All (Design) Things to All Faculty? Choosing Framework Fluidity to Address Common and Unique Challenges


Sam Gist, M.S., Senior Instructional Design Consultant, University of North Texas

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If you’re like me, one of the most challenging aspects of designing a course alongside an instructor is figuring out how to get started. Ideally, you want a clean slate for applying a design framework that allows you to incrementally fine-tune content that shines online. In reality, you’re often placed in situations where faculty come enthusiastically armed with a mixed bag of pre-existing learning outcomes, media assets, assignments and assessments that were never intended for online consumption. It’s difficult to dive in and begin building a solid course foundation with say, the ADDIE model, when you’re busy picking apart, and patching up your base construction materials.

This is one of many scenarios in which a single, prescriptive design frame we adhere to can fail to account for external variables beyond our control. Frameworks are crucial. Selecting a specific design framework can radically alter the development of the course. I’ve often found myself asking the question: which approach is best suited for the unique task at hand, and is there one approach to rule them all?

In many cases, I see designers become staunch adherents to a singular school of thought around design. There are many reasons that designers fail to employ useful tidbits from a variety of existing frameworks. Some are attracted to dynamic thought leaders in the field that claim their framework offers exclusive solutions overlooked by competing design theorists. Some institutions pressure their designers to adopt a single course development methodology. Some are overwhelmed by the plethora of design literature being produced and cite learning trend fatigue as a reason for sticking to a familiar blueprint.

Regardless of the reason, it’s easy to succumb to framework fundamentalism, where the selective adherence to a singular framework forecloses on possibilities and paths that may be more appropriate for the instructor you’re working with, the subject matter being taught, and the student learning experience.

Recently, there’s been a good deal of discussion regarding the evolution of instructional design, and the changing role of designers towards a more learner experience  design (LXD) focus. While there’s overlap between what’s considered more traditional instructional design and LXD, there seems to be a consensus that LXD is the more holistic approach, as it incorporates elements of “instructional design, educational pedagogy, neuroscience, social sciences, and UI/UX (User Interface/User eXperience)” (Weigel, 2015).  Some promote the LXD framework as a logical progression in the evolution of design thinking, as it’s intended to incorporate all the good elements of traditional instructional design, along with a more pronounced UX focus. In the broadest sense, traditional instructional design enthusiasts tend to focus on instruction and the instructor, whereas LX design advocates concentrate on the learner and their experience.

The problem with adopting a framework that over-emphasizes, or only emphasizes, select elements of the design process is that it fails to recognize the systematic complexity and competing needs of everyone involved.  In order for a film director to create an artistically viable, or at least entertaining product, they have to bring out the best in their actors, placate studio executives, remain budget conscious, consult with other artists and effects specialists, adhere to demanding shooting schedules, and focus on editing scripts and scenes.

Likewise, instructional designers often function as facilitators who simultaneous work to please faculty, managers, institutional administrators, and students. Moreover, restrictive external pressures such as tight development deadlines, limited access to educational technologies, and changes in institutional policy and procedure force us to rethink and adjust our models in real time.

What keeps me invested, and ultimately, interested in design work, is the opportunity to remix existing frameworks in order to create on-demand, and ‘just-in-time’ frameworks that complement each unique consultation and design project.

Frameworks are toolboxes. No one design framework is the way, but a way of arriving at a quality learning experience.  And here, I’d like to throw out the aphorism that ultimately, all frameworks are wrong, but some are useful.

While some new design theories and frameworks bill themselves as ‘turn-key,’ solutions that invalidate or envelop existing practices, no one framework can encapsulate all the complexity of the course development process, anticipate every unforeseen challenge faced by individual instructors and/or institutions, and provide fine-tuned answers for each project we tackle. In this way, differentiated design provides an answer. Why not borrow and blend from them all?


Margaret Weigel (2015). Learning Experience Design vs. User Experience: Moving From “User” to “Learner”

Sam Gist is a Senior Instructional Design Consultant at the University of North Texas, and has worked in the ID field since 2012, including experience managing a team of six Instructional Designers.  He holds a Master’s degree in Communication Studies, and enjoys exploring the intersections of design thinking, technology, experience, and communication, particularly as applied to effective education.  Sam is a panelist in the upcoming Instructional Design Summit at OLC Accelerate 2019, and is looking forward to a good conversation about Instructional Design – especially about your experiences and perspectives on applied and theoretical practices and frameworks.

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