Saturday, November 5, 2016

Instructional Design in a High School Biology Blended Class

The purpose of instructional design is to create “an environment for learning by structure content and creating activities that engage students and facilitate meaningful learning” (Morrison, 2013). Designing online, blended, or hybrid learning environments that harness technology have been a challenge for teachers that are used to traditional teaching methods. As technology become a very prevalent tool in schools, the role of technology campus facilitators is key in the support that teachers need to grow as designers. Supporting the process of learning must be valued, over the process of teaching, in the design of these types of courses.

In designing hybrid learning environments (such as a 1:1 iPad learning environment), a variety of learning theories should be considered. The objectivist approach to learning is one learning theory that is helpful in developing blended courses. This type of learning is “guided by purpose” and has very clear expectations (Dabbagh, 2014). In designing a course that is objectivist, a teacher must very specific when choosing what is important for learning, be methodical in the sequence of learning, and understand precisely how learners will be assessed (Bates, 2015, p. 46). A cognitivist approach to the design of an online or blended course must also be considered. It is in the best interest of the learners to be active participants, which allows them to move information into memory in a meaningful way. By actively participating through an online course (through methodically designed activities), the learner can process information and communicate what they are learning in an efficient manner (Dabbagh, 2014). A constructivist approach to teaching and learning can allow for learners to develop “personal meaning through reflection, analysis and the gradual building of layers or depths of knowledge through conscious and ongoing mental processing” (Bates, 2015, p. 184). Teachers can be facilitators of learning within an online or blended learning environment, rather than the keepers and deliverers of knowledge.
In the development of my course called “The Cell,” for my grade 11 AP/DP Biology class, these approaches were considered, but in the end the objectivist approach was a key player because understanding by design (or backwards planning) was considered as I created learning opportunities for my students.
Using Understanding by Design, or backwards planning, allows for objectivist planning to be successful. In starting with the end in mind, clear goals for the course are established and the learning opportunities created for students can be meaningful and specific to the end goals. In building out my digital course called “The Cell,” for my 11th grade DP/AP Biology students, I have considered what their end summative assessment would be, including the experiment they would complete within the unit. By using my previous backwards design plan, seen here, it was easy to scaffold and prepare activities that would set them up for mastery and success in their end of the unit summative and experiment. For example, for students to complete their lab, which was a study of osmosis, it was important for them to understand the concepts of osmosis. This was scaffolded through reading activities, videos and animations, in class discussion/review, and a formative assessment activity that allowed for students to show their understanding of cell transport by creating their own video. These activities, contained on iTunes U, provided the alignment to the experiment that was completed in class and analyzed. In using technology within a blended learning environment, methodical planning should be considered. Often students need guidance when they are in a technology setting;it is not safe to assume they know what they are doing just because they use technology on a daily basis. Methodical planning must be considered with specific instructions so students stay on task and do not get caught up in the technology.
As appropriately addressed by Bates in his book called Teaching in a Digital Age, “Using technology or moving part or all of your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures. It may mean not doing everything online, but focusing the campus experience on what can only be done on campus” (Bates, 2015, p. 1308). Providing a blended environment for students gives them opportunities to learn in a variety of ways that are not possible without technology. It provides multiple modes of learning styles and increases the exposure students have to content. Online learning gives them opportunities to learn synchronously and asynchronously and even gives them a means to authentic learning experiences. As students are provided authentic tasks to complete, which can be achieved using technology more efficiently, the learning is more effective for the student. (ChangeSchool, 2011). Preparing students to be problem solvers and knowledge managers are important skills they will need as they graduate and enter into the workforce. As teachers learn how to utilize online learning appropriately and effectively, innovative outcomes can be achieved (Project tomorrow, 2015, p. 12).

One of the most important understandings that has impacted my skill in developing blended courses is the power of backwards planning to lessen cognitive overload for students. According to an article by Guyan, working memory can be overloaded with information, which can inhibit the transfer of information to long-term memory. If cognitive overload can be minimized, then there is more success for information to become a part of long-term memory (Guyan, 2013).

To reduce cognitive overload in blended courses (or online courses), backwards planning provides focus on the objectives and goals of the course as the instructional designer methodically plans the use of technology, develops activities, and guides students. Guidelines to minimize cognitive overload are as follows (Guyan, 2013):
  • Present some information via the visual channel and verbal channel
  • Break content into smaller segