12 Fresh Instructional Design Trends To Explore in 2021

Updated: Mar 9


Imagine this scenario: you're having a conversation with a fellow professor in your department, and they recommend a new interactive digital tool they've been using in their courses, such as an online game or simulation activity.


While it can be tempting to jump right into the latest and greatest technologies, you should first consider whether or not they will actually facilitate a more effective learning experience for your students.

In a world where the buzz of online learning permeates every corner of higher education, it can be challenging to determine what to implement. In other words: how can you tell whether a new piece of tech is a worthwhile instructional design trend or just a passing fad?


By rooting any changes you make in core instructional design principles, you will be better positioned to help your students succeed.


At Skyepack, we believe in a future of instructional design that leverages new technology while always prioritizing the needs of learners. As the next wave of instructional design trends takes shape, we're here to help you cut through the noise and find the best educational technology for your students. To help demystify the present and future of instructional design in higher ed, we'll cover the following topics:

By collaborating with an instructional designer and implementing one or many of these trends in your upcoming courses, you'll provide a forward-thinking educational experience for your students. Let's get started.


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Understanding the Current State of Instructional Design in Higher Education


While it's likely you already understand the basics of instructional design, we'll start with a brief definition and overview of the field to make sure everyone is on the same page.


What is instructional design?

Instructional design (often abbreviated as ID) is the systematic process of designing and creating a high-quality educational experience. While the specific steps of the process will vary, ID should always be learner-centered, goal-oriented, and data-driven.


Instructional design can occur in higher education institutions, K-12 schools, professional associations, workplaces, or anywhere else learning takes place. Unlike curriculum development, which focuses more on the educational content itself, instructional design determines how the content can be conveyed most effectively.


Recent Challenges for The Field of Instructional Design


Before we explore the exciting instructional design trends on the horizon, it's important to recognize the barriers to success that still exist in the field.


While the implementation of instructional design methodologies does lead to enhanced learning outcomes, a lack of buy-in and resources means it's not always an easy road.


The field of instructional design has dealt with many obstacles in recent years, including:

  • Lack of faculty buy-in. According to a survey by Intentional Futures, the struggle to collaborate with faculty has been one of the largest hurdles for instructional design. Many professors and administrators have not been properly shown the value of working with an instructional designer.

  • Shortage of instructional designers at institutions. While many colleges and universities have in-house instructional designers and online education experts, the ratio of these specialists when compared to the rest of the faculty is typically very low. This scarcity leads to long wait times for ID services, making it difficult for professors to take advantage of these opportunities in a timely fashion.

  • Limited pipeline for training instructional designers. There are many certificate and degree programs dedicated to training the next generation of instructional designers, but they don't have the capacity to keep up with the growing demand for the field.

As we'll discuss in the next section, some of these problems were solved by the increased adoption of ID principles during 2020, yet others still remain.


A Changing Learning Landscape | The Impact of 2020 on Instructional Design Trends

While 2020 has led to some big changes (and news coverage) for instructional design, the field has long been a developing and dynamic discipline.


With roots in the World War II era, the field of instructional design evolved with new methodologies throughout the 20th century. During the 21st century, the rise of educational technology and online learning has focused the field on primarily digital learning experiences.


In 2020, remote teaching and distance learning have become the norm across higher education as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While instructional designers have been researching and developing optimal online learning approaches for decades, most professors are subject matter experts rather than online learning professionals.


To help fill this gap, there's been a massive boom in demand for trained instructional designers and widespread adoption of many key instructional design trends. However, while this increased awareness and appreciation for the field is a huge win for securing faculty buy-in and collaborating more effectively, there aren't always enough instructional designers to go around.


However, as we'll discuss later in this article, you don't need to have a certificate in ID or have access to an in-house instructional designer to take advantage of these trends. Independent instructional design providers can collaborate with individual professors, departments, or on-campus ID professionals to create dynamic and engaging courses.


Looking to the Future of Instructional Design in Higher Ed

As we move into 2021, instructional design will continue to hold court as one of the most important buzzwords in higher education.


When we look at the future of ID, we see a world that builds on a deep understanding of students to create new experiences with intuitive and innovative technology.


Specifically, the following instructional design trends will continue to rise in popularity.


12 Instructional Design Trends to Watch Out For in 2021 And Beyond


1. Prioritization of Learners


While focusing your course on the specific needs of your students shouldn't be a brand-new revelation, the idea bears repeating. As you consider the rest of the trends on this list, keep in mind whether or not each is well-suited to your individual classroom and campus.


Most of these ideas can be implemented in a variety of educational scenarios, but some may be less appropriate for your subject area or require more advanced technology than your students have access to. When in doubt, refer back to the first step of your instructional design process and analyze the needs of your students.


As instructional design continues to evolve as a field and innovative trends emerge, this principle will always stay at top of the list for our team.

2. Content Curation


The curation of existing, high-quality content from a variety of sources into comprehensive course materials is rising in popularity. Since you'll be able to tailor the topics to mirror your syllabus exactly, this is more efficient and customizable than choosing a traditional textbook or an e-textbook from a traditional publisher.


Additionally, the curation of materials from different sources allows for a richer variety of perspectives in your course.


Try This Trend: Pull together your favorite open-source content, instructional videos, images, and infographics alongside your own original content to create digital course materials that are tailored to your curriculum.

