Tim Cliffe

Blog by Tim Cliffe P.G. Dip. (SEN)

The Importance of Research in Instructional Design

01 Target Audience

(01.1) Anyone involved in e-Learning, social learning commissioning, Design, and related roles.

02 Executive Summary

(02.1) The importance of being knowledgeable of the research evidence available to us, in applying Instructional Design methodology to e-Learning resources, cannot be underestimated. This article presents a brief argument to support this position and presents recommendations, based upon research, for effective practice.

03 Introduction

(03.1) For those of you, like me, who have been involved in e-Learning, since its early days, will recognise many of the e-Learning templates and interactions we use today have been in use for about twenty years. Of course, the media has improved significantly thanks to the enhanced band-widths of broadband and fibre-optic, better quality graphics, animations, audio, and video.

The promise of 5G will bring a quantum leap in terms of the capability and capacity of the Internet.


(03.2) Having seen hundreds of e-Learning courses produced, by numerous companies for client organisations ranging from the small to the global, I am struck, as I am certain you are, by the lack of true evolution illustrated by the majority of those same courses.


(03.3) The e-Learning industry has a history of making impressive claims for its products. However, giving such claims calm consideration, for example, 'constantly innovating', it quickly becomes clear, constant innovation, if possible, would result in chaos.


(03.4) We can see from the history of the twentieth century, claims for the expected revolutionary educational benefits of radio, telephone, television, and the computer have consistently failed to materialise in any significant and durable form.

04 Failing to Learn

(04.1) With the evolution of a pervasive Internet, the emergence of mobile communications with usable capacities, and social platforms, yet again we encounter grandiose claims of the inevitable revolutionary educational benefits of these new technologies. However, history teaches us, such benefits are far from inevitable, in fact, history teaches, far from likely.


(04.2) These observations beg three questions:

  • Why do expectations of educational benefit fail to materialise?
  • Why does our e-Learning industry insist on making claims that do not withstand scrutiny?
  • Why have our e-Learning courses failed to substantively change over the last twenty years?
(04.3) The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML) (Mayer) has proven to be not only a resilient theory, but one able to adapt to the persuasions of new evidence. This is because Clark and Mayor base the CTML on evidence from a broad base of research - the literature.


(04.4) Question One

To answer our first question, 'Why do expectations of educational benefit fail to materialise?', is simple. As educationalists, we have failed to learn the evident lessons of history, and have focused on the technology, not the methodology (Clark and Mayer, et. al.).


(04.5) Question Two

To answer our second question, 'Why does our e-Learning industry insist on making claims that do not withstand scrutiny?'. Again, the answer is simple and somewhat obvious, the financial imperative, for e-Learning companies, to appear unique among many, combined with the expectations of clients, largely fostered by our industry, and the fact very little validation of e-Learning courses takes place to refute, or otherwise, their educational efficacy, results in a lack of evidence to support such claims. Evaluation is probably the single most important aspect of instructional design and its improvement.


(04.6) Question Three

I suggest the lack of substantive change in e-Learning courses, over the last twenty years, is not a significant issue, and is certainly not the issue of most importance with regard to the ability of e-Learning courses, when appropriately employed, to convey knowledge and support the long-term retention of that knowledge. The most important aspect, in this regard, is the focus on methodology not technology.


(04.7) I suggest our e-Learning course development needs to focus less on promotional spin and fashion, and more on employing proven and effective practice. It is clear, again from history, we continue to fail to focus on methodology to the advantage of technology. With the ever-accelerating emergence of new technologies, the 'fashionable' incorporation of such technologies will only serve to complicate the picture, and preserve our continuing failure to focus on methodology.


(04.8) In short, we need to focus on methodology, supported by the literature, not fashion, or perceived financial imperatives. Doing so will greatly enhance our industry's reputation, to the benefit of all, and, for the first time, deliver educational technologies that are: truly effective; capable of being demonstrated as such; and consequently make a demonstrably effective contribution to the performance of learners.

05 Recommendations

(05.1) We still need to get the basics right first. The following recommendations, taken from e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (Clark and Mayer), are supported by empirical evidence as effective methodologies.

Basic Principles of Multimedia Learning

Basic Principles of Multimedia Learning from e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (Clark and Mayer)

Advanced Principles of Multimedia Learning

Basic Principles of Multimedia Learning from e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (Clark and Mayer)

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