A Hard Look at ISD - 2002

In the February 2002 edition of Training magazine Ron Zemke and Allison Rossett wrote a follow up to The Attack on ISD with A Hard Look at ISD. In their opening section, they write,

Many of the affronted challenged the magazine's right to make the critique it did and chose to berate both the authors and the experts whose views were cited.

However, if the authors would go back and read the original article, they would discover that it was indeed an attack rather than a critique, for a critique raises not only the bad points, but also the good. In addition, their “critiques” were most often amiss. And finally, the title contains the word attack (┬áto try to hurt, injure, or destroy), not critique (a detailed analysis and assessment).

The article cites three main flaws with ISD:

It's The Process

First, it is not the process. In The Attack on ISD, the charge was mostly that ISD is too prescriptive, however, many proponents of ISD argue that it should strive to be more, rather than less prescriptive. Yet, in reality, it should not strive to be more or less — it should simply be what we discover it to be — a conceptual framework for building instruction. That is, its form will follow its function.

Who could argue that instructional program development should not follow the Analyze, Design, Develop and Evaluate sequence? - Diane Gayeski in A Hard Look at ISD

ISD has a very sound process in its five basic phases. Even its opponents have a hard time arguing that. It seems to be the steps in the various phases that upsets them the most — they say experts can do it better. And for the most part they are right... the experts can indeed do it better. This is what makes instructional design a craft — the skill-set of the designer has more to with the effectiveness of the product than the model itself. Yet, how does one become an expert craftsperson in the first place? By learning various models and concepts and then practicing until the designers have constructed their own schemata.

Thus, the ISD model is an important part of the process for becoming an expert — it acts as building block or scaffold. Yet it does seem quite strange that the very model that has helped many an expert become who they are, they in turn, look upon the ISD object with scorn. So as far as processes, we need to look at ISD as a framework or series of steps for a beginning designer to follow, and as that designer grows, then it starts turning more into a heuristic.

The major problem with ISD is that it has become the underlying framework guiding training and development; it has displaced the more critical focus on results, ISD focuses on INPUTS; management wants OUTPUTS. To get outputs, you start with outputs, not design and development strategy. - John Murphy in The Attack on ISD

Again ISD does not profess to discover the desired results, that is the job of the performance analysis. But once you have the desired results, and you determine that training will help you get the desired results, then ISD uses various inputs to get the output. You CANNOT have outputs without inputs. Just as the farmer cares for his seeds (inputs) to get crops (outputs), an instructional designer needs to tend to the inputs (analysis, objectives, tests, etc.) to get the desired output (learning that leads to performance).

It's The Practice

Criticism of ISD, though oftentimes valid, should be put in historic perspective, cautions Donald Tosti, president of Vanguard Consulting in San Rafael, CA, and one of the six original critics. Specifically, he reminds us that the cook-book approach to instructional design comes out of the widespread adoption of ISD by the military in the early 1970s. This 'ISD for dummies' strategy, he offers, was created to allow people with little experience to create reasonably acceptable training. - A Hard Look at ISD

Actually, this 'ISD for dummies' strategy is false. Going back to Russell Watson's paper presented to the International Congress for Individualized Instruction (see ADDIE), he writes,

As defense machinery was becoming more and more sophisticated, the educational background of entry level soldiers was becoming lower and lower. The potential solution to this problem was in the form of a 'systems approach' to training.

At the time, the Armed Forces had very good instructors and designers. What was lacking was the means to draw all that expertise into a coordinated effort to achieve specific results. Their focus at the time was more on using media as a learning process, rather than viewing the whole concept of learning.

From about 1900 to 1950, there was a movement in the learning field known as the Visual Instruction Movement. The purpose of this movement was to eliminate 'verbalism' from instruction by giving priority to visual aids. And then starting about the 1950s, communication models become in vogue with instructional technology, which of course bought Marshall McLuhan's popular message, “the medium is the message” to the forefront of instructional technology.

In contrast, the early 1950s brought about the concept of “Systems.” First, the Air Force formalized the systems concept. Secondly, the Air Research and Development Command drew together various research and development agencies concerned with systems. This systems approach was needed to combat the prevailing view that hardware was the key (Saettler, 1990). That is, there was more to advancing technologies that simply hardware — there was also people and processes. Thus, a systems concept is simply a way of describing people and technology within the context of an organization.

In the meantime, the training and educational industries worshiped hardware, and in particular, media. While in other industries it was more than hardware — it was also people and processes, or the entire "system."

With complex technologies entering the Armed Forces, there had to be a better strategy of instructing sophisticated machinery than simply relying upon media to bring about learning, thus it was only natural that this system concept was also adapted by the instructional designers.

The New Technology Challenge

ISD in the traditional sense looks fired ... while the rest of the world is getting wired. We need to bring our processes and theory up to date to match the technology at this point in time. - Vanessa Dennen in A Hard Look at ISD

This I very much agree with. There is always room for improvement such as suggested here). So rather than attacking a tool in our arsenal against bad performance, how do we bring it up to date? Right now, it seems almost as if instructional design wants to revert back to hardware is king philosophy, and in this case, the hardware being elearning or mlearning. Now elearning is good, yet it has its limits, thus blended learning is used to improve it, which in turn, is really an ISD concept. Are we destined to go in circles forever?

Next Steps

Next section: ISD at Warp Speed

Return to the History of Instructional System Design


Saettler, Paul (1990). The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Zemke, R., Rossett, A. (2002). A Hard Look at ISD. Training Magazine, vol. 39, Iss. 2, pp.27-33.