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Instructional Design and Curriculum Development: Definitions and Differences

Discover the differences between instructional design and curriculum development with our handy break-down of the techniques and skills needed for both.

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Instructional design and curriculum development are two closely connected fields. Both involve researching and developing educational content, while finding the most effective strategies for engaging learners.

But despite their similarities, and although the two terms are occasionally used interchangeably, instructional design and curriculum development are not quite the same thing. To help you understand the nuances between these two educational practices, we’ve provided an up-to-date definition of each, together with a break-down of their subtle but essential differences.

What is instructional design?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “instruction” as “the teaching of a particular skill or subject”. So the goal of instructional design is to decide on the most suitable methods and materials for teaching that skill or subject.

Instructional designers use their expertise in cognitive and behavioural psychology to develop strategies and resources that will effectively engage learners. They also evaluate existing learning resources to determine whether they successfully accomplish their learning objectives, and to identify ways of improving them if necessary.

What does an instructional designer do?

Any educator who has planned a lesson or a seminar will have some experience of instructional design. But instructional design is also a profession in its own right. 

Instructional designers are hired by institutions, businesses, and agencies to create educational materials and courses. Their exact duties can vary depending on their role and employer, but will often include some or all of the following:

  • Creating educational materials, like student handbooks, teacher training manuals, textbooks etc.
  • Creating educational content, like videos and podcasts
  • Redesigning courses to drive efficiency and results
  • Developing courses and/or curriculums
  • Finding ways to incorporate new technologies into curriculums and materials to increase learning
  • Reviewing new educational research and new developments in e-learning technologies
  • Collect and analyse feedback to improve programmes and curriculums
  • Training educators.

What is the process of instructional design?

There are several different stages in the process of instructional design. They can broadly be grouped into research, analysis, design and evaluation:

1. Research

The first stage of the instructional design process involves gathering information and researching the needs of learners and educators who will be using the educational content. Instructional designers need an in-depth understanding of their target learners. Who are they and how are they likely to approach learning? Are there any constraints that could impact on their ability to engage with course materials?

Next, designers need to get to know the educators requesting the content. What is their preferred style of teaching? How comfortable do they feel incorporating technology? Last but not least, instructional designers need a good grasp of the courses they are designing for. They may need to do some background research into the topic.

2. Analysis

Once they have understood the profiles of their target learners and educators, instructional designers need to determine the objectives of their educational content. What key messages does the content need to convey? What knowledge or skills should the learner acquire? 

Setting clear learning objectives from the outset makes it easier to evaluate the success of the instructional materials further down the line. It also ensures learners have a clear sense of what they are working towards and the steps they need to take to get there.

3. Design

This is the longest, most inventive, and arguably the most important phase of instructional design. It is also likely to be the most enjoyable for the instructional designer. Although the exact nature of the design process will depend on course content and style, all designers need to consider a few crucial elements. 

These include visual and technological aids, assessments and activities, feedback or survey tools etc. Activities need to be storyboarded, visual materials prototyped, and educators trained to use the materials. All of these aspects fall within the design phase of instructional design.

4. Evaluation

Once they have completed the design phase, instructional designers hand their materials over to educators to implement. Their work is not yet over, though. The next phase of instructional design is to evaluate the success of the content designed and enhance it if necessary. Instructional designers work with educators to observe learners and gather feedback, so that all materials can be optimised for maximum engagement.

What is curriculum development?

As we mentioned, some people use the terms “instructional design” and “curriculum development” interchangeably. There are, however, some important differences between the two.

If instructional design is concerned with how educational content can be taught, then curriculum development looks at what that content actually is. It’s the role of a curriculum developer to determine what specific skills or knowledge learners will acquire over the course of a programme. They work with schools, colleges, and universities to set syllabuses, produce content plans, and ensure programmes meet institutional or government standards.

What does a curriculum developer do?

Curriculum developers work with educational institutions and organisations to create lesson plans and curriculums. That involves researching and deciding on the content of a course. Here are some common responsibilities for curriculum developers:

  • Researching state and local standards to ensure courses are compliant
  • Improving existing programmes and courses
  • Developing teaching plans and lessons
  • Evaluating the range of courses on offer at the institution or organisation
  • Observing and consulting students to see how they respond to course content
  • Working with institutions to provide training around the curriculum
  • Researching textbooks, technologies, and techniques that could be incorporated into curriculums.

Just like instructional designers, curriculum developers work closely with the institutions or organisations they assist to help them design, implement, and evaluate content. They also use the feedback they receive from educators to enhance training and further optimise courses.

What are the main differences between instructional design and curriculum development?

We’ve already established that instructional design looks at what methods and materials are used to teach a course, while curriculum development focuses on the content of the course itself. In that sense, instructional design is “process-oriented”, while curriculum development is “content-oriented”.

Instructional designers are interested in the communicative and cognitive processes by which we learn, not in the skills and/or knowledge that learners can or should be developing. There are also some key differences in the skills required for each profession. Here are some of the skills an aspiring instructional designers might want to develop:

  • Problem-solving: Instructional designers need to be able to think outside the box and find innovative ways of communicating information to learners. Problem-solving skills help them respond effectively to feedback, meet the needs of learners, and continually improve their designs. 
  • Project management: Unlike curriculum developers, instructional designers may be working independently to a brief provided by a given institution or organisation. They need strong project management skills to stay on top of the design process, juggle its different elements, and see the project through to delivery.

Meanwhile, curriculum developers need  a slightly different set of skills:

  • Communication: Curriculum developers often work in an advisory capacity, and a crucial part of their role is liaising with educators, institution administrators, members of government, and other stakeholders. This requires excellent communication skills.
  • Industry knowledge and professional development: Even more so than instructional designers, curriculum developers need a strong working knowledge of the field of education, and a commitment to keeping up with new developments in the industry.

All those differences aside, both instructional designers and curriculum developers need strong research capabilities and an ability to think creatively about approaches to teaching and learning.

Learn more about instructional design and curriculum development with FutureLearn

We hope this article has helped you get a handle on the differences between instructional design and curriculum development. If you already know which of the two areas interests you more, and want to gain a more specialist perspective, our online courses are a great starting point.

We have a wide range of online courses designed to help deepen your understanding and equip you with the skills you need to become either an instructional designer or a curriculum developer. Check out our courses on curriculum and learning design, professional development for teachers, and general teaching.

If you’re a creative thinker and a keen researcher, with an interest in education and educational innovation, you could be well suited to a career in instructional design or curriculum development. Why not join thousands of other online learners and start building skills for your career with FutureLearn?

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