If you’ve ever had any kind of formal instruction outside of school, it was probably shaped by the late-20th-century discipline of instructional systems design (ISD).

In its essential form, ISD seeks to carry out three key activities in organizing instruction: 1) establish where learners are at the beginning of the learning process; 2) set goals for where they should be at the end of it; and 3) create an ‘intervention’ to get them from point A to point Z.

The instructional design process then breaks down into different phases, not unlike more traditional software development processes, ultimately culminating in instruction and, afterwards, evaluation of the program.1

All of this may sound very natural. In fact, it may even seem self-evident.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring different ISD philosophies and examining their place in the future of online learning.

Autodidacts, however, have special needs and concerns that all ISD should address. Here are three.

1. Goals and Measurement Criteria Should Be Transparent

ISD usually takes place within the context of a company or organization, though its principles can be applied to schools.

Because of this, instruction naturally reflects the management objectives of the organization, but not necessarily the goals of the individual learner.

Assuming these ends are basically aligned, though, its important for both learners and organizations be transparent about them.

The burden falls more heavily on the organization, though, to make it clear how progress should be measured.

We’ve all had the experience of taking a standardized test where it was hard to understand why we were being asked particular questions.

This is particularly true of those tests, like the GRE, that adapt automatically, making us wonder whether we’re being asked a question because we’re doing well or poorly — something that is itself hidden during the test.

Assessments with no manifest relationship to success or failure in meeting specific objectives lead only to frustration. They also doesn’t serve the end of self-reflection — something autodidacts need.

Of course, all tests rely on some level of surprise and secrecy. In many cases, it’s what enables test writers to prevent test takers from studying only what’s going to appear on the test.

In adult learning situations — and when dealing with autodidacts — this should be kept to a minimum, however.

2. The System Should Allow Learners to Bring Their Own Interventions

ISD posits that something in the instruction needs to get the learner from point A to point Z. This is what is called the intervention.

If the learner succeeds, the intervention can also, in theory, be considered a success.

Good training programs, though, should accommodate learners who find a way to meet the learning objectives by means outside of the planned training.

And great training programs will empower learners who follow this path.

Enabling this requires the program to be transparent about objectives (see point 1). In addition to this, it should support learners who want to use their time on tasks outside the training program — and possibly with financial aid to procure their own resources.

Learners should also be empowered to find their own shortcuts when appropriate, and set their own training schedule based on this when possible.

3. Learners Should be Welcomed to the Evaluation Process — For Their Own Benefit

ISD usually incorporates some form of ongoing evaluation, with the goal of improving the training program over time.

Naturally, for the greatest benefit of the program, learners should be welcomed into the process as much as possible.

It’s also to the benefit of learners, though, to be a part of this process. This is especially true if they’ve ‘brought their own intervention,’ (as in point 3).

Autodidacts sometimes get caught up in their own way of studying things, and the evaluation process can be a great opportunity for them to benchmark their process against the intended path.

In some areas they may find that they have followed a suboptimal path. In this case they not only validate the ISD process, but will be able to draw broader lessons from it.

Otherwise, they’ll become contributors to the process, and gain the confidence and validation they need when taking part in future instructional programs.


  1. Sometimes this evaluation phase is seen as ongoing throughout this process, especially more recently. [return]