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Learning Design vs. Instructional Design

Exploring the differences between learning design and instructional design

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Kathy Siedlaczek
20 October 2009

What are the differences between learning design and instructional design?  Is it the approach?  The breadth?  The focus?  The audience?  Or is a just a new term for the same thing?

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Interesting and related debate going on in this cloud.

Gráinne Conole
15:41 on 7 November 2009

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James Llewis
10:59 on 27 February 2013

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Gráinne Conole
5:54pm 20 October 2009

Hi thanks for starting this Kathy! I think this is a really interesting question and one that has been coming up on the dicussions at thet ETUG workshop already. For me learning design is broader than instructional design - its about the whole suite of tools, resources and methods that might be used to support the design process. Instructional design has a very specific history and associated research field. In Europe the term lower case learning design has emerged in the last ten years ago. For me its also about briding in different theoretical perspectives - for example I draw on socio-cultural prespectives alot, others have different theoretical perspectives. I think also the issue about the term is a characteristic of our area and its changing nature. The same arguments have occurred in the past about learning objects, e-learning, OER, technology enhanced learning etc. I do think its useful however sometimes to stop and reflect and try and come to some consensus about the field and terminology or at least recognise different positions even if we can't agree to agree! ;-)

Gráinne Conole
8:10pm 20 October 2009

lindacq @gconole very tricky question 4 me specially in english. do u diff btw learning and instruction? do u include instruction in learning? :-/

Linda Castañeda
11:38am 21 October 2009

Thanks for starting this Kathy,

I agree with Grainne.

In adittion, as I have told you in twitter, for me is difficult discuss about this in english, because the term "learning" in english is very broad. In spanish (and if I'm not wrong in german as well) "design", by definition, is appropriate to "teaching" (we talked more often curriculum design) BUT learning (as a personal process, which could be or not a teaching consequence) wouldn't be "designed" in stricted sense, and if we talked about "learning design", we are trying to answer to a more "psicological" approach than a pedagogical one.

This is the reason beacuse, in my opinion, this is a discussion restricted by languages,  and I'm not sure if we can take something useful, more than the reflection and the discussion it self (interchange is enough for me :-))

Thanks again, continue discussing :-)

Gráinne Conole
12:19pm 21 October 2009

Hiya Linda - your points seem to resonate with the position Peter Goodyear takes, I've added a link. I think you are right there are language differences but also I think different people have different belief positions and theoretical perspectives they draw on. This makes apparently simple terms sutbly very different and complex!

Rebecca Galley
1:59pm 21 October 2009 (Edited 7:31pm 21 October 2009)

Don't the two come from different education philosophies with Instructional design coming from a behaviourist viewpoint - ie the teacher provides a stimulus to which the learners respond (therefore focus on teacher and tasks) whereas LD comes from Cognitivist/ constructivist viewpoint which focuses on the way in which learners engage with the learning in order to assimilate knowledge/skills/attitudes and values therefore focus on activities.

Rosario Passos
6:07pm 21 October 2009

Instructional design vs. learning design - perhaps a bit too simplistic, but for me, the difference resides on the focus: Instructional design focuses on design artefacts underpinned by the process of instruction - transmission, teaching perpectives, whereas learning design focuses on design artefacts underpinned by learning theory (focus on the learning process / according to desired outcomes). So, from my perspective I see ID focusing more on designing artefacts according to how to teach a pecific concept and LD focusing more on designing artefacts according to how learners can learn specific content. As I am writing this I am realising how non linear this is :-) Let's keep up the discussion.  

Gráinne Conole
6:11pm 21 October 2009

Wow this is *such* an interesting question - I see learning design more as the whole set of things can make up support the design process in terms of creating a learning activity for a specifc purpose. The ultimate use of course is by the learner but the "learning design' is around the design creating the learning activity.

Kathy Siedlaczek
7:47pm 21 October 2009

I've tried to do some quick reading about learning design (since I'm more familiar with the term instructional design).  I see a lot of references to IMS specifications for learning design, and especially at the RELOAD site.  Here's an excerpt:  

Learning Design includes the following elements for Level A (see IMS LD BP&Iv1s3.2.2):

  • a series of activities (assessment, discussion, simulation),
  • performed by one or more players (learners, teachers etc.) - roles,
  • in an environment consisting of learning objects or services.

This seems to go well with what I learned about Compendium yesterday, which was very activity-focussed.  But I think there's a lot more to Compendium that I haven't learned about yet!  For example, can Compendium be used for a course-level view, as opposed to a series of activities?

What I'm left thinking is, can instructional design and learning design co-exist, and be part of an overall design process?  Or are they philosophically counter positions?

Gráinne Conole
8:08pm 21 October 2009

Hi Kathy the IMS spec stuff is at one end of the spectrum - in terms of technical stuff - or Learning Design with capital LD. I have added a link to a "learn about learning design guide we produced" which might help explain the concept more. 

Gráinne Conole
8:25pm 21 October 2009

Have also added a link to the JISC Designing for Learning programme.

Gráinne Conole
8:50pm 21 October 2009

Have also added a link to a paper we did at last year's Ascilite conference and another one to a paper at Edmedia. Both have introductions given our perspective and definition of learning design.

