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Creating Instruction for Ubiquitous Learners: Three paradigm shifts that are changing the foundations of instructional design

By Timothy Stafford / November 2014

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In 2014, a study was completed involving 25 instructional designers who had at least three years of experience in professional instructional design and one year of implementing social media into their instructional design platforms. The participants were asked to complete three rounds of surveys to achieve consensus about different aspects of the best practices on incorporating social media into instructional design platforms and coursework [1].

The purpose of the study was simple, it was looking to establish consensus among the experts—whether they were instructional designers by profession or if they had become instructional designers by assignment. The end goal was to understand how social media was being used in professional training and development and how this learning was being measured for effectiveness and sustainability.

The methodology was simple with the use of surveys and Likert-type scales for the majority of the study, yet the outcomes showed a distinct set of paradigm shifts that are occurring among instructional designers and these three major shifts have some interesting implications for all eLearning practitioners.

No. 1: Defining social media

One of the first questions that was asked in the study seemed benign considering the estimation that more than half of Americans use social networking [2]. The participants were asked to chronicle the social media platforms they used within their course offerings and design platforms. The answers were surprisingly diverse and included platforms that many would not see as social media. Blogs; wikis; SharePoint; Wordpress, Scribd; message boards like Reddit and Django; blogging platforms like Wordpress, Blogger and Weebly; and content aggregates like Storify, Feedly, and Vienna were just some of the platforms that were listed among the traditional answers of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and others.

It was obvious from the beginning that these professionals were defining social media in a much broader sense of its ability to share content and information and also including all types of web-based (and in some cases, server-client based) applications and platforms. This definition gives broad sweeping opportunities for instructional designers to create communicative educational pieces that can come from just about anywhere on the Internet, and it also allows for the use of containers that can have many different functions and frameworks.

In addition to this broadening definition, the participants were clear in their consensus that the drivers for instructional design were also rapidly changing. While the internal drivers that have been the norm as professional coursework have been curated by the organization to further its mission and vision, all industries are now pushing professionals not only to embrace life-long learning but are holding them accountable to it [3]. This push from industries is introducing a number of external drivers for instructional designers, as these individual learners are demanding more ubiquitous and asynchronous coursework, and are tasked to balance these demands with the demands of the organizations that employ them.

No. 2: Defining digital literacy

In doing a study on defining digital literacy, many different ideas emerge. For some, the idea of digital literacy is immeasurable [4], however, the majority of those that have attempted to conquer defining digital literacy tend to come to the same conclusion, digital literacy is the ability to use technology to aggregate and synthesize information [5]. These two sides of the coin make up for a vast number of realities that come with a discussion of digital literacy, however its simplicity allow us to look at it from a baseline that can be built upon and questions can be addressed.

Having said that, the participants agreed that digital literacy is a problem that must be addressed in designing instruction with social media as a part of the platform. They also indicated certain traditional indicators of digital literacy were in fact false. The participants could come to no consensus that age was a factor in the issue of digital literacy, in fact some of the data suggested younger professionals were in some cases more digitally illiterate than their counterparts 10 years their senior.

Social media involvement and range were also non-factors in predicting the digital literacy of a professional according to the panel. A professional learner demanding ubiquitous and asynchronous learning with 2,000 friends or followers was not necessarily more digitally literate than a professional with only 100 friends or followers.

Finally, engagement in social media was also not a factor, and neither was industry. The participants agreed that across their industries, digital literacy was a problem they felt responsible for trying to mitigate in their use of technology and social media in their course designs and implementation.

No. 3: The amalgamation of learning theories

One of the most interesting findings from the study came in the form of a unique amalgamation of learning theories that were being embraced by professional instructional designers as they designed and developed their coursework and platforms. Traditionally, educators of all kinds have had a tendency to align themselves with particular learning theories that were complementary to each other [6]. Constructivists who embrace learning typology and discovery-based platforms would be a good example of this traditional feel of modern learning theory and how it is applied to instructional design in various strains and contexts [7] However, this study showed three distinctly different learning theories were being equally embraced, as is evidenced in Table 1.

Table 1. Overall expert consensus with regard to learning theory.

Learning Theory Number of Statements Presented Overall Consensus Mean Score Percentage Equivalent
Constructivism 7 4.09 81.85%
Connectivism 7 4.07 81.43%
Social Learning Theory 4 4.30 86.17%

For each of these learning theories, the panelists were presented with the tenets of each theory and asked what their level of agreement was when designing coursework using social media. The results were surprising in that all three theories scored almost identically with the others. In a very real sense, these ideas have been combined together to form a widely scoped foundation for understanding learning from an academic worldview.

The implication here is instructional design should ready itself as an industry to see if a pluralism of learning theory will force new learning theories to emerge. These new learning theories will invariably challenge the way we all think about learning, knowing, and expertise. George Siemens, the architect of connectivism, clearly set the rules in motion where a learner could also easily be a subject matter expert in the same industry, regardless of their corporate position [8]. This is how social media has impacted the landscape of learning theory.


Learning is shifting, but in many ways it is the foundations of learning that are having the most profound effect on contemporary instructional designers. Defining social media, digital literacy and learning, knowing, and expertise are only the tip of the iceberg for the future of learning within digital environments.

However, these foundational shifts hold the promise of having wide-sweeping impact on the whole of the learning industry. Instructional designers are not only designing digital courses and environments, but they are now tasked with mitigating digital literacy; applying an amalgam of learning theories to projects; and handling the demands of corporate, industrial, and individual professional demands for ubiquitous and asynchronous learning platforms.

It is an exciting time to be an instructional designer, and it is a tenuous time. The stakes for professional learners are larger than ever as they work to stay employed and billable, and instructional designers work to keep on top of a massively shifting learning landscape that could very easily look completely different a year from now.


[1] Stafford, T. M. (2014). Ubiquitous and connected: Practices and indicators of using social networks in professional instructional design (Doctoral Dissertation). Capella University, Minneapolis MN. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

[2] Johnson, J. Study Says Almost Half Of Americans Use Social Networks. April 9, 2010

[3] Irlbeck, S., Kays, E., Jones, D., and Sims, R. The Phoenix Rising: Emergent models of instructional design. Distance Education 27, 2 (2006), 171-185.

[4] Jones, S., and Fox, S. Generations Online in 2009. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. January 28., 2009.

[5] Jukes, I., McCain, T., and Crockett, L. Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and learning in the new digital landscape. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2010.

[6] Hofer, B. K., and Pintrich, P. R. (Eds.). Personal Epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 2002.

[7] Fox, E. J. Constructing a pragmatic science of learning and instruction with functional contextualism. Educational Technology Research and Development 54, 1 (2006), 5-36.

[8] Siemens, G. Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2, 1 (2005).

About the Author

Timothy Stafford is a project manager and educational consultant across a range of industries. He has over 25 years' experience in the areas of instructional design, curriculum development, educational technology, professional development and accreditation. Stafford completed his Ph.D. in instructional design for online learning in 2014, and he can be found on Twitter as @tmstaffordllc.

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