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Editor’s Note: Instructional design was first recognized as a science by Jerrold Kemp in his 1971 publication “Instructional Design: A Plan for Course Development”. Theories of learning and empirical research continue to add additional dimensions to the design process. This paper will be a summary for some and a point of departure for others with different theories of teaching and learning and ways to optimize learning for a broad spectrum of learners.

A Framework for Understanding Instructional Design Contexts
Joel Gardner


Instructional design takes place within a larger system of activity, and this larger system has significant influence on the kind of design that takes place. It is therefore important to understand how the environment or system in which the instructional designer works affects the design outcome. This article defines systems and shows their relevance to instructional design. It then synthesizes and improves on four previously proposed frameworks for understanding systems of activity and proposes a framework for understanding instructional design contexts. This article then describes how this framework applies to an ideal instructional design context.


In defining and describing instructional design, many authors create a prescriptive system for creating instruction (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2005; M. D. Merrill, Drake, Lacy, & Pratt, 1996; Smith & Ragan, 1999). These systems give designers guidance on how to control the process by which instruction is created. This view of a system most closely matches the definition of a system as “a procedure or process for obtaining an objective” (Wordnetweb). While a systematic approach to creating instruction is important, this article is focused on identifying and describing the components of the larger system or context in which instructional design takes place. This larger descriptive system more closely matches the definition of a system as “a group of independent but interrelated elements comprising a unified whole” (Wordnetweb).

The systematic process of instructional design takes place within the larger context or system. Understanding how instructional design is influenced and impacted can provide insight for Instructional Designers (IDs) about ways to improve the quality of instruction. Understanding the larger system in which instructional design takes place is vital for improving the design process. This article proposes a framework for understanding the system or context in which instructional design takes place.

Instructional design is a key practice in the field of Instructional Technology. It is through this practice that many learning environments, courses, classes, and trainings are created; and the decisions made by the IDs have great influence on the context in which learning takes place. Because instructional design plays such a key role in the creation of educational experiences, it is important to understand how it is influenced by the context or system in which it operates.

Literature Review

When designing instruction, it is important to understand the variables that influence the effectiveness of instruction. In research, this can mean “identifying the variables to be considered (descriptive theory), identifying potential relationships between these variables (prescriptive theory), and empirically testing these relationships in the laboratory and the field”(M. D. Merrill et al., 1996, p. 4). This definition is related to Dick and Carey’s (2005) application-oriented description of the systems approach and models for instruction which they call a “logical, iterative process of identifying all the variables that can impact the quality of instruction including its delivery and then integrating information about each variable in the design, development, evaluation, and revision of the instruction” (p. 367). Both approaches advocate an analysis or understanding of variables that influence how instruction is designed and how people learn. This article is specifically focused on understanding those variables as they interact in a system.

The environment or context in which design places has a great impact on the outcome of instructional design. As Banathy (1994) notes, “the essential quality of a part of component of a system resides in its relationship with and contribution to the whole” (p. 28). In the world of instructional design, this means that the quality of instructional design, a component of a larger system, resides in its relationship to that system. This article defines what that system is and how it can be more effectively understood.

Just as Norman (1991) notes the shift in the field of psychology toward “pay(ing) serious attention to the role of the situation, other people, natural and artificial environments, and culture”, I am concerned with the role of these outside variables on the cognitive practice of instructional design. In this article, I propose a framework that identifies categories of those variables to enable an understanding of their influence on the specific settings and practice of instructional design. This article is not intended to be comprehensive in nature; rather, its intent is to create a framework for understanding the system in which design takes place.

What are systems?

Before identifying and describing the system in which IDs work, it is important to understand what is a system? There are many perspectives from which systems are viewed. Systems can be defined as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” (Merriam-Webster Online). Rogers (Rogers, 1995) (reference- diffusion of innovations) notes that systems can be viewed from a social perspective as “a defined set of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem-solving to accomplish a common goal” (p. 23). Acker (2009) writes that a system is a set of two or more elements in which the behavior of each element is independent, and each element affects the behavior of the whole. He also notes that the essential properties of a system come from the interaction of the parts and not their independent actions.

Some researchers analyze and improve educational systems (Bela H. Banathy, 1994; B. H. Banathy, 1995; Reigeluth & Garfinkle, 1994). These authors develop educational systems and describe and implement methods for changing and improving these systems as a whole. Educational systems are most closely related to the framework that is proposed in this article; however, in this article we focus specifically on understanding the system in which instructional design takes place. Under this systems view, we can more easily understand the contextual or environmental influences on instructional design.

