One of the things you quickly learn as an instructional designer is that you precariously straddle two worlds that don’t always like to interact: practical and theoretical. Most academic fields have some level of tension between these two sides. In education its usually between the more practical Curriculum and Instruction side and the more theoretical Educational Philosophy side. And, of course, there isn’t a hard line between the two – they tend to mix a lot in the middle. You often find the instructional designers hanging out in that middle mix.

That’s really what the instructional designer does – take the theory and mix it with the supporting research on what practically works and produce effective and engaging design.

Easier said that done.

One of the issues that designers often deal with is getting the instructors to focus enough on good theory in order to form a strong foundation for quality practical design. The fine line between good and bad design or even okay-ish and good design is often held back by lack of theoretical focus more so than lack of technical knowledge about technology tools.


Most instructors seem to be convinced that there is a “golden child” technology out there just waiting to be discovered. If they can just find this technology, or combination of technologies, or even hidden features in technologies they already use… then their classes will magically transform into glorious utopias of engaged learners. Students will be happy, completion rates will skyrocket, everyone will hold hands, pass out flowers, and start a drum circle chanting the praises of how awesome the course is.

What most instructional designers know is the harsh reality that learning more and more about technology and tools often makes it harder to design a good course. Instead of a concentrated focus on what works best for what you want students to learn, technology becomes the driving focus. And this means the course often gets worse, or at best trades one okay-ish design for another okay-ish design.

Some of the most innovative and effective courses out there are being taught with things like blogs and Twitter and YouTube videos – basically just a bunch of tools that most people know how to use already. No golden child magical technology tool doing cool stuff that no one else seems to be aware of. Just really good theory and focused instructional design.

This blog post is one of many that I am working on inspired by the OLC Emerging Technologies Symposium this week, and the conversations that occurred around/at/because of that event. I was in the test kitchen there playing with cool new tools and apps as much as the next person. I love emerging technology and finding new websites and tools and services to use. I also love it when people find great educational uses for these cool new things. But most of the really awesome courses out there are not coming from people getting more technical training, but from people that dig into the theory side and said “I want to accomplish this theoretical idea” and then found the basic technology to realize their vision.

Of course, that is easy to say for people like me that love the theoretical side of learning, whether it is epistemological, ontological, or just purely philosophical. For those that find theory to be more on the dull side, its not quite so easy. But we need to push back against the slow creep of technological solutionism in instructional design that tells us we need to “get more technological training!” to fix our courses.

Think of it this way: if you need to have more technical knowledge in order to improve your courses, then your IT department is going to be the best instructional design department on campus. But your IT department will be the first ones to tell you they can’t help you with digital learning, because that is (generally) not what they know.

So, if you find theory a bit intimidating, I get that. Find something you already know and dig deeper. You don’t have to learn it all.

If you find theory boring, well, I don’t get that. :) But I see where people could feel that way. Find the one part that is least boring and dig in to see if maybe it will surprise you.

If you think you already know theory well enough (but you don’t work primarily as a theorist in some way)…. ummm…. let’s talk a bit about scale. One of my incredibly brilliant professors once told me he had read one book by Jurgen Habermas over 20 times and still maybe grasped about half of it. Habermas has many books, and is himself just one of hundreds if not thousands of thinkers that influence educational theory. You may understand the cliff notes version of theory in general or maybe a few specific theories at a Wikipedia level, but that is not nearly all there is out there.

edugeek-journal-avatarThe people that are exploring the depths of theory out there are the ones that are coming up with truly revolutionary ideas like connectivism or rhizomatic learning, or creating revolutionary tools like ProSolo or a Domain of One’s Own. Or to tie back to OLC this week, its not the people that find a better tool than Twitter that are going to change education, but the people that Bonnie Stewart that dig into an existing tool like Twitter to see what is going on there that will. I promise you – if you dig more into Bonnie Stewart’s work than you dig around for technical training on a tool, you will see bigger and better changes to your course.

(image credit: Mariana Figueroa, obtained from

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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