Instructional Design Models for eLearning

I’ve been doing a great deal of independent research on Instructional Design these past months, and while there are some fundamental differences in how Instructional Design occurs in private sector organizations and the public education system, I have been struck by how our methods in public education can be influenced and improved by the application of these principles. Particularly now, with the nation’s schools having moved online in response to COVID 19. The changes that are occurring across public education will no doubt leave lasting marks, but I think this may be the best thing that has happened to public education in recent history (as long as we use this time to make positive, impactful changes).

But don’t worry, I don’t intend to delve into a philosophical debate on bettering the system. Instead, I’d like to take a look at a few Instructional Design (ID) models that are particularly useful for eLearning solutions and may empower educators to thoughtfully and deliberately create effective and engaging content for both synchronous and asynchronous online instruction.


ADDIE is the classic ID model, and all other models have grown out of the ADDIE model. ADDIE follows a “waterfall” approach, meaning the development process is intended to gradually flow from one step to the next in a more-or-less linear fashion. ADDIE is an acronym representing the 5 phases of the developmental process: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation. Here is a brief description of each phase:

Analysis: You clarify problems, define goals and objectives, collect necessary data, define your audience and their characteristics, determine the content to be included and the delivery option(s), and consider the timeline, scope, and budget of the project.

Design: You write specific objectives and for all modules and sections of the course; determine the structure, sequencing, and duration; create storyboards, prototypes, any graphic designs you might use, and outlines of exercises, interactions, games, simulations, assessments, etc. You will also create a project management plan with deadlines, milestones, and implementation details to guide your development process of the course.

Development: This is the phase where you utilize everything you create in the Design phase and assemble the pieces into a captivating course. This is where you would develop any deliverables for the course, as well.

Implementation: You deliver the course to its intended audience.

Evaluation: You evaluate the effectiveness of your course in two ways: measuring the level of the audience’s learning and retention (i.e. through assessment) and determining how well you have met your project’s original goals.

While ADDIE is an incredibly thorough and holistic model and has historically been the most widely used ID model, many instructional designers feel that ADDIE is too linear, time consuming, and (oftentimes) expensive. As a response, more flexible, efficient, and cost-effective models sprang out of ADDIE.


The Successive Approximation Model (SAM) is an Agile methodology that promotes a more cyclical, “parallel” process of development, as opposed to the more linear waterfall approach used in ADDIE. This allows for multiple phases to occur simultaneously and to reoccur throughout the cycle as necessary; this is particularly important for the evaluation phase. Rather than waiting for the completion of implementation to evaluate, evaluation occurs throughout the developmental process in SAM; which allows designers to catch and fix issues earlier on in the process. According to Marina Arshavskiy in Instructional Design for eLearning, SAM moves designers through “short, iterative, full-cycles that produces useable components” in a much more efficient manner, which makes it ideal for projects requiring a quicker turnaround.


The ASSURE model is ideal for developing content for eLearning solutions, because it assumes that multiple types of media will be utilized in the course. Here is a breakdown of the model:

Analyze learners:  Just as with ADDIE, you want to make sure you have a firm understanding the audience for which you are creating content.

State objectives:Develop specific and measurable objectives.

Select Media and Materials: Essentially, gather/create your resources.

Utilize Media and Materials: Implement your materials and make sure your course works the way it should and all components and materials are easily accessible.

Require learner participation: Ensure all activities allow learners to apply their knowledge and understanding of course content. You can do this in a variety of ways: discussions, games, simulations, assessments, etc.

Evaluate and Revise: Evaluate whether or not course objectives were met and revise your course as needed based on your findings.

The Four-Door (4D) eLearning Model

The Four-Door (4D) Model allows designers to develop eLearning courses cheaply and rapidly while appealing to all types of learners and giving learners full control of course navigation. Rather than create a linearly-structured course, where learners must move through a series of modules sequentially, the 4D Model creates four “areas” for learners to access based on their own personal preference, background knowledge, and experience. While you can change the names of the four doors to suit the needs of your course, the doors in this model are as follows:

Library: Behind this “door,” learners find all the information and resources the need to master the objectives of the course and successfully complete the course assessment. The library can hold any and every kind of media you wish to utilize.

Café:  The social learning of the course takes place behind this “door”: discussion boards, blogs, wikis—these types of tools.

Playground: Behind this “door,” learners play games to recall and apply the content they learned in the library. These games are not intended to be a summative assessment and can be played as many times as needed for the learner to master the desired content.

Evaluation Center: Behind this “door,” is where learners will complete course assessments and performance tests.

On a personal level, I find myself drawn to the freedom of choice the 4D model provides learners, but it seems to me more of a guide for how to organize the presentation of course content than it does for the process of development. It is important to note that the models discussed above are not an exhaustive list, nor do top designers exclusively adhere to any one ID Model. Oftentimes, they blend models to suit their own preferences and needs. Ultimately, you have to decide what works best for you as the course designer, but you must also consider your audience, the content, and other project guidelines and limitations in choosing the best design approach.

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