Creating the framework for understanding design contexts

To create an improved framework for understanding the system in which instructional design takes place, I will describe and synthesize the writings of several authors. The first is Norman’s (1991) system view of cognitive artifacts. Cognitive artifacts are “an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function” (Norman, 1991). Instructional designers often use these artifacts to aid and enhance the tasks they perform. Norman (1991) writes that under a systems view, the activities performed using artifacts includes the person, the task, and the cognitive artifact used to complete the task. He emphasizes that, seen from a systems perspective, the artifact enhances the cognition performed by the person. See Figure 1.  This systems view of cognitive artifacts is summarized in Column A of Table 1. In the world of Instructional Design, these cognitive artifacts are often called tools. They are diverse and can include a computer, design software, pen and paper, or a Learning Management System (LMS). Each of these tools modifies the design task and potentially enhances the designer’s cognitive abilities to complete the task.

Figure 1. The systems view of cognitive arfitacts, adapted from Norman (1991).
Under this view, cognition and ability is enhanced through use of the artifact. Instructional designers’ abilities are potentially enhanced through the use of tools.

In addition to Norman, Engeström proposes the Human Activity System (Engström, 1990), another system describing how an individual interacts with his environment. In studying the activities of professionals in a health center, Engström identified fundamental elements of human activity.  These elements can be viewed on a personal level, which, like Norman’s analysis, involves the subject or person, the object or task, and the tool or artifact. Engström adds to this view and includes the community level, which adds community, rules, and division-of-labor to the system. Each of these elements is seen as interacting with the other elements to form a system that influences the subject or person’s object. Later sections of this article describe how these elements are applied to the work of an instructional designer. The elements of Engström’s system are summarized in Column B of Table 1

The components identified by Norman and Engström correlate strongly with de Souza and Preece’s (2004) framework for analyzing and understanding online communities. They propose a framework to analyze interactions between members of online communities and their purposes, the software they use to interact, and the policies they create for how to interact. These elements are summarized in Column C of Table 1. Just as De Souza and Preece’s framework informs our understanding of human systems within the context of online communities, this article informs our understanding of human systems in instructional design settings.

In addition, one can see a strong correlation between the elements identified by the above-cited authors, and those mentioned by Morgan (1994) as components of the system influencing school learning contexts. Morgan writes that “administration and management, teacher roles, nature of the client students, physical facilities, parent and community involvement, and instructional resources” all influence the environment in which students learn (p. 49). These elements are summarized in column D of Table 1. Focusing on elements that influence students’ learning environments is an important part of understanding these systems and how these elements influence the instructional design that creates those learning environments.

Table 1 compares the elements described by Norman (1991), Engström (1990), de Souza and Preece (2004), and Morgan (1994). Each row shows the relationships between the components described by each author. In Column E of Table 1is a synthesis of elements described by each of these authors and a proposed Framework for Understanding Instructional Design Contexts. This framework is designed to understand what influences affect the task of instructional design, thereby influencing the extremely important context in which students learn.

Table 1 compares the elements described by Norman (1991), Engström (1990), de Souza and Preece (2004), and Morgan (1994). Each row shows the relationships between the components described by each author. In Column E of Table 1is a synthesis of elements described by each of these authors and a proposed Framework for Understanding Instructional Design Contexts. This framework is designed to understand what influences affect the task of instructional design, thereby influencing the extremely important context in which students learn.

Table 1
Systems Frameworks






System View of Cognitive Artifact (Norman, 1991)

Human Activity System (Engström, 1990)

Online Communities Framework
(de Souza & Preece, 2004)

Elements affecting student learning (Morgan, 1994)

Synthesis: Instructional Design Contexts Framework





Instructional Designer













Teacher roles





Instructional resources

Design Technologies





Rules and Policies


Division of Labor



Division of Labor


Table – Line 1. The elements identified by Norman (1991), Engström (1990), de Souza and Preece (2004), and Morgan (1994) are synthesized and contextualized within the context of instructional designfont-size: 10.0pt;This understanding will provide instructional designers with insight into how their design is influenced and potentially will empower them to change or alter these influences to optimize design experiences for the learner. This article is not intended to present methods for changing educational systems; rather, the purpose is to create a framework for understanding elements that influence the effectiveness of instructional design.

A Framework for Understanding Instructional Design Contexts

The systems and frameworks described above are synthesized to create a framework for understanding instructional design contexts. Column E of Table 1 summarizes these elements and provides instructional design-focused terminology shaped by the terms provided by the above-cited authors. This framework is general in nature and is designed to provide a structure for understanding specific instructional design settings, contexts and/or tasks. See Figure 2. This section describes each of these elements.

