Instructional Design Should Be About Thinking Not Process

In past work John Shank and I have drawn parallels between some core elements of instructional design and design thinking. For example, both begin with efforts to understand users. Both involve prototyping to develop an appropriate product. And both incorporate efforts to evaluate outcomes to determine if the product, as designed, achieved the desired solution. In fact, for those with some background, prior experience with or training in instructional design, it should be a logical leap to grasp the key concepts of design thinking.

A new article about instructional design in the latest issue of Educational Technology (Sept-Oct 2007) titled “A Principle-Based Model of Instructional Design: A New Way of Thinking About and Teaching ID” is primarily about instructional design, but the author makes a case that what it is really about is not the process we’ve all come to know and love – as exemplified by ADDIE – but is really a set of principles and a way of thinking. The author, Kenneth Silber, never mentions the phrase “design thinking” but he writes:

If ID (instructional design) is problem solving (not a systematic procedure), then the real questions are how designers think, and the principles they use.

In drawing his own parallels between the two, Silber develops five principles, one of which is “The thinking process is similar to one designers in other fields use.” In other words, the commonality between the many different fields of design is the application of design thinking. “There is a great deal of similarity between the way IDers think about problems and the way designers in general do” writes Silber.

Silber’s goal is not simply to draw these parallels, but to make a case that instructional design is more about problem solving and thinking of ways to design solutions. If that is the case, and he presents a great deal of literature to support his argument, then he states that instructors of ID should rethink their methods and help learners to understand how to use design thinking to identify problems and determine their solutions. I’ll have to read this one a few more times for it all to sink in, but it was great to find an instructional design instructor whose principles can help us to further refine our thinking about the intersections between instructional design and design thinking.


Playful Design

Last month’s ALA TechSource’s Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium (GLLS) transformed my thinking about library services and, in particular, my thinking about designing user experiences. During the conference, I was enthralled by speaker after speaker who described how games not only draw in hard-to-reach patrons, but how they inspire a greater level of engagement among those patrons. School children, for example, who resist cracking open textbooks eagerly consume lengthy, complicated gaming guides and spend endless hours trying to master new gaming skills. Why do they expend the extra effort? The answer, in part, is play.


According to James Paul Gee, GLLS speaker and author of the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, marketers figured out something that teachers and librarians have yet to master: sound learning principles sell complexity. In the case of games, those principles have been applied to play so that learning, in effect, becomes fun. It follows that if librarians were to apply some or all of these learning principles to designing library experiences, patrons would enjoy using the library and even become more likely to take on the complicated aspects of using our services.


Using play to encourage deeper learning is not a new idea in library circles. In her article, Play Matters: The Academic Librarian’s Role in Fostering Historical Thinking, librarian-extraordinaire Lisa Norberg proposes creating digital sandboxes full of rich primary source materials that encourage students to explore and have fun with the resources. Then, if they want, they can continue to learn more about how to locate them using library search tools. In doing so, librarians can engage patrons on an emotional level before “leveling up” to more advanced techniques.


What, then are the key learning principles librarians should apply to their services? Gee mentioned 12 during his talk at the Symposium, which I’m paraphrasing liberally here:

  1. Lower the consequence of failure. In other words, make libraries risk-free zones.

  2. Put learning before competence. No one is born knowing how to use a library so patrons shouldn’t feel as though they’re expected to be experts on their first visit.

  3. Make players/patrons co-designers so that their actions matter and make a difference. This could mean inviting patrons to make design decisions from the earliest planning stages to implementation.

  4. Order challenges so that they become progressively more difficult (like levels in a game).

  5. Arrange challenges in cycles. Players/patrons are given the chance to test a skill, perfect it, then move on to another challenge where they can build on the skill.

  6. Test players/patrons to the outer edges of their abilities so that challenges are not too difficult or too easy.

  7. Ask players/patrons to consider situations and relationships, not just facts.

  8. Foster empathy for a complex system (the library?) by making players/patrons a part of it.

  9. Give verbal information just in time to be useful.

  10. “Situate” meanings by enabling patrons to associate the meanings of unknown words and symbols within proper contexts. (As an example, Gee mentioned how difficult it is for students to learn Geology terms because they’re given word definitions for phenomena they have never personally experienced or have a frame of reference for).

  11. Encourage “modding,” or allowing players/patrons to change what they don’t like about a situation to better fit their preferences.

  12. Give feedback and assessment. (The Ann Arbor District Library knows just how important rankings are among gamers, which is evident in their popular tournament leaderboards).

Maybe it seems unrealistic to incorporate every one of these principles into all of our services, but it is striking just how few of them we seem to apply. As Lisa Hinchliffe pointed out in her GLLS talk, the OPAC, for example, is not reaffirming for patrons because it doesn’t let them know whether or not they conducted a successful search. If we employ the above principles to our OPAC including giving assessment, allowing modding, providing needed information just in time, and so on, we could improve patron’s search skills while making research more enjoyable.


