Why Instructional Design is No Longer Trending

Instructional design

Instructional Design has been in slow decline since 2005.


Why has the interest in instructional design declined over the last 12 years? Some say it’s dead, others say it has evolved. But into what, nobody really knows. One thing is clear, the work we do as instructional designers has been disrupted. And there is no clear path to what is next. We hear about and discuss social learning, mobile learning, informal learning, and other terms. But the instructional design of these solutions is left out. Does that mean instructional design is no longer necessary? Do people just not care any more?

Historical Perspective on Instructional Design

There was a time when, training was requested, it meant classroom training because that was the only option. And there was a time before that when the school house was not quite so structured. During the industrial revolution we got really good at standardizing processes…for everything. So, of course, we defined processes and models for designing the perfect classroom learning experience. And then dispensed that template across the nation to every other school house. The school teacher was no longer on her own. He/she could simply acquire the curriculum on a particular subject. That came in the form of a student/teacher guide. And it was instructional designers who were needed to design those materials.  But then the digital revolution began.

Instructional Design Status Quo Didn’t Work

Our first response was to pave the cow paths as the old saying goes. We used the same process for creating student/teacher guides and used it to create self-paced computer-based training. No teacher required. It has taken our industry a long time to realize that new processes would be required for this new delivery model. Not to mention the fact that we still need instructors. But that’s another story. One might argue that the industry still hasn’t accepted the new reality of 21st century learning. There is nothing in the legacy instructional design process about supporting learning as a long term process, or how to deal with mobile phones, or user-generated content. Legacy ID was “one and done”. Build a course and deliver it…over and over. But in the digital age of “fail fast” and “the lean startup”, one and done does not fly. Could this be why instructional design is no longer trending?

The google trend graph for instructional design, the term and field of study, would seem to indicate that interest has declined steadily over the last 12 years. And while it looks to be flattening out, it is still trending downward. And that would seem counterintuitive given the massive amount of digital content being generated each day. At least a small portion of that content is designed specifically to be instructional. And that small portion is no doubt significantly greater than all of the published student/teacher guides combined to date. Oh and did I mention that the majority of that instructional content is NOT created by instructional designers? So how can we explain the decline of instructional design?

The Mystery of Nothing Special Exposed

Perhaps the magical mysterious processes behind the curtain of instructional design have been exposed as an elaborate ruse? It seems many have discovered that simply showing people how to do something is good enough. And even recording one’s self explaining something also seems to be okay. And better yet, practicing and failing rounds out the magic of learning.

Explaining. Showing. Doing.  These are powerful methods of instruction. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in instructional design to recognize that. With the digital revolution we’ve seen the growth of tools allowing anyone to create content that explains and shows others something new. And the tools for creating simulated experiences are getting better and better. Could it be that specializing in the legacy process of instructional design, or the field of study, is simply not necessary? Or maybe just trending downward?

The legacy version of instructional design is what we see declining in google trends. But the work of Training, Learning and Development, continues on and is more important than ever. Today we accept that any content capable of influencing the improvement of performance is valuable to the business. It doesn’t need to be a course. And what we define as a course doesn’t, and shouldn’t, be what it’s always been. Courses are still necessary, but not sufficient to support the long term process of learning.

This is why the modular structure of course development within the Litmos LMS continues to be effective. A course can be whatever you want it to be. And anyone can upload content and publish a course. It’s the democratization of course development and delivery. So while instructional design may be declining, course development is just starting to boom.

Understanding the business that you work in and environment of the employees is not part of instructional design. It’s part of the job. The job of helping the company succeed. And that means improving the performance of those who work in it. When you focus on that, there is no instructional design required. And that’s why instructional design is no longer trending.