3. Personalized Learning


As technology continues to improve, we're increasingly seeing learning experiences that are personalized based on students' performance and interests. Generation Z in particular is used to personalized content, with hyper-focused customization across a variety of other digital tools (like Netflix, for example).


While a completely individualized learning experience driven by artificial intelligence isn't likely in the cards for most higher ed institutions anytime soon, there's already been a rise in personalized quizzes and computer-generated feedback. For instance, the GRE is an adaptive exam that adjusts its difficulty (and score potential) based on the test taker's performance.


Try This Trend: Include quiz questions throughout your digital course materials that encourage users to go back and review content they may have misunderstood.


4. Video


Your students likely spend hours each day streaming content on YouTube, Twitch, Netflix, Hulu, and other popular video delivery platforms. This trend can also carry over into the world of instructional design.


While delivering educational content through video is nothing new, the format and delivery of these videos have evolved over time. For example, mobile video consumption rises by an astounding 100% every year.


These videos are often short, bite-sized pieces of content that convey information quickly. Depending on the length of the video, this can also go hand in hand with micro-learning, which we'll discuss further below.


Try This Trend: The high video quality of smartphones and the prevalence of easy-to-use video editing platforms make it simple to create your own video content. These production tips for high-quality remote lectures can help you get started.



5. Mobile Learning


It's no surprise that your students are all but glued to their smartphones (and to be honest, we're guessing you are too). By 2025, it's expected that 72% of the world's internet users will only access the web via a smartphone.


With this in mind, meet students where they already are. Mobile learning experiences designed for on-the-go use can help students stay engaged no matter where they're located.


Try This Trend: Be sure to choose a digital course delivery system that is optimized for mobile use. Your students shouldn't need to pinch, zoom, or scroll side-to-side to find the right information.



6. New Learning Realities


Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences have entered the online learning game. While virtual reality refers to a fully immersive digital experience and usually requires a high-tech headset, augmented reality adds a layer of digital information to a live view of the world. AR is now a standard component of iOS devices, so more and more educational AR content is coming to the market.


While this doesn't work for every subject area—for instance, it would be more effective for human anatomy than advanced calculus—it can serve as an information-rich lens with which to view the real world, which is helpful for applying new content.


Try This Trend: Look for pre-existing AR and VR content rather than creating your own. An instructional designer who specializes in content curation may be able to connect you with the most useful resources.


7. Microlearning


Microlearning is an instructional design trend that involves sharing course material in small, bite-sized learning units. It's typically used for skill-based learning, and it is common in college settings as well as in professional development courses.


If you've ever participated in a language learning mobile app that sends out daily push notifications for small lessons, you've experienced micro-learning.


Try This Trend: Infographics are an accessible and easy-to-implement example of microlearning because they pack a large amount of information into a concise resource. To experiment with this instructional design trend, try creating an infographic that corresponds with one of your lessons.



8. Interactive Learning


Interactive learning enables students to manipulate course elements and answer questions rather than simply reading a textbook. Elements like embedded quizzes, drag and drop activities, and other features can help students engage more deeply with your content.


Try This Trend: Build interactive quiz questions into your digital course materials so students can self-assess their knowledge while they are reading.



9. Social Learning


Social learning is a long-standing learning process theory that emphasizes learning through observation. Students will learn more effectively when given the opportunity to interact and converse with each other about the content.


Social learning expands the educational environment beyond the walls of the classroom (or in the case of 2020, beyond your online course).


Try This Trend: Use discussion boards or a class-wide chat to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among your students as a whole or in breakout groups.



10. Gamification


Gamification refers to the application of game-like elements to other environments. When applied to learning, gamification creates a more engaging and motivating educational experience.


Points systems, badges, leaderboards, and learning-focused games are all great examples of this instructional design trend in action.


Try This Trend: Consider adding an online game like Kahoot to assess students' competency of a certain subject and create a fun competitive atmosphere.



11. Rapid Development


The digital world moves quickly. Across industries, there's a growing demand to produce products and release content at a lightning place. Many software companies and other startups have adopted iterative design methodologies to rapidly develop and release work, and instructional designers can also follow this trend.


An iterative course development process also allows for courses to be easily updated over time as needs arise and best practices evolve.


Try This Trend: Skyepack's design team uses an AGILE Instructional Design™ process to rapidly develop and continuously improve digital course materials for professors. Explore our process to learn more.



12. Measurement and Analytics


With any of these instructional design trends, it can sometimes be challenging to know whether the activity or technology is actually making a difference.


Luckily, the rise of data and analytics in education has enabled professors and L&D professionals to measure and learn from student performance.


Try This Trend: By surveying students at the end of the semester and analyzing their performance data from throughout the course, you can evaluate what is working well and what has room for improvement. Using digital course materials backed up with engagement data can provide you with the insights needed to make positive change.


Wrapping Up


In 2021, we're sure to see exciting innovations in the field of instructional design—especially as we approach (and pass) the one-year mark of the shift to online learning.


As you plan your course syllabi for upcoming semesters, consider experimenting with one or more instructional design trends to enhance the learning experience for students. By partnering with an instructional design firm like Skyepack to develop your course materials, you'll be able to implement many of these trends in your classroom. Best of luck!


Explore the following additional resources to learn more about developing a successful online course:






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