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Instructional design meets online learning in higher education

Lou Siragusa
Curtin University of Technology
With the rapid acceptance of the use of the Internet for learning, lecturers in higher educational institutions are being encouraged to develop their course materials for online delivery. Instructional design decisions that lead to the way in which students learn on the Internet are being placed in the hands of lecturers who are only just coming to grips with online learning and the use of the Internet. Some lecturers have done enormous amounts of work in this area and have collected data regarding how students study and learn using this medium. Literature review reveals that instructional design provides the underlying foundation for developing effective materials for online delivery. There exists enormous amounts of literature regarding instructional design for computer-based multimedia applications that is often overlooked and should be taken into account when designing for the online medium.

This discussion will focus on the identification of instructional design principles for the development of effective online learning environments. This discussion will also highlight how, through thoughtful instructional design decisions, effective learning strategies can be developed for students learning online.


Over recent years we have witnessed the introduction, development and acceptance of the use of the Internet for learning in higher education. For various reasons, administrators have encouraged this development and have pushed educators to become familiar with Internet technology. Within a relatively short amount of time, educators have had to come to terms with using this technology to deliver their classes. Whether educators have embraced the use of this technology or put off using the Internet for as long as possible, all educators in higher education may eventually find themselves considering the development of course materials for delivery through this medium. We are moving beyond asking if this is an acceptable medium to use for learning and we are now asking how best to use it.

Since the introduction of computers for learning, there have been numerous published research findings that present instructional design principles for the use of computer-assisted learning applications as well as audio visual and print-based materials. There now exists numerous text published that present instructional design procedures that provide for an effective learning experience. Research and development for online learning has not yet caught up with the pace at which courses are appearing on the Internet. Instructional design principles that were developed for computer-assisted instruction appear to be overlooked by those now developing materials for the Internet. Although the Internet is a unique environment requiring unique considerations, the work produced by instructional designers of the past can not be ignored. Rather than haphazardly experimenting with online instructional design (as is often the case), we should allow ourselves to be informed by this body of knowledge from the past as a basis for building new knowledge about online instructional design (McBeath and Siragusa, 2000).

Venezky and Osin (1991, p.97) defined instructional design as "... the process which an instructional task specification is translated into an instructional program." In the case of developing materials for online learning, the instructional designer needs to examine the learning materials given by the content experts. Usually the material is in printed form or produced electronically from a word processor needing translation into a form that is suitable for placement on the Internet. Learning guides and course content produced for paper-based distribution to students generally provide a page turning exercise. The students usually start from the beginning of a section and work through each page of text, diagrams and activities as they appear. Earlier attempts of using the Internet for learning involved placing these same print-based pages on the Internet. The very nature of HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language) pages does not allow for page turning, but instead creates a single long page on the screen that requires scrolling to read all of the material presented. A section of course content may be, for example, 20 pages in length in a word processor document. When the same material is converted into HTML, the 20 pages may become one continuous HTML page.

There are currently studies and observations being made about how people read information on the Internet. One agreed observation is that people tend to skim read and read less than they would with print-based materials. The longer the HTML pages the more likely the material will be read over quickly if at all. Many people report that reading materials from the screen is uncomfortable and will read as little as possible, particularly if the material is difficult to read. Instructional designers creating online courses are becoming more aware of these issues and are learning from experience and feedback from users on how to effectively use the online environment for learning.

Online course development services such as WestOne Online Services (http://www.westone.com.au/) and AlphaWest (http://www.alphawest.com.au/) employ instructional designers to develop learning materials for online delivery. These instructional designers are constantly learning through their own experiences and feedback from users of this learning environment as to how best to represent these materials on the Internet. They also incorporate existing instructional design principles such as screen design principles. Although there are instructional designers hard at work developing and providing this service, there has been little published about how instructional design principles apply to this new learning environment. There are now published papers emerging addressing how instructional design principles can be applied to this medium through various authors' own experiences and observations.

In order to demonstrate the importance of identifying instructional design principles for online learning, this paper will present examples from educators and researchers regarding instructional design for online learning environments. A discussion will also be made regarding how thoughtful instructional design can lead to effective learning strategies for students to employ. An argument will be made to support the need for ongoing research into identifying effective instructional design principles and learning strategies for this medium.

