Review: Beyond Instructional Design – Rod Sims

When I first began working as an adjunct English instructor, a very wise colleague gave me this advice. He said, “don’t design a lesson because the technology allows you to do it. Design a lesson because it helps you to accomplish your objectives. Then see how the technology can help.”

Unfortunately, we seem to have entered a new age where the technology is the lesson. Rod Sims’ article, “Beyond Instructional Design: Making Learning Design a Reality,” published in the Journal of Learning Design appears to bemoan that fact, placing Sims alongside many of today’s best educators.

Sims defines “beyond design” as putting technological innovations in the background so we can foreground the learning. And he outlines a new dynamic in which teachers and learners, outside the realm of face to face communication and the power structures embedded therein, are able to redefine their roles so that students create the course content through the course design.

He is thus firmly embedded in the Paulo Freire model, which has been embraced by educators for at least the last 30 years. The model argues that students are not little banks to be filled with knowledge deposits, but that they have skill and intelligence and experience that can be leveraged during the learning process.

I agree that students need to take an active role in their learning. And I believe that teachers have a responsibility to engage their students so as to understand what students need and enable them to perform the skills that are the outcome of the course.

However, the very reason that students seek learning opportunities – that students are students – is because they come to a course without prior knowledge or skill, and they need instruction and practice, feedback and guidance to complete the tasks and achieve the objectives.

Sims contends that “knowledge is constructed by the individual” and that “computers should preferably be used for course participants to deconstruct, construct or reconstruct their mental models.” I believe that knowledge is interpreted by the individual, and that it can be interpreted rightly or wrongly. For example, there are a number of different ways to understand how the term hybris applies to Oedipus and thus to interpret the implications of a tragic flaw. But to say that Oedipus’ hybris made him joyfully acceptant of the plague on his city is an incorrect interpretation of Sophocles’ play.

Students will necessarily break down a bit of knowledge or a skill set into its component parts so that they can rebuild it. That is, after all, how exercise strengthens us. But the rebuilding must be done with proper nutrition, in this case, the guidance of a skilled instructor, someone who can guide students to a correct understanding of terms, and a judicious application of tools.

Sims argues that course design should be sufficiently flexible so that every student – no matter what learning style, culture, or gender – can personalize the course without designer assumptions or interference. I wholeheartedly agree. But this caveat applies to all education, not only to digital learning. Interactive, learner-centered, action-oriented objectives are the basis of good teaching, no matter the mode of delivery.

Finally, Sims claims that “too often content is considered the primary focus and used to define the structure of the course.” I believe this statement is at the heart of the contemporary educational debacle. There was a time when knowledge transfer was the teacher’s role. Students needed a resource to show them the capitals of the world, the periodic table, the biographies of the great poets. That time has passed. Information can be had at the touch of a button. The role of a teacher is not to transfer knowledge, but to apply knowledge into a skill set.

I therefore cannot agree with Sims’ contention that the “success of online environments” relies on a shift “from teacher prescribed to learner generated” content, although I do recognize that “the design of the interface” needs to become “an integrated narrative.” Perhaps if Sims could have offered some concrete examples of learners being the “pro-active providers of content” I might better be able to see his point.

In summary, Sims provides a number of mandates for what he sees as the new teaching and learning environment. In so far as these are based on sound pedagogical practices, they are well worth repeating. But when they point to some mystical future where students create courses independent of instructors, I remain skeptical.


Michelle BakerMichelle Baker holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the Catholic University of America. She is the founder of Corporate Writing Pro, a training company where the writer is celebrated and nurtured. She specializes in helping government biologists write more clearly. When you’re ready to give members of your organization the gifts of clarity, insight, and focus into their writing process, check out her course catalog and send her an email.


  1. Very insightful article… and, it translates into math education… (I’m a math tutor)… It seems many math teaching strategies (from administrators, teachers, textbooks) emphasize “applying concepts” rather than “strengthening the fundamentals”… Again, they want the students to quickly get out there and create and think for themselves — but, they may not have the skills yet! ***Anyway, I found your post at Instructional Design (google +)… Glad I read this one!

    • Thanks for the comment Lance. Your insights reach into another problem I encounter over and over again – knowledge is quick; skills take time. And we as a culture don’t invest sufficient time in the education process. Unfortunately, there’s no short cut. And part of our economic woes today are a reflection of this lost investment.