Martin Owen
2:43pm 27 October 2009

In welsh teaching and learning are the same word "dysgu" - which is linguistically unhelpful.

I have come to believe that learning is something we humanoids do individually and collectively and it is a biological process. It seems to happen if you are behaviourist, cnstructivest or whatever "ist" you wish to adhere to.

Clearly we can alter the medium in which tthat process takes place - which for the sake of argument we can call the modification of that medium "teaching". Teaching is clearly designable - but learning is with in our body/bodies and is our response to the environment.

These references may be historic now but Bateson's and Maturana's biological descriptions seem fairly solid at the organism level. I think Engestrom made good use of Bateson in his PhD thesis on Expansive Learning that was available on the web somewhere.

There will always be a contradiction. In simplistic terms there can be no costructivst teaching method - because constructivism describes a learning process and it does not matter how you teach - because the learning will always be "constructivist". Behaviourism on the other hand makes assumptions about both learning and the external factors that influence it.  What Bateson does is provide a unified theory in his "Logical levels of learning" in which S-R learning is but Level 0.

I have paraphrased some of this work on from page 28 onwards.

Martin Owen
2:49pm 27 October 2009 (Edited 1:06pm 8 December 2009)

Engestrom's PhD "Learning by Expanding"

Martin Owen
3:23pm 27 October 2009

Something else that has been on my mind recently follows a revisit of Nonaka's work on Knowledge Creation. He describes environments which are conducive to 'meaning making", or "ba", take place.

Nonaka suggests you should create an environment where tacit understanding can be made available for others (ie made explicit) and throuh this process mutual learning takes place. At the base level the sociability of the environment is important. You need to trust and understand your fellow learners. He has described the importance of cigarette breaks and kareoke evenings so that "shoulder-to-shoulder ness" can develop.

Learning Design therefore needs to address "water holes and the time available to visit them". Smoking Shelters may form a subset of instructional design. I do not remember any of this in Gagne or Merrill or in IMS LD.

The concept of `Ba': Building a foundation for knowledge creation.


Thomas Ryberg
4:40pm 27 October 2009

Oh great discussion, as I am myself trying to work my way into the world of learning design (or design for learning). I really like the description of learning design (non-capitalised) as given in the 'learn about learning design' resource:

"This approach advocates a process of ‘design for learning’ by which one arrives at a plan, structure or design for a learning situation, where support is realised through tools that support the process"

In our research group we have been working with a 'design game' called the Collaborative e-Learning Design Method (CoED) - it was created by some of my colleagues (Marianne Georgsen and Tom Nyvang) and it is based on ideas from the field of systems development (or rather ideas about user driven design, user involvement etc.) and then collaborative learning where the intention is to design for learning and learn in the design process.

It is a method which is primarily used to help practitioners reflect on their own pedagogical values while also guiding/facilitating practical design. In this way my own thinking about learning design is very much oriented towards providing practitioners with design resources and tools (e.g. design games/activities) to reflect on and guide their own designs for learning. We are currently working on describing this more in some papers for the upcoming Networked Learning Conference, but I have/will add a link to a description of the 'design game' - It was not originally related  to the field of learning design or articulated as learning design metod, but I think it resonates well with many other initiatives that seem to emerge around learning design.

Rosario Passos
3:58pm 28 October 2009

Design for learning! YES!! that's what it is! Thanks Thomas.... it resonates with me.... more so than learning design, which I keep trying to sort our in my head: how is it different from instructional design? The readings I have done keep my brain going on in circles - but in a good way. :-) Design for learning is what we as educators strive to achieve, using instructional design strategies underpinned by learning theory.

Thomas Ryberg
7:31am 29 October 2009

As much as I would love to take credit for that, I should say that the term and citation is from a paper by Simon Cross and Grainne found through the 'learn about learning design resource' :-)

Alfred Low
10:59am 29 October 2009

Hiya....allow me to say something. I believe Smith and Ragan (1995)'s book on instructional design has prescribed instructional events for teaching facts, concepts, procedures, principles, problem-solving (cognitive strategies), affective learning and psychomotor skills.

These events or elements of instruction may look very didactic, but if one think of them as tasks or activities, it becomes learning design?

Consider teaching of concepts in instructional design: (1) name the concept, (2) define the concept, (3) show prototype - examples and non-examples, (4) state attributes,  (5) practice and feedback

Consider constructing concept knowledge in learning design: (1) show prototype - example and non-examples to have students tease out the attributes, (2) reveal concept and definition

In both the above formats, each event  can be seen as an activity or task have a unique pedagogical profiles on the Octahedron: non-reflective - reflective; individual - group-based, Rote - discovery?

Have I confused every one?

LeRoy Hill
11:32am 18 November 2009

I am really happy to be part of this discussion.  I too have been struggling to come to grips with what exactly constitute instructional design (ID) or learning design.  I am thinking that because of the focus more on student-centred learning as a process makes this a deliberate attempt to reflect a constructivist approach.  However, there a number of constructivist models and approaches to ID.  It seems confusing at times with what learning design actually mean since from the constructivist view planning of learning is somewhat impossible.  Correct me if I am wrong but how exactly can you plan learning. I think that is why I am more inclined to use design for learning.  I think the naming conventions just making it a bit more difficult for new designers like myself….then to I suppose that is part of the process of coming to know the field :-)

 I am presently also trying to come to grips with the whole idea of a ID theory, framework, model and have found that there are differing ways in which individuals describe them.

I am a second year PhD student using a participatory design framework with a social network of over 700 educators in which we are trying to explore a deliberate approach to ID.  Therefore this is something I have to decipher and acknowledge.  Reigeluth seem to give a good description of various approaches but it leaves me wanting even more given my context which is very complex.  I am in my second cycle and I think I am still not clear as to whether I am using a framework, model or maybe come up with a design theory.  It seems likely that all of this is part of the ID process or maybe it is more to do with instructional system development (ISD).

I am hoping that I can get some direction on this forum.

Simon Cross
10:25am 5 February 2010

I wonder if the conceptual or practical distances between learning and instructional design are to some degree elastic depending on individual interpretations, definitions, positionality, approach to teaching and breadth of knowledge of the two literatures. Sometimes there will be clear water and sometimes more murky eddies. Whilst it is important to pursue the unravelling of difference, a second direction could be to focus on the boundary between the disciplines; what can each learn from the other and is there overlap in how both grapple with the questions around what design means, how should it be done, how represented, how shared, how evaluated? More importantly, could the introduction of an alternative, and indeed different, perspective spark new questions and save us time in developing solutions? I've noted some further thoughts on my blog:

Rebecca Galley
10:51am 5 February 2010

@Simon. Yes - there seem to be links and shared assumptions behind both models. I agree too that there are links to wider craft and industrial design models and practices which could also be thrown into the pot. I have been following the Learn to practice, practice to learn cloud with interest re the implicit and explicit integration of theory into design practices.

Also, I added a link to your ALT-C paper Design problem, design solution - I think it's relevant to this discussion.

Alfred Low
3:58am 6 February 2010

Sorry to be away for so long. Glad to be back. I am thinking about form and function, Given that learning design is broader that instructional design, I have the following questions I hope to have feedback:

  1. Is Learning Design better than Instructional Design? Is this a good question to ask?
  2. If the instructional designer provides a whole suite of tools on the screen, for example if the learner is free to use all the functions given him/her to construct artefacts, isn't this similar to Learning Design?

    Or if the instruction on a frame ask the learner to take a poll on an issue and then from the poll result, direct them to a discussion forum to discuss, isn't this like what you would get from instructional design?

  3. Is ID a thing of the past and is no longer useful?

I use to think that for Learning Design, the activities are not ordered like in a page turner is a courseware developed in instructional design. And yet we I look at LAMS it is somewhat a page turner although the activity design can allow learners some control of how they wish to progress in the course.

4. Does it mean that needs assessment is no longer important?

I asked because in some corporate environments, the branching method (behaviourist) method is preferred for purely pragmatic reasons - that executives have no time to air their thoughtsand engage another in discussion forums. Neither do they have time to created learning artifacts. It is sad because the subject matter to be learnt can be very abstract, ill-structured abd complex. Hence it is impractical to use associationist /behaviourist instructional approaches. On the other hand if branching is done elegantlly, it can serve as a good input for reflection....I think. :)

Paul Sijpkes
4:23am 30 April 2012 (Edited 4:24am 30 April 2012)

I know this is an old thread, but I thought I'd contribute my thoughts on this issue.  I'm new to "learning design" and "instructional design", my first exposure was through my MA course at CoCo at Sydney University. 

To me it seems unhelpful to juxtapose the two areas, Simon Cross' point of view rings true to me that both views need to learn from each other.  I understand that constructivism (whether it be social, cognitive or whatever) is the underpinning philosophy behind the 'learning design' point of view and agree with LeRoy Hill on using the description 'designing for learning' because learning can happen whether we design for it or not and learning happens whether we are teaching or instructing or not.  We can also instruct someone without them learning anything, equally, we can teach someone without them learning anything.  Learning is a cognitive process that will occur in many contexts, much of it outside the four walls of a classroom or Blackboard or Moodle course.  Therefore we need to design environments and opportunities for learning rather than trying to 'design' the learning itself. 

I'm starting to see designing for learning as similar to the job of an architect to create learning spaces and learning opportunities.  This is in line with the constructivist line of thinking, as we are not so much telling people how and what to think but rather giving people the opportunities to think and learn with the best supporting resources and evidence based research.  Instructional Design has a place here as it is just one part of the learning process, rather than the 'be-all-and-end-all' of learning. The same way resources such as textbooks, videos and rich interactive media each have a place in the learning process, ID becomes one facet of the learning process, rather than trying to cover the entire scope of learning.

Just some thoughts to contribute to this engaging discussion...


Gráinne Conole
11:46am 25 January 2013


A group of us have been meeting over the last couple of years to try and articulate what we mean by learning design and how it is distinct from instructional design. We have produced a document summarising our discussions We will be looking at this in Week 8 of the OLDS MOOC. 

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