Rationale for research into instructional design for online learning

The author's observations, discourse with lecturers and instructional designers, and literature review has revealed that there is a need for lecturers to be aware that preparing units for delivery on the Internet requires considerations that are unique to other forms of delivery. Those new to online delivery are often misled into believing that placing units on the Internet involves saving class notes as HTML files and then "dropping" them into an online courseware environment such as WebCT. Creating an effective online learning environment for students requires thoughtful and appropriate design of the content materials and the target audience.

Pan (1998, pp.147-148) explained how "... although technology has made it easy to produce Web pages, producing good and useful Web pages is still difficult." Greening (1998) argued that "... generally, instructional designers either do not always appear to take advantage of the hypermedia technology, or do so without pedagogical foundation." Documents created in HTML behave differently from a typical word processed document. The way in which people read a HTML page on the Internet is different from the way they read a printed word processed document. Oliver, Herrington and Omari (1996) suggested that "... using hypertext to organise and retrieve information resembles the workings of human memory and cognition far more closely than does the organisational structure of linear text." There are, therefore, instructional design issues that need to be addressed when writing in HTML. Over recent years, authors have been documenting these differences and have acknowledged the need for further investigation into instructional design for Internet delivery.

Instructional design issues

The Internet is an ever-growing environment where Web designers and developers have access to new development tools and programming languages that assist with the building of a Web-page for viewing on the Internet. Internet technologies are constantly being developed and will constantly present new challenges for those involved in building Web-based learning environments. Although Internet technologies are constantly evolving, the instructional design issues have remained relatively constant. Enhancements to Web pages with sound, graphics and animation can provide for rather entertaining Web sites. The use of these enhancements, however, have the potential to hinder the learning experience through the process of trying to entertain learners rather than providing clear learning messages.

Shoffner and Dalton (1998, pp.371-374) explained how "... in the design of the instruction, delivery strategies are those decisions affecting the way the information will be carried to the learner." The challenge faced by the course designer is to decide which is the best way to present the materials to the students using the Internet for delivery. Carlson, Downs, Repman and Clark (1998, pp.142-143) argued that Web-based instruction is presented in a format that differs significantly from traditional instruction. Rather than designing instruction that is intended to deliver information to the learner, it is necessary to design instruction which engages the learner in interactive activities.

Many of the instructional design issues raised in this paper may seem obvious when stated. This author's observations of various Web sites, however, reveals that online course designers are still making fundamental instructional design errors. Numerous authors are still reminding us of the importance of thoughtful instructional design principles that need to be applied to online learning environments. Existing literature on how best to approach the subject of instructional design issues have varied through the authors' focus towards instructional design for online learning. The following will present some examples of this published literature.

Literature review of instructional design for online learning

Currently published papers, journal articles and books regarding the use of the Internet for learning frequently comment on the need for sound instructional design to create effective online learning environments. Chen (1998), for example, made the following comments:
Further research studies regarding the instructional effects of Web-based distance learning will be ... investigated. ... the Web will ... continue to encourage educators to integrate it in their teaching and learning process. (p.87)
The literature review reveals that decisions made at the instructional design phase of course development can influence and encourage different learning strategies that can be used by students. The following will present examples of existing literature that examines instructional design and learning strategies in Web-based learning environments.

Instructional design

Various authors have identified components of instructional design they consider to be important to online learning. Shoffner and Dalton (1998, p.386) recommended that "... further research is needed to determine which aspects of each type of instructional strategy effects learning in emerging technology-based instruction." Forsyth (1996, p.49) argued that "... we should be incorporating those features that optimise computer-based learning and reduce ... those features ... identified as hindering learning ..." Instructional designers are constantly seeking effective instructional design elements and are examining what features of the Internet can best be utilised for online learning. Their work ranges from examining what text fonts are most suitable for the computer screen through to the design of interactive learning activities and development of learning strategies. Much of their ground-breaking work is only documented in "in-house" instructional design policies, not in published literature for the general public. There has been, however, a recognition for the need for publication of instructional design guidelines and training to increase student confidence and participation in online courses (Winfield, Mealy and Sceibel, 1998, pp.446-448; Bennett, Priest and Macpherson, 1999).

Various authors have reported their observations and research based on the data they have collected from their own involvement of using the Internet for learning. Instructional design issues raised by these authors have been, for the purpose of this discussion, categorised into the following headings:


McCormack, C. and Jones, D. (1998, pp.67-68) described a Web site as a combination of two structures: the presentation structure and the storage structure. The presentation structure provides the "look and feel" of the Web-pages including the navigation paths. The storage structure is the hierarchy of files and directories/folders used on the Web server to store the Web pages and other data.

