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The Evolution of Instructional Design

In my previous blog, I introduced you to instructional design and its role in the development of e-learning modules. This blog will tell you about the evolution of instructional design over the last century, till date. Instructional design has an interesting history; this blog covers significant phases of the evolution process. Read further to know more.


The idea of using instructional design for training first emerged during World War II. The US military was confronted with issues of training new recruits rapidly and helping soldiers master new, complex weapons. Both issues could be tackled only by training a large number of soldiers, at the same time.

Using films and audio-visual technology for instruction seemed the right solution to meet this strategy. Between 1941 and 1945, the Division of Visual Aid for War Training in the U.S Department of Education produced sound motion pictures, silent filmstrips, and instructor manuals to educate and train soldiers. This had a positive impact on the country’s fortunes in the war.

People who were hired by the military to create these films were well-established researchers. The success of the military training was proof of how a well-funded research and development process can create a well-planned and efficient instructional strategy.

Psychologists and educators started researching the theory of instruction. Significant work in this field was done by Skinner.


Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning (1958) states that learning results in changes in overt behavior. These changes are the result of an individual’s response to events. Reinforcement is a key element of his theory. Reinforcement should add value to the desired response. It can be praise, a good grade, or the feeling of accomplishment. The theory led educators to think that human learning can be enhanced if reinforcements are carefully controlled, to elicit the desired behavior.

The application of this theory to e-learning led to the development of the programmed instruction movement. Programmed instruction is the method of presenting new subject matter to students in a graded sequence with controlled steps. Students work through the programmed material at their own pace, and their comprehension is evaluated at each stage.

Programmed instruction shifted the focus to outcome behavior of the learner rather than how the teacher delivers the instruction. It stressed the importance of self-paced learning. It also led to the realization that programmed instruction could be used to develop larger systems of instruction.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain was published in 1956. The main idea of the taxonomy is that educational objectives can be arranged in a hierarchy from less to more complex. It helped define and analyze instructional outcomes and also determine the instructional design strategy to achieve them.

This decade also saw the use of television as an instructional medium. At one time, there were more than 242 television channels in the US for educational purposes. However, the use of television for instruction abated in the next decade.

Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain


In this decade, the components of instructional design were defined and the work done by Robert Glaser, Robert Gagne, and Robert Mager had a major influence on this.

Robert Glaser coined the term instructional system which stressed the relationship between teaching and learning. He is known for developing the idea of individually prescribed education.

In 1965, Robert Gagne published The Conditions of Learning which emphasized applying task analysis to instructional design. Task analysis helped break down tasks into sequential steps that will aid learning. The theory outlines nine instructional events and the corresponding cognitive processes.

Another influential work was Preparing Learning Objectives by Robert Mager which focused on the parameters to be followed when setting learning objectives for a course. Mager stressed the importance of the desired behavior, learning conditions, and assessments while writing learning objectives. He said the objectives should be clear so that the intent of the instructional material is clear to the learner.

The work of Gagne, Glaser, and Mager played a significant role in the evolution of instructional design.


The 1970s saw the development of as many as forty instructional models based on the work done by Gagne, Glaser, etc. This decade saw the development of instructional models for training in military, academia, and other industries. The US military formally adopted instructional design for training its forces in the mid1970s.


The rapid developments in computer technology in the 1980s led to the automation of instructional design models. Another significant development was the use of instructional design for teaching curriculum in schools and colleges. Many instructional design professionals turned their attention toward developing computer-based instruction for students. There was a growing trend of businesses in the US adopting instructional design for training purposes during this decade.


In the 1990s, the growing performance technology movement, with its focus on front-end analysis, on-the-job performance, business results, and non-instructional solutions to performance problems, had a significant influence on the instructional design process. Instructional designers began carefully analyze the reasons for poor performance and discovered that the quality or frequency of training was not the reason and began to suggest changes in the incentive programs or the work environment as solutions. So the scope of the designer’s work expanded.

This decade also saw the growing influence of the constructivist theory on instructional design. As a result, the focus moved to creating authentic learning tasks for learners that will reflect the complexity of their real-world environment, where they can employ the skills they are learning.

The increasing use of computers in the 1990s which helped workers perform better in their jobs also created a shift in the focus of instructional designers. The emphasis was now on improving electronic performance support systems through instructional design.

Rapid prototyping is another trend that developed during this decade where a prototype is developed during the early stages of the project, which goes through a series of try and revision cycles till an acceptable version is developed.

 2000 to the Present

The new millennium saw the exponential growth of the Internet. This increased the reach of e-learning. The growth in technology helped instructional design models to incorporate strategies such as simulations, micro-learning, mobile learning, etc., to cater to the demands of the new generation of learners.

With the rapid pace of technological developments, instructional design continues to evolve and incorporate strategies such as augmented reality and real-life simulations which will enrich learning experiences in the future.

nstructional Design 101: A Handy Reference Guide to eLearning Designers