give immediate feedback and allow learner to self-pace his/her learning.

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In the early 1960s, Robert F. Mager emphasized the importance of learning objectives to include desired behavior, learning condition, and assessment.Writing objectives, even today is influenced by these 3 elements.

Behavioral objectives got another boost when in 1956, Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues developed the “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives”. He identified three principal domains of learning: Cognitive (what one knows or thinks), Psychomotor (what one does, physically) and Affective (what one feels, or what attitudes one has).

The Criterion-Referenced Testing Movement – Early 1960s

Until 1962, norm-referenced tests were used, which compared an individual’s performance to a group performance. In 1962, Robert Glaser coined the term “criterion-referenced measures” which examines the entry-level behavior of students before they take up a course. Finally the extent to which students have acquired the behaviors after the instructional program is over, is determined.

The Conditionsof Learning – 1965

In 1965, Robert Gagne identified the 9 events of instruction that are used even today as founding principles to guide instructional design. Gagne highlighted some very important areas in learning hierarchies and hierarchical analysis which formed an important concept in instruction – that instruction should be designed so as to ensure that learners acquire basic skills before they attempt to acquire more advanced ones.

Shortly after this, in 1967 Michael Scriven emphasized the need of formative assessment, i.e. to try out the drafts of instructional material with learners before putting them in their final form.

A Rise of Interest in the Systems Approach – 1970s

By the 1970s, the topic of ID had started to ripen. Numerous models were developed across military, academia and organizations. These models were based on information-processing-approach and used media and ID procedures to improve the quality of instruction.

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The birth of e-learning – 1980s

1980s saw the integration of personal computers into the design process. Methods were being evaluated as to how the PC could be used in an academic and interactive context. Computers began to be used as tools to automate some instructional design tasks. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operation), the first generalized computer assisted instruction system allowed computers to be integrated into instruction. Many modern concepts in multi-user computing such as forums,e-mail, chat rooms, message boards, online testing, picture languages, remote screen sharing, multiplayer games and instant messaging were developed on PLATO.

Concurrently, there was also a rising interest in how the principles of cognitive psychology could be applied in the instructional design process, and the cognitive load theory began to prove its relevance.

A Rising Interest in Constructivism and the Importance of Performance -1990s

In the 1990s, there was notable change in the attitude towards learning. Until then, learning was mostly focused on theoretical and traditional forms of ID. The constructivist theory underlined the importance of “authentic” learning tasks that could replicate the actual complexity of the real world environment which learners would apply their learnt skills.

Performance support systems were developed as there was a growing emphasis on performance improvement.

The Rise of Online Learning – 2000s

Deeper internet penetration and better bandwidths made it a very popular tool for online learning. E-learning gained further importance as educational institutions and organizations began to unearth ways to deliver courses online coupled with social media tools in the late 2000s.

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2010 and beyond

Now is the age of learning technology in all its form – social, mobile and personalized. Big data and analytics are already shaping the way how learning is tailored to the needs and preferences of each learner. The principles of instruction are no doubt, rooted in years of research in ID, but learning is now designed to be more contextual, fluid and learner-friendly. Social Mobile Analytics and Cloud (SMAC) technologies are at the heart of this era of learning.

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Robert Reiser- A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part II: A History of Instructional Design

Reiser, R.A. (2012). History of instructional design and technology. In R.A.
Reiser & J.V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional
Design and Technology (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Reiser, R.A. (2001). A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part II: A History of Instructional Design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(2), 57 – 67.






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  1. How about the shift from Push to Pull, personalization, and the rise of learning choice? Recognition of social and informal learning? Third-party resources (from YouTube to EdX)?

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