Bills and Martin (1997, pp.2-15) defined structure in a Web-based learning environment as "... an instructional strategy that shows students how the instructional material is organized and how it relates to what they have previously learned." McCormack, C. and Jones, D. (1998, pp.75-77) argued that the presentation structure should be designed so as to reduce the effort required of users to find the information required. McCormack, C. and Jones, D. (1998, p.77) presented two different structures as shown in Figure 1 that represent the same amount of information. The left-hand structure (a) is a narrow but deep structure; the left-hand structure (b) is a broad but shallow structure. A balance between the depth and breadth of the Web site should not have too many links for users to follow and not have too many links on the one page.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A deep structure and a shallow structure.

McCormack, C. and Jones, D. (1998, pp.77-94) also discussed how the use of graphics needs to be well controlled so as not to slow down the loading of the pages. Students abandon slow loading Web pages and pages with just text (Swan, Bowman, Holmes, Schweig and Vargas, 1998, pp.98-101). Students were also observed reacting to elements of text such as font, size and type as well as screen layouts, screen pictures, cartoons, logos and so on. The appropriate use of cartoons appealed to most students. The components of quality in technology-based educational materials include clarity of the graphics, readability of the screens, how the material is assembled (Bates, 1998, p.4.3.7).

Pan (1998, pp.147-148) described how optimising the Web for better instruction includes the use of basic instructional design and screen design theories. The Web site, for example, should provide for resources that engage students in extensive exploration and collaboration. The Web pages should also be intuitive and self-explanatory. The designer should also be sensitive to the users hardware and software limitations. Alternatives for unsupported functions and plug-ins should be provided. Pan also suggested that a good Web page is not only good-looking, exciting, considerate, but also conducive for learning. Generally, a good design means a simple one (McCormack, C. and Jones, D., 1998, pp.77-94).


Forsyth, I. (1996, pp.46-47) explained how course materials that are translated from face-to-face teaching to alternative modes actually lacks content. There is a structure that is given in the students' guide, but just a skeleton structure. The teachers translate this skeletal structure into classroom teaching through their own notes that is presented to the students while they are in class. Visual clues in the classroom gives the teacher an indication whether the students are understanding what is being taught or whether they need further explanation about a certain point being delivered. On the Internet, there is no way of seeing whether students are understanding what has been given to them. The visual clues from students that teachers become sensitive to are no longer present. Content that is placed on the Internet has to be clear and concise and to provide students with all the conceivable materials that they may need and in alternative forms.

Gross, Walkosz and Brumley (1997, pp.1-4) described how "... the material on the first page should be presented in a manner that even the most naive participant would make the right choices." Bates (1998, p.4.3.7) argued that the learning objectives need to be clear, resulting in the desired learning outcomes. There needs to be an appropriate mix of media to achieve the learning outcomes in the most effective manner. Learning outcomes must be correlated and specifically communicated to the students for each course topic covered and assignment given (Eggers and McGonigle, 1996, pp.194-195).

Gross et al. (1997) explained how the audience to a Web-based classroom may be global. Sensitivity towards unique word usage and definitional changes needs consideration; an inclusion of a glossary may provide a remedy to this. An example of thoughtless choice of words given by Gross et al. is the case of General Motors' (GM) Nova vehicle. GM exported the Nova to some areas in central and South America under the Nova label, which in some cultures translates to "no go." The sales were, to say the least, disappointing. Gross et al. (1997) also argued how rhetorical sensitivity is a key concept for creating successful online instruction. They describe rhetoric sensitivity as being the "tendency to adapt messages to audiences." They also suggest that in order to present effective online instruction, the instructor must "imagine they are learners" or "imagine they are new to online instruction." We have to think from the users point of view about what they would like to see on the Web (Pan, 1998, pp.147-148).

Motivation and feedback

Venezky and Osin (1991, p.71) argued that the longer the course and the more complicated the material to be presented to students the more motivation is needed. The material must be appropriate for the age and social/cultural background of the learner. Motivation may be provided at different levels within online learning environments by means such as: providing help and support to students; build the learner's confidence in the technology; include the "presence" of the educator throughout the course; provide activities that build upon the learner's knowledge; providing feedback to students; and so on.

Winfield et al. (1998, pp.445-448) from the University of Wisconsin (UW) provided design guidelines for enhancing confidence and participation in Web-based courses. They described the use of design guidelines in the development of the Health Assessment course for registered adult nurses at UW. UW Learning Innovations telephone helpdesk provided support for all distance learners. This has enabled course developers to focus their attention on helping learners gain confidence with the Web interface itself and to rapidly interact with online learning activities. The adult nurses registered for the Health Assessment were primarily in rural areas, had low self-confidence with computer technology, and had demanding personal and professional schedules. With this in mind, the course was designed to build self-confidence through a series of "scaffolded" learning activities. Each of these activities was presented in a step-by-step fashion that provided all the resources necessary to enable the student to successfully demonstrate key online competencies such as contributing to a discussion, responding to a comment, and submitting an assignment. Student contributions of professional experiences were central to the Health Assessment course. At the beginning of each week, each student submitted a short discussion comment from their own clinical experience. Students also participated in large and small group discussions that interwove their clinical experience with the preferred practice discussed in the readings, lectures and case studies.

New declarative knowledge must be tied to the students' existing knowledge (Smith and Ragan, 1999, p.60). The knowledge to be learnt must be meaningful to the students by providing links to prior knowledge. Collaborative and contructivist learning strategies are lacking in many online learning environments (Brown, 1997; Sims, 1999).

Gross et al. (1997, pp.1-4) argued that "... in order to keep the learner involved in the topic, the instructor needs to stimulate as many learner receptors as possible." This includes text, pictures, charts, video clips, movies and so on. Online education can accomplish this with much greater ease than traditional methods of instruction. Gross et al. (1997) argued that educators must become, in some aspects, entertainers and presented the Disney Web site (http://www.disney.com) as an example of mixing various types of simulation's together. This site uses text, pictures, sound, movie clips and even online games to inform and entertain people of all ages. We need to remember, however, to avoid distractions from the learning objectives.

Gross et al. (1997) also argued that "... the general curriculum needs to be created with not only the average learner in mind but with a built in open flexibility that will accommodate the novice as well as the advanced learner." For the novice student, the educator needs to provide additional resources and examples to promote understanding. For the advanced student, the educator needs to provide a way for the learner to either work ahead or provide them with additional detail within the topic. Some learners will still have problems and, therefore, educators need to provide for timely feedback. One way to accomplish this is by using question forms within each topic and emailing an answer directly to the student. Another way is to create a "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) list for each topic.

Interaction (communication)

Online tools such as email, bulletin boards, chat and desktop conferencing have provided the educator with a variety of ways of communicating with their students and for students to communicate with each other. All those working with online instruction will agree that interaction is an important aspect to online learning. Bates (1998, p.4.3.7) described how quality in technology-based educational materials includes how well students can ask questions or discuss materials with other students. Bills and Martin (1997, pp.2-15) explained how interactivity provides the student with the means of being actively involved in the learning activity. Interactivity results in learner centred instruction where the student experience is like having a personal interaction with the instructor. Increased interaction improves student achievement and attitudes towards learning.

Venezky and Osin (1991, p.72) described the interaction style as "... the relationship that is created between instructor and student by the tone of the messages presented and the feel of the screen displays." Humour, used appropriately, can also personalise the course and assist with providing motivation.

Winfield et al. (1998, pp.445-448) argued that "... the social dimension of asynchronous learning is critical to instructional effectiveness. Individual success or failure in a course often depends upon the extend to which the students feel a sense of community." The first step to creating a sense of an online community is the projection of a "human face" to personalise the technological meditated course content. This can be achieved, for example, with a weekly announcement from the educator. These informal, course updates project a human presence that let students know that the educator cares about their success with both technology and coursework.

Involvement (activities)

Venezky and Osin (1991, p.73) argued that "... academically engaged students learn more than those who are not so engaged." Students should be involved as much as possible in the instructional process. Involvement may include asking students to perform particular activities such as, "Copy these words into your notebooks... ." Online courseware environments such as WebCT have facilities that allow students to make their own notes while they are within a particular page or topic. An activity may ask students, "In the My Notes, give examples of ... ." As already mentioned, the Internet provides students with communication tools that allow students to work collaboratively. Venezky and Osin also explained how a more sophisticated system for online team learning requires that students share a common problem window and be able to replay the interaction protocol at any time. Such a facility is highly desirable for simulations as well as for problem-solving sessions in which an instructor might monitor the group effort.

