Instructional Design in the Information Age

Philip Duchastel

This paper was discussed in the IFETS Forum [] in May of 1999.


How will instructional design theories evolve in an age that is ever more information intensive? This is the issue addressed here, building on deep questioning concerning the current status of educational technology (e.g. Kearsley, 1998; Clark and Estes, 1998) and the evolution of instructional design theory (Reigeluth 1999; Duchastel, 1998). All this along the backdrop provided by the emergence of a new informational context made possible by the Internet, and more specifically by the Web.

The issue is operationalized further by examining the distinction between information design and instructional design. Merrill (1997) strongly points out that simply providing information is not the same as designing instruction, and that notion is intuitively accepted by most. And yet, current instructional theory focusing on learner-centric and constructivist approaches rely heavily on information access and learning environments that encourage free interaction with information resources. Are we not then seeing a re-emphasis on information design, although within a less didactic context?

The essential question posed here is whether and how the evolving technology context (characterized by the web) within which we work and learn will influence how we design instruction. It is similar to the issue raised by Reigeluth and Squire (1998) in proposing the need for a new paradigm of instructional design theory in response to societal changes of the recent past.

The status of instructional design in the information age may not appear as what many think it will be. My view is that it will be subsumed under the broader field of information design, within a context focusing on the crafting of information interactions for the benefit of the learner.

The Product-Process Dimension

The product-process dimension is one of those little examined aspects of analysis that can perhaps throw light on the issue. In a critical reaction to Reigeluth’s promotion of the role of values in instructional design theory (1999), I describe the dimension as follows:

Teaching in a classroom is a process (an event unfolding in time), whereas instructional software on a computer is a product (generally packaged and distributed as such). And yet, the software product unfolds and manipulates an instructional event in the same sense that the teacher does in the classroom. Likewise, the teacher's instructional process is not merely spontaneous (even if at times highly reactive to the situation at hand), for it follows a plan and involves a set of materials - a product view of teaching.

Instruction can be viewed both ways and instructional design theory needs to consider both as well. In effect, learning is an interaction with information products and occurs over time in an organized sequence fashioned as an event. All products unfold events, just as all events involve products, no matter how spontaneous or ephemeral these sometimes are. Both views are required for instructional design theory to reach towards generality. (Duchastel, 1998)

Which view we want to emphasize is merely a matter of choice. But yet, our choice of view will orient how we think about instruction. Consider again the information design / instructional design distinction introduced earlier.

Information design (Jacobson, 1999; Duchastel, 1999) can be defined in its modern idiom as the technology aimed at structuring information in artifacts so as to make it available and optimally useful. It is more than graphical design (its traditional idiom) and more than human-computer interaction (HCI) – an aspect of it.

A prototypical modern example of an information artifact is the web page. It is generally viewed more as a product than as a process and comes in exponentially growing numbers. That the web needs design attention is becoming more recognized (Nielsen, 1999). That the proposed solution is user-interface design introduces more of a process view and aligns it with instructional design. Indeed, the parallels between the two technologies (HCI and instructional design) are remarkable, as any examination of an introductory HCI textbook will show. Prospective views of HCI actually discuss it in terms of interaction design (Winograd, 1997; Pearce, 1997).

Information design can thus be viewed as much more than message design: more as the creation of information products that people can use for highly goal-oriented reasons. In some cases, that may be obtaining specific information, browsing the web, or for simple entertainment. In many cases, it will be for learning. The subset of information design that deals with learning is in fact equivalent to instructional design.

Put another way, instructional design is involved with the creation of information environments that engage learners in certain ways. The collection of instructional strategies at the core of any instructional design are in fact embodied in an information environment that channels information interactions.

The subsumption of ID within information design would be merely a definitional argument if it were not for our evolving informational context.

Impact of the Information Age

The massive growth in information access that the web provides (Nielsen, 1999, talks of a fifty-fold growth in the next five years) changes the very nature of our information environment, and potentially how we interact with information, including our learning interactions. Just as a computer-rich instructional environment can influence the nature of instruction, so too can an information-rich one.

Consider the influence of these three environments: the web, a CBT package, and a classroom. The web encourages browsing, something of a cross between directed exploration and happenstance findings. CBT is more structured interaction, generally highly focused. The classroom often involves the students in a more laid-back stance, following the lead of the teacher and whatever unfolds. These constitute three rather different modes of interaction. The information flows involved in each are very different.

Two core elements are at play in these diverse environments, as in all instructional settings: motivation and structure. In fact, these elements largely define how instructional an information environment is: the need to motivate and to structure come about because of the natural difficulties of learning in situ, that is in the natural informational environment in which we find ourselves. As elaborated further in Duchastel (1998), instruction, at its core, is an intentional effort to influence, that is, to redirect an event.

The value of instruction lies in situations where focused goals are important, whereas diffuse goals can be left to wander here and there in terms of motivation and structure. If one wants students to learn a certain computing language, for instance, strong guidance is called for. On the other hand, if the goal is simply to explore emerging trends in medical technology, then more open exploration might better succeed.

Instruction, however, is often a palliative to make up for an information-poor environment. In another context I have discussed what I call the effin factor:

The effin factor deals with the effort-to-interest relationship evident in our dealings with information search activities.

The effin factor captures the positive relationship between the inherent interest a person sees in a topic and the effort the person is willing to devote to an information search in support of exploring the topic. The web generally reduces the effort needed (despite search and navigation difficulties), thereby encouraging exploration. (Duchastel, 1997)

The implication is that information richness can make up for the natural barriers to learning and hence reduce the need for instruction.

In this perspective, the classroom makes up for normal interactions that would not take place in the natural environment for lack of the necessary information. The CBT program engages the student in interactions that are not available naturally in his or her environment. The consequence of this perspective is that as information rich environments grow, learners will have more access to occasions for natural learning in which motivation and structure will be less needed from the outside.

Information richness in effect makes up for the deficiencies of traditional settings. In so doing, it changes the very nature of the context of learning and hence of instructional design.


We must not conclude from this analysis that instruction is unneeded in the future and that instructional design is irrelevant in the information age. On the contrary, we are likely to see the emergence of powerful means of instruction that capitalize on the information–rich nature of the environment, just as we have seen that same occurence with technology-rich environments.

The state of instructional design theory is in disarray, however, as explained in a critical reaction (Duchastel, 1998) to Reigeluth’s recent anthology of theories (1999). We must seek integration of instructional design theories in the form of some ‘umbrella theory’ for deciding which particular theory to use when (Reigeluth and Squire, 1998). The notion that those decisions be based on values (what educational philosophy one adopts), as suggested by Reigeluth, or on the nature of the goals being pursued, as suggested by myself, remains an issue to be much further explored. The convergence of values and goals in contemporary educational discussions, as for instance in debates about constructivism, does little to help in this matter.

The information age continues to provide growing opportunities for information-rich interactions. The implication here essentially is that instruction itself can de-emphasize its role in information provision and focus attention on other functions. That is in fact largely what is already happening in the newer learner-centered approaches that continue to emerge.


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