Written by:

Holly Macdonald


November 12, 2015


The word has such lofty connotations. You create. You make. You construct. You model. You build. You design.

I’m a designer. An instructional designer. I design instruction. Seems pretty simple, right? Well, it used to be, but it’s become a bit more muddy these days. At least to me. Recently I’ve noticed a few things that blur the lines between instructional design (or more specifically e-learning design) and other types of design, including web design and graphic design or just misappropriating the term “online course” (and by association instructional design). I’d argue not in a good way. Design is certainly a term that is being applied to all kinds of fields: business model design, app design, product design, industrial design, usability design, etc. But the intent of how design is applied is different. Or at least it should be.

First of all, what is design?

According to Wikipedia,

there is no universal language or unifying institution for designers of all disciplines. This allows for many differing philosophies and approaches toward the subject.

Which explains my confusion. Design is such a broad term!

These are some examples of how I see design confusion manifested:

Confusing the purpose of a website and an online course/e-learning.

I’ve seen a few “educational” websites where it is called an online course, but it would appear that the emphasis on the project is actually to provide resources. They are often quite attractive and it’s obvious that the web designer took a lot of time to make them look cohesive and usable. But, they are framed as online courses, not websites. All I see is text or maybe a video or animation. What do I click? I read the text, now what? I watch the video of someone talking at me. So what? The most alarming thing for me is when these are health topics. These are sites that SHOULD be instructional: how to manage a chronic health condition or how to identify someone at risk for example. There’s little that helps apply any new information. There’s no differentiation between what might need to be learned or memorized vs what could be referenced. There’s not a lot of context about when this information would be best accessed. There’s not a lot that I actually do on these sites. I worry that there’s an emphasis on including existing resources or focusing on high production values and little to no thought to the educational aspect.  A website and an online course are not interchangeable. Just because you view them both on the web, doesn’t mean that they are the same thing. Moreover, there are many instances where BOTH would be useful. The design intent is what matters. If you intend to make an educational website, then make sure you include instructional components.

It only matters if it’s pretty

I’ve noticed an overemphasis on visual or graphic design to determine the effectiveness of a course (or a website for that matter). I think great graphics or visual design should support e-learning (and web design), but bristle at some of the things I’ve seen that are supposed to teach you something. They look gorgeous, but don’t actually have any structure that would support learning. Or they are “award winning” courses, based on the visuals. No mention of whether or not they are instructionally sound or have had impact on the business problem they were intended to change. I’m especially irked when this is done for public projects. If we want to support a behaviour change, for example, in financial literacy for youth, why would we just create a pretty website and call it a course? All that money and effort into slick graphics aren’t going to translate magically into learning.

Interestingly I read this article during the contemplation of the post you are reading: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3053406/how-apple-is-giving-design-a-bad-name. One of the statements that jumped out at me:

“Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.”

So, it’s not just me that is noticing the trend towards “pretty”.  Form and function are both necessary for great design. Don’t design for the accolades of other designers. Design for usefulness for the user and to address the business problem.

Anyone can make an online course. It’s easy!

Another interesting aspect that I’ve noticed is the explosion of online courses sold by individuals. These courses are usually subscription style online courses or e-learning. I would argue that many of them are actually marketing material (you are either providing training as a way to demonstrate your expertise or as a product that provides passive revenue). Some of these are quite good. Others are terrible and sound like get rich quick schemes. The biggest beef I have with these, is that they are typically passive pieces of content that are pushed out. There’s no behaviour change expected. There’s no skill practice. There’s not even any learning activity. Mostly it’s click to get access to my exclusive webinar type of stuff. It’s just a series of emails that push content to you. I love the notion of subscription training, but not every subscription course is created equal and some use the term “course” a little more cavalierly than I’d like. If the intent is to teach something, then make sure you allow people to learn.

All of this begs the question: is there actually anything special about instructional design? Am I deluded in thinking that there’s a difference between web design and e-learning? Is the proliferation of online courses good or bad for instructional design? Is everyone confused about design these days or just me? Am I alone in worrying?

In a series of posts, we’ll explore design, from the perspective of instructional design, and try to make sense of it all.