  2. pen2publish says

    I agree with Lance, this was a very interesting article and response. However, I wonder if you and Rod Sims are referring to the same types of students, Michelle, for you are both expressing philosophies that are pedagogical (concerning younger learners) and andragogical (concerning adult learners) in nature. Last year I discussed this in a paper and have pasted part of the discussion below:
    The definition of pedagogue is “school teacher”, one who instructs “in a dogmatic and pedantic manner” (Pedagogue, 2007 as cited in Pew, 2007) and pedagogy, according to the literature, refers to the education of children and means “the art and science of teaching children” (Gerhing, 2000). This is a teacher centered process; that is, the teacher decides what to teach, and what the child will learn (Pew, 2010). In this paradigm, the child is a passive recipient of knowledge and it is assumed that young learners are not self motivated, need guidance, schedules, and structure (Freire, 1993). Early childhood education theorists went as far back as Socrates who saw the child as a blank slate whose mind the teacher had to develop for the betterment of society. Sixteenth century philosopher Rabelais as well as Descartes, Compayre, Rousseau, La Chalotais, and most of the subsequent theorists placed the teacher at the center of learning in childhood (Gerhing, 2000). Jean Piaget is associated with the constructivist theory about the stages of intellectual development in childhood that other theorists continue to build on (Piaget’s Theory, 2004). Nevertheless, in pedagogical practice, the teacher is still the central actor and disseminator of knowledge in childhood education.
    Andragogy, on the other hand, is defined as the art and science of helping adults learn (Knowles, 1980, in Merriam, 2007) and is rooted in what is described as the best known theory about how adults learn and their unique motivations for learning (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner et al, 2007). Malcolm Knowles (1968) has been credited with giving name to this theory and articulating the concepts that distinguish andragogy from pedagogy. For example, in contrast to how children learn, adults are said to be self-motivated, goal-oriented, take responsibility for their learning, are independent, seek out learning that is relevant to their lives, and bring their experiential learning to the classroom with the expectation that they will be respected (Merriam et al, 2007). However, Knowles was influenced by the ideas of Eduard Lindeman who pointed out that adults want their learning to be meaningful and count for something (in Gerhing, 2000). While andragogy is most associated with adult learning, other theories such as Self-directed Learning, Transformational Learning, Context-based learning have emerged, as well as critical perspectives that question such things as power relationships in the learning transaction; as Merriam (2007) pointed out, adult learning is “not merely a laundry list of adult learner characteristics”, but is dynamic, complex, multifaceted, and continually evolving (p. 216).
    Pedagogy and andragogy are at opposite ends of a learning/education spectrum for, whereas children are dependent on the teacher for their learning, adults are responsible for their learning.

    The assumptions of andragogy are that adults bring to the classroom experiential learning so they do not need to be taught as younger children who do not have knowledge gained from experience. The term “facilitator” is now widely being used by colleges and universities to describe the role of the professor and her relationship with the student. Another assumption of andragogy (adult learning) is that adults are independent learners and take responsibility for their own learning.

    Pedagogical methods in which the teacher teaches (i.e. transfers knowledge in the way that you describe, Michelle) are teacher centric and place the instructor as the controller and dispenser of knowledge. This is appropriate for younger learners as pedagogy has long been understood and defined as “the art and science of teaching young children”, and pedagogical methods are not appropriate for adult learning. Given this distinction, I agree with Mr. Sim’s position.

    Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Books
    Gehring, T. (2000). A Compendium of Material on the Pedagogy-Andragogy Issue. Journal of Correctional Education, 51(1), 151-163.

    Merriam, S.B. (2007). The changing landscape of adult learning theory. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, 4. Retrieved from

    Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons

    Pew, S. (2007). Andragogy and pedagogy as foundational theory for student motivation in higher education. InSight: A Collection of Faculty Scholarship, 2 , 14-25. Retrieved from

    Piaget’s Theory. (2004). In The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science. Retrieved from

    • Thank you Ruth for reminding me that I need to use the term andragogy rather than pedagogy. I agree that adults bring experiences into the classroom that are valuable to the learning, and I encourage them to tag or name their experiences consistent with the discipline, raise their experiences to conscious levels of awareness, and reposition or realign their experiences in light of best practices.

      Taking responsibility for one’s own learning doesn’t mean being able to navigate successfully through the course by oneself. One part of taking responsibility for one’s own learning is recognizing when you need a course-correction and reaching out to your facilitator for that assistance.

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