Instructional Designer

In this framework, the individual of focus is the Instructional Designer (ID). This individual correlates to the “subject” (Engström, 1990) or “person” (Norman, 1991) described earlier. The ID’s work has great influence over student learning, as it is concerned with specifying and often developing many of the conditions of learning (http://www.aect.org). The influence given by the designer is different from designer to designer. Understanding, for example, how an ID’s pedagogical beliefs, technology skills, communication skills or work ethic influence design contributes to our understanding of the system in which design takes place.


Another element of this framework is the Community. This corresponds to what de Souza and Preece (2004) call “people,” and in the school setting can include administrators, managers, students, and parents (Morgan, 1994). The community is comprised of individuals and groups who have a shared responsibility to influence design decisions and ultimately the learning environment.

Community members can include those directly or indirectly associated with the ID’s work. These can include “content specialist, a media production specialist, evaluation specialist, and a manager” as the team with whom the instruction is designed and developed (Dick & Carey, 2005, p. 10). The ID working with these community members is limited or liberated based on their skills, abilities, attitudes and actions.

Community members can also include those who do not specifically design or develop instruction, but who have indirect or direct influence on the design. These can include administrators, parents, or even lawmakers. We will not focus on these members in great detail, but the potential impact on instructional design and learning environments can be significant.

Division of Labor

Accompanying this community is the division of labor within that community, which can occur naturally or be made explicit. Some roles can be seen as directly influential on instructional design. For example, content, media, and evaluation specialists all take different roles to bring about the instructional design and development of instructional products. Other roles and labor divisions can be more indirect but still influence instructional design. Roles like technical support, facilities management, and LMS administration have an indirect but very real influence on design.

The Figure 2. Framework for Understanding Instructional Design Contexts.
Adapted from Enström’s (1990) Human Activity System. Demonstrates the elements
which interact in the system in which instructional design takes place.


The ID’s goal is to design instruction by designing learning events that will bring about specific outcomes (based on performance objectives). The instructional goals are strongly influenced by other elements in the system including the organization and the community in which the instruction is being developed. For example, the mission or culture of a business in which design takes place heavily influence what is designed, the ID’s pedagogical beliefs or technical skills heavily influence how it is designed, and the design technologies available to the designer influence the completed instruction and its design.

Design technologies

Design Technologies are integral to the field of Instructional Technology. These technologies are similar to the “artifacts” (Norman, 1991), “tools” (Engström, 1990), “software” (de Souza Preece, 2004), and “instructional resources” (Morgan, 1994) described earlier. Summarizing these definitions, a design technology is an artifact or tool, often computer software, which enables the creation of instruction.

In addition to the definition of technology as a physical tool, many design technologies are defined as techniques or ways to make learning more efficient (www.aect.org). These intellectual, internal technologies include theory, which includes concepts, constructs, principles and propositions which serve as a body of knowledge; and, processes, which are a series of activities or operations that are directed toward a specific goal” (http://www.aect.org, italics added).

These physical and intellectual design technologies are very similar to Merrill’s (1996) summary of the use of technology in instructional design: “instructional design is the use of these scientific principles to invent instructional design procedures and tools.It is clear that the design technologies available and selected for creating a learning environment heavily influence student learning.

Rules and policies

The final element in this framework is Rules and Policies.  In the context of instructional design, these can include public policy, laws, instructional design standards, and work regulations. If a designer works for an organization that requires the same format and structure for every course designed and developed, the learning environment is clearly influenced.


The elements identified in this system reveal the complex, systemic nature of instructional design. Each element interacts with others to influence and alter one another; these elements all influence the student’s learning, which is the crucial outcome of an educational system. The next section describes how this framework applies to one specific instructional design context.

The Framework Applied

To illustrate how this system can be used to understand a design context, I will describe a system in which a colleague, Tae K. Jeon, and I designed training at Utah State University (USU). As instructional designers for the Department of Information Technology, we were given the assignment to develop training for university employees on how to use Banner, an “administrative suite of student, financial aid, finance, human resources, and advancement systems” (www.sungardhe.com). As we worked to design this instruction, we noticed that several elements seemed to shape how we created our instruction. This section briefly describes the instructional design project and concludes with a table describing each of these elements and their influence on our design.

As employees of the IT department, we had access to  technologies and professionals who could assist us in the design and development of training. We decided to base our instructional strategy on Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction (2002, 2006) and implemented several web-based technologies to create a task-centered instructional strategy. For a more complete description of this case, see Gardner and Jeon (2009). Table 2 demonstrates how our design activities fit within the framework for understanding instructional design contexts. It briefly describes these elements and shows how they influenced the design of the training.

