ID is not ISD

You could probably have a three day debate about the significance of the two terms Instructional Design (ID) and Instructional Systems Design (ISD). Are they the same? Completely different? Most could say that the difference is tiny and even more would probably say they mean the same thing. In our new world of learning and development, I think there is a need to describe two different learning design functions and maybe these two terms can now have something distinctly different to hang their hat on now …

What I need is a nice pair of titles/terms to describe two functions within learning design: one term for the act of designing and developing discrete learning content (modules or courses, etc.) while the other term would describe the act of designing and developing learning environments. The two learning design functions are different enough that I think we need two terms. For now, I propose using ID for learning content D&D and ISD for learning environment D&D.

Selfishly, this is driven by the fact that I am much more involved in the design and development of learning environments (ISD) than learning content (ID). In literally hundreds of conversations over the past three years, I’ve found myself sort of taking issue with what I do being described as ID and looking across the table at the term ISD as somehow more suitable. Is there any rationale? Probably not! I just have this driving need to find a way to make distinct what I do for my clients vice what I used to do back in my days in eLearning.

My current work is about creating a series of social experiences and building an environment (virtual and physical) for learners in the corporate workspace. In actuality, this is all ID and in fact I use ID theory on a daily basis to create these social experiences. So, this isn’t a debate about me NOT practicing ID. This debate is about the fact that I have little in common on day to day work with traditional instructional designers.

My previous work mostly involved the classic ID functions of a learner and task analysis, design and development of discrete content objects (for ILT and online training), etc. I was a classic instructional designer. However, my work moved to new places and I have a hard time putting what I do in the same bucket as my previous work. I’m human … I need to categorize to make sense!

My current work is social in nature, loose in structure, conversation and experience-based,  and geared towards applied learning spaces. My driving mantra is that 1) peers learn best from one another  and 2) high-level management usually has about 90% of the answers among them already. Does this mean it’s a closed system of learning … no. Does this mean they learn naturally on their own … yes. Does it mean they cannot be helped with some facilitated learning … certainly not. I do bring value to the engagements. This work I do facilitating this learning to me is what I mean when I say that I design learning environments or learning experiences. What do I title this? Is this the same as building courses?

For now, Instructional Systems Design seems to fit the bill the best. I’m sure there are other terms out there. So, the purpose of this blog post is to kick-start my own exploration into the best way to describe what I do …

One of the trends in the learning industry is proclaiming that a new Instructional Design (ID) model, such as rapid development prototyping, needs to replace Instructional System Design (ISD) because the new model provides more benefits, such as it’s newer, dynamic, and faster. Yet ID models differ from ISD models, thus its sort of like saying that a new boat model is going to replace the automobile—yes they are both transportation devices but they do differ in their uses!

ID (Instruction Design) models differ from ISD models in that ISD models have a broad scope and typically divide the instruction design process into five phases (van Merriënboer, 1997):

  • Analysis
  • Design (sometimes combined with Development)
  • Development
  • Implementation or Delivery
  • Evaluation

Since ISD models cover a broad spectrum they normally do not go into much detail in the design phase. This is where ID models excel. Since they are less broad in nature and mostly focus on design, they normally go into much more detail for the design phase.

Two popular ISD models are ADDIE and The Dick and Carey Model. ISD can also be extended by using Frog Design’s model to solve wicked or complex problems as it aligns with ADDIE:

Some popular ID models include Rapid Instructional Design (RID), Gagne’s Nine Steps of Instruction, John Keller’s ARCS model, Merrill’s Component Display Theory, and van Merriënboer’s 4C/ID Model.

ISD can be thought more of as a project management tool while ID models are specialized tools used to enhance the learning process.

Omitting ISD and relying strictly on an ID model often omits critical parts of the design process, such as analysis and evaluation. Thus, unless you design for certain groups in an organization or industry in which you know your learners, analysis is important to determine the skill level that the learning program is aimed at. In addition, managers will often identify any performance problem as a training problem, thus the designer needs to ensure it is indeed a training problem rather than a bad process or motivation problem.

Evaluation is not only important to determine if the program is meeting the needs of the organization, but also as a learning tool for the designers themselves.

The best way to use ID models is to plug them into the ISD model as they are needed. For example:

Plu and play capabilities of ADDIE (ISD)

This method allows you to gain the benefit of the ID model that will best suit your needs for enhancing your learning program, while ensuring that your learning program will do what it is supposed to do.


van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (1997). Training Complex Cognitive Skills: A Four-Component Instructional Design Model for Technical Training. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

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