Winfield et al. (1998, pp.445-448) argued that "... positive interdependence underlies the successful application of collaborative learning principles. The benefits of online collaboration ... has been widely researched." The Health Assessment course described by Winfield et al. (1998) was built around a series of weekly discussion activities that engage the students in critical examinations of comparative clinical experiences. Discussion activities took place within the unique private team rooms made possible by Lotus LearningSpace. Each student's logon identity allowed them to only see the 'conversation' between their team members. In this manner, the depth and meaning of each team member's contribution was enhanced and responded more directly to.

Learning strategies

Little is known about how students learn within online learning environments (Sims, 1997). Studies are emerging that indicate how online learning strategies can be controlled by learners and improved through instruction (Shih, Ingebritsen, Pleasants, Flickinger and Brown, 1998, p.363). These studies reveal a significant correlation between the student use of effective learning strategies and their achievement. Students should be encouraged to understand different learning strategies to help them become better learners (Shih et al., 1998, p.363; Smith and Ragan, 1999, p.138). Understanding individual learners' needs can lead to the design of learning resources tailored to meet the individual needs of the learners (McLoughlin, 1999).

Educators using the Internet for learning have developed strategies to assist students work their way through the content. Winfield et al. (1998, pp. 445-448), for example, presented their students with a clear list of learning tasks to avoid confusion and disorientation. Weekly learning activities were listed on a single page as a check list. From the list, students linked to a separate lecture, case study and discussion pages. This served to anchor weekly the activities and assisted students to plan their week to stay on task no matter what day they chose to log on. Winfield et al. (1998) also advocated the use of case studies to illustrate both the content and methodology of preferred practice. The use of case studies in a Web-based learning environment was observed to have significantly improve the quality and motivation of the learning experience.

McLoughlin and Oliver (1998) presented a study that examined the needs of gifted and talented students through technology supported distance education.

The study found that technology use can enhance communication and reasoning if it is used, not a device to display syllabus content, but as a cognitive tool to enhance understanding. This was achieved by ... engaging students in cognitive talk, rather than procedural and expository.
Collaboration has been identified by authors as an important learning strategy (Brown, 1997; Sims, 1999). Higher education teaching, through online collaboration, presents a significant shift from the traditional face-to-face teaching and support provided for students (Oliver, Omari & Knibb, 1997; Oliver & Omari, 1999). Online course designers must explore and develop appropriate learning strategies to be built into online courses that describe how strategies such as collaboration can be used by students.

Research has shown that students are capable of identifying effective learning strategies. Research into identifying what learning strategies high achieving students are using in online learning environments must be an ongoing process. Results of such research will assist with the decisions made at the instructional design phase that will encourage students to use effective learning strategies.


Experience has shown that Web-based classroom facilitators often work from models of other existing Web-based learning environments as a basis to building their own Web site. In many cases, there appears to be little evidence to suggest that sufficient consideration is given to the use of good instructional design principles. This observation has been echoed by various authors, educators and instructional design evaluaters who devote a considerable amount of time towards online learning. This can be nearly always be attributed to the limited time available to educators and online developers when developing online learning environments. This paper, however, has presented examples of where authors have highlighted the importance of the need for good instructional design. Although the material is presented from their own perspectives, there are commonalities that appear such as the importance of collaboration, the importance of new knowledge linking with prior knowledge, the importance of interaction, the importance of keeping the learning message clear and so on. This paper has also demonstrated how thoughtful application of instructional design can lead to effective learning strategies for students.

Since the introduction of computer applications for learning, there have been vast quantities of research and development into instructional design principles. What we are seeing today is the developers of online learning environments seemingly ignoring this wealth of resource that can be applied to online learning and are in effective reinventing the wheel (and often repeating mistakes of the past). Online learning environments do have unique characteristics to other mediums that should be considered and utilised to enhance the learning process. Research is needed to identify the instructional design principles of previous computer-assisted learning applications that applies to online learning along with instructional design principles that are unique to online learning environments.

Many authors have commented on the need for ongoing research into instructional design for online learning. Online instructional design that is being reported needs to be further identified through continuing research so as to build knowledge as to what instructional design elements and learning strategies require consideration. The Internet is an ever evolving medium and will for many year to come provide challenges for online developers and educators. Research will undoubtedly yield valuable results that will build upon the findings of instructional designers of the past.


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Author: Lou Siragusa, Curtin University of Technology
Phone (08) 9332 4111 Fax (08) 9332 4111 Email: siragusa@ses.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Siragusa, L. (2000). Instructional design meets online learning in higher education. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2000. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2000/siragusa.html

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