Table 2
Framework Elements Affecting Banner Training
This table shows how each of these elements of the framework affected the
design outcome of the Banner training described in (Gardner & Jeon, in press).

Instructional Design Contexts Framework

Elements within Banner Training
(Gardner & Jeon, in press)

How element influenced design

Instructional Designer

Gardner is design principles expert ;
Jeon is process and programming expert

Shaped selection of technologies


IT Department at USU;  have access to several other designers, graduate student workers; supervisor on USU committee for Banner

Shaped attitudes about instructional design, resources available, and time constraints for designing instruction.


Create training to teach faculty to use Banner; Reduce faculty frustration with Banner

Influences media selection

Design Technologies

Access to many technologies; integrated desktop capturing software, HTML, FLASH and Blackboard Vista into training

Opportunity to use several technologies. Those chosen influence the appearance and functionality of the design as well as the strategies used

Rules and Policies

Banner as USU’s administrative suite; Blackboard Vista as LMS of choice for USU; FERPA influencing development

Created need for the instruction; constrained instructional environment; limited process by limiting access to parts of Banner;

Division of Labor

Jeon as lead programmer and process lead; Gardner as design lead; SME as provider of content; graduate students as instructional developers

Availability of community members enabled design flexibility; assignments affected design outcome

Table 2 describes the elements of the system that affected design of the Banner training. As instructional designers with personal preferences for technologies, we selected specific theories and programs based on our experience that we thought would help fulfill the goal of the training. Our department provided us with the resources we needed to create this instruction, including cutting edge technologies, graduate workers and programming assistance. The policies shaped the need for the training, the LMS in which the training occurs, and what sections of Banner could actually be trained. Having a division of the labor for this project influenced the outcome by having several designers, developers, and content experts shape the final learning outcome through their interaction with of design and development activities.

Note that the focus here is on the influence of the system elements on the design process and ultimately the learning environment. This system can also describe the interaction and influences between each of the elements. However, the focus for this paper is the effect of these elements on instructional design.

If any of these elements were different, the outcome of the design would likely have been very different. Different designers, availability of technologies, the SME working on the project and the LMS would profoundly impact and alter the finished product. Understanding the interrelated nature of system elements in which design takes place allows designers and researchers to see these influences and potentially maximize the benefits of the system.


It is important to create new ways to view and understand instructional design, and this framework provides one method for viewing the key practice of our field in a unique way. The proposed framework enables designers and researchers to view instructional design from the global, systems view instead of from a personal perspective. This approach requires a shift from a focus on one specific element to a view of the whole, and this shift can be very beneficial. The systems view allows us to see the whole in which instructional designers interact, and understand how other elements in the system impact and influence instructional design outcomes.

This framework can be used as the basis for many potential activities. It provides a framework for designing ideal systems and setting standards toward which systems can move. Designers understand the usefulness of designing conditions before they are developed. And this framework can serves as a template for the creation of new design contexts to maximize the effectiveness of instructional design and positively impact the conditions in which learning takes place.

Future research on and application of this framework will use this framework to analyze and understand multiple instructional design contexts. It will also involve the design and development of new, more effective systems. This research and application will improve our understanding of the systems in which design takes place and increase the quality of instruction in those systems.


This article proposes a framework for understanding the context or system in which instructional design takes place. It is intended to be a general description of that system and proposes a unique way to view instructional design from a system level. This view allows us to more clearly see the elements that influence instructional design.

This framework allows us to borrow from authors of other fields to look at design from a different perspective and create clear framework for understanding the system in which activity takes place. Although discussed here only briefly, this system is based on the work of these authors and can be used by instructional designers to analyze the components that influence the design decisions in their own contexts. This analysis could promote an awareness of one’s environment and can provide insight into how to leverage the strengths of one’s design environment.

Instructional design does not occur in a vacuum. To be effective, instructional theories, processes, and technologies must be contextualized to the environment in which they are used. This framework provides a way to understand one’s own context from systems-level and provides IDs with the ability to more fully understand their own context.


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Merrill, M. D., Drake, L., Lacy, M. J., & Pratt, J. (1996). Reclaiming instructional design. Educational Technology, 36(5), 5-7. 

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Wordnetweb, (n. d.).  System. Retrieved May 20, 2009 from http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu

About the Author

Joel Gardner is a Ph.D student in the department of Instructional Technology and Learning Science at Utah State University. He is also an instructional Designer at the Faculty Assistance Center for Teaching (FACT) at Utah State University. His research focuses on the effective application of instructional theory and design processes in real-world design settings and is most interested in the understanding and application of Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction.

Email: joel.gardner@usu.edu


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