When designing library services, play is a serious consideration. Play enhances enjoyment, encourages people to develop skills, improves learning outcomes, and forges emotional bonds between patrons and libraries. Thinking about how these 12 principles can improve our services is a good place to start for more playful library designs.

Designing Your Objectives – Part Two

In part one of this two-part post I introduced a method used by instructional designers to develop objectives. Sound objectives are in integral part of assessment, for without well-designed objectives we have no clear sense of what the outcome is and how we can measure whether or not the appropriate outcome was achieved. So let’s go back to our objective and apply the A-B-C-D method to it.

The students will complete an exercise in which they translate research topics into research questions. This will be completed as an assignment for review in class. Students should successfully convert 8 of 10 topic statements into acceptable research questions.

In this example the “A” (audience) part of the objective is the students. The audience is the individual(s) who will participate in the objective. The “B” (behavior) part of the objective is complete an exercise in which they translate research topics into research questions. The behavior is what we want or expect the audience to accomplish. The “C” (condition) part of the objective is review in class. The objective should describe where or under what conditions the learning needs to take place. Finally the “D” (degree) part of the objective is sucessfully convert 8 of 10 topic statements. It identifies just exactly what the learner must do to achieve competency, and helps to measure if the objective has been accomplished.

So if we were to conduct an exercise in an instruction session to test student ability to translate topics into research questions, it would be up to the instructor to devise an instruction method and choose an instruction medium, but the actual assessment of learning would be no different whatever methods were used. If the students are able to demonstrate they can successfully convert 8 of 10 topic statements, then the outcome was achieved.

I hope this example helps to illustrate how the A-B-C-D method can be used to write objectives. The difficulty in writing clear objectives is a frequent barrier in designing learning outcomes. If this method doesn’t work for you, an option may be the Web-Based Objectives Builder Tool. I have experimented with it a bit, and if you take the time to work through it can help to write or think through objectives. It can even help with working through the A-B-C-D method as it can recommend appropriate verbs for contructing objectives. It takes some practice, but some may find the Builder Tool works better. Those who need help developing and writing objectives can find more information in many instructional design texts. I recently found this article to be of some help.

So the next time you need to design an instruction session or instructional product for your user community consider starting with a set of objectives. It may save a good deal of time when conducting the assessment of the service or product.

Designing Your Objectives – Part One

One way to design a better library, or at least the services the library provides, is to start with clear, well-thought out and well-written objectives. I think we tend to overlook the value of developing objectives at the start of our projects. Perhaps we are often in too much of a hurry to try something new or to roll out a new service to take the time to thoughtfully design the objectives. Certainly, without objectives determing what is to be assessed or evaluated will be a more difficult task. How can you evaluate a program or service if you are unable to assess if the original objectives were acheived?

My own familiarity with the design of objectives comes out of instructional design, and the ADDIE process. We will discuss ADDIE (and a more librarian-focused version called BLAAM) at another time. We may tend to associate objectives with goals, as in the goals and objectives usually identified in a strategic plan. Objectives for designing services or instructional products are not all that different. They all give us something more concrete to assess. For example, for an instructional product the objective should describe a specific outcome that the learner will be able to accomplish as a result of engaging in the learning process.

There is no exact science to objective writing but a frequently recommended technique is the A-B-C-D method in which four components of any objective are developed. A is for the audience; for who is the instruction intended. B is for behavior; what behavior should the learner have at the end of the instruction. C is for condition; under what condition must the learner perform the skill. D is for degree; this establishes the standard for determining when the learner has achieved the objective.

In a forthcoming post I’ll continue this discussion on designing objectives. We’ll take a further look at how the A-B-C-D method would work using this example:

The students will complete an exercise in which they translate research topics into research questions. This will be completed as an assignment for review in class. Students should successfully convert 8 of 10 topic statement into acceptable research questions.

What Is Instructional Design

What is instructional design? This is the question we will focus on this week as we continue in our journey to understand how librarians can make us of the instructional design process to enhance their design of library instruction. The following site provides a good definition of instructional design ( Now that we have a common framework, we can move on to gaining a better understanding of the discipline. The following materials are a very condensed listing of resources that can provide a basic self-study to help librarians understand the basics of instructional design.

    1. A good site to learn more about basic instructional design principles is the IDD workbook created by graduate students at the University of Southern Alabama (
    2. Also, the following audio files provide a nice overview of instructional design ( & (
    3. Finally, the following multimedia recording from CIDDIE @ the University of Pittsburg provides a good overview of a basic instructional design model (
    4. To learn more about instructional design models Martin Ryder’s site is quite useful (

Once you have immersed yourself in the above materials you should have a better understanding of what instructional design is. In the next blog we will look at what basic instructional technology is.