MET:Iterative Course Design

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This page was originally created by Angela Viola (2014)

Instructional Design is the term used to describe the process of creating instruction. Traditionally the process has involved analyzing the need for instruction, designing and developing the learning outcomes and instructional activities, implementing the activities online or in the classroom and assessing the instruction (Reigeluth, 1999). The ADDIE model of instructional design, birthed in the 1950’s, (Irlbeck, Kays, Jones & Sims, 2006) is the most common design model used by instructional designers in a variety of forms (Clinton & Hokanson, 2012). Iterative design and rapid prototyping are alternate models that offer instructional designers added flexibility and efficiency in the design process (Gayeski, 1998). Instructional designers are often working with tight deadlines and a large team which can become challenging if the ADDIE model is being strictly subscribed to. Iterative design is a model that can offer a more collaborative and fluid approach to development. Iteration is defined as “executing activities again” (Van Wagnerberg as cited in Verstegen, Barnard & Pilot, 2006, p. 482) and in the context of design means the continual changing and updating of design activities.

Pitfalls of Linear Models

Linear approaches to Instructional Design, such as ADDIE, focus on “the effectiveness of the product rather than the efficiency of the process” (Tripp & Bichelmeyer, 1990, p. 31). Verstegen, Barnard & Pilot (2006) make the bold statement that “ instructional design is not a linear process” (p.481) and yet the primary models for instructional design continue to be linear models. Rigid linear models can be time consuming and focus so heavily on analysis that critical design decisions are often left too late because the designers feel that the analysis must be complete before design and development begin (Gayeski, 1998). Clinton and Hokansen (2012) further suggest that ADDIE and variations of this model do not allow for creativity, which seems contrary to the practice and intentions of instructional design. Additionally, these models leave little room for constructivist design; “a more holistic, learner-centered approach and one that acknowledges the importance of social contexts” (p. 117).

The Birth of Iterative Design

Verstegen, Barnard & Pilot (2006) outline the types of iteration that naturally occur in the design process, linear or otherwise, and suggest that ignoring the need for iteration can lead to less than optimal solutions. Early instructional design models had their premise in behaviorist models, but in the late 1980’s the shift towards more constructivist models became apparent (Irlebeck et al., 2006). This shift towards constructivism resulted in a shift from a more prescribed approach of instructional design to a more holistic approach, making way for alternate models of instructional design. Some suggested alternate models that include aspects of iteration include; Rapid Prototyping model (Krick Nixon & Lee, 2001), Three-Phase Design model (Irlbeck et al., 2006), Design/Creativity Loops model (Clinton & Hokanson, 2012) and Individual Iterative Instructional Design model (Kranch, 2008). All of the models here depict the creation of a prototype early in development and stages of iteration that respond to the feedback provided. A depiction of the iterative process accompanied by definitions of iteration.

Key Components of Iterative Design

Key components that are shared among the models mentioned in the previous section are:

  • implementation of prototypes prior to the completion of development
  • early learner, instructor and designer input is used to direct the design direction
  • evaluation of the design precedes a completed design
  • a team based approach to design is taken (with the exception of the Individual Iterative Instructional Design Model)
  • designs are cyclically modified in response to the evaluation of each new prototype

Although Rapid Prototyping, a model first employed by software developers, is gaining traction in the realm of instructional design, iterative design does not need to be rapid.

A depiction of the prototyping process.

Iterative Design and Online Course Production

Irlbeck et al. (2006) suggests that the online learning environment contains “elements [that …] interact spontaneously, even randomly and are shaped by social processes” (p.177) requiring instructional designers to adopt a more emergent system for design. The suggested model for design in this case involves the creation of prototypes that are tested prior to the completion of the development. A prototype is a functional, unembellished version of a product, in this case a learning activity or assessment, that can be tested by users (Allen, 2012). The collaborative nature of iterative design for online education allows the different stakeholders (designers, SME’s, learners) to influence the direction of development prior to a finished product (Irlbeck et al., 2006).

Benefits of Iterative Design

Iterative design models serve to “acknowledge rather than to minimize the complexity” (Tripp & Bichelmeyer, 1990, p. 37) of design, allowing for design decisions to change at each stage. This ‘minimum commitment’ is allowable by the fact that a number of low cost prototypes are designed for evaluation (Allen, 2012). These prototypes are then evaluated at each stage of development by all members of the design team allowing for the design to become more tailored to the needs of the course, as shown in the image below. Iterative design allows learners to be using, and evaluating, prototypes early in the process while the developers refine the product based on learner feedback (Gayeski, 1998; Kranch, 2008). As each iteration occurs, the product or course becomes tailored to the learners needs.

Drawbacks of Iterative or Rapid Design

It is clear that iterative design supports more rapid, collaborative and responsive design. There is the potential that designers develop early ideas without alternative designs or sufficient analysis (Verstegen, Barnard & Pilot, 2006). As a solution to this possibility, Allen (2012) suggests that the practice of presenting three or more initial prototypes is desirable for best results. Additionally, the design team needs to communicate well and be flexible with their time in order to fulfill their role in a meaningful way (Nixon Krick & Lee, 2001).


Three Reasons to Start Designing Iteratively. A blog post that summarizes Iterative Design and it's benefits in designing user experiences.

How to Save Time by Applying Iterative Design to ADDIE. A brief summary of how Iterative Design can be integrated into the ADDIE approach.

Iterative Design for Learning: Using Design Research and Prototyping to Innovate and Support Learning. An Educause webinar about iterative design and prototyping by Alan Foley.

Course Design: Moving Towards an Iterative Approach. A Blackboard Collaborate recoding of an eCampus Alberta session on Iterative Design at Lethbridge College.

Stop Motion Video

Iterative Instructional Design by Lynn Hickey, 28 Jan. 2018.


Allen, M. (2012). Leaving ADDIE for SAM: An Agile Model for Developing the Best Learning Experiences. ATSD Press.

Clinton, G. and Hokanson, B. (2012). Creativity in the training and practice of instructional designers: the Design/Creativity Loops model. Educational Technology Research Development, 60, 111-130.

Gayeski, D. (1998). Out-of-the-box instructional design. Training and Development. 52(4), 36-40.

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

Kranch, D. (2008). Getting it Right Gradually: An Iterative Method for Online Instruction Development. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(1), 29-34.

Krick Nixon, E. and Lee, D. (2001). Rapid Prototyping in the Instructional Design Process. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 14(3), 95-116.

Park, A. and Wong, C. (2010) A Case Study of a Systematic Iterative Design Methodology and its Application in Engineering Education. Proceedings of the Canadian Engineering Education Association.

Ramsay, Anders. (2009, March 1). Three Reasons to Start Designing Iteratively. Retrieved from

Reigeluth, C.M. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Vol.2 ,. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Tripp, S. and Bichelmeyer, B. (1990). Rapid Prototyping: An Alternative Instructional Design Strategy. Educational Technology Research Development, 38(1), 31-44.

Verstegen, D., Barnard, Y. and Pilot, A. (2006). Which events can cause iteration in instructional design? An empirical study of the design process. Instructional Science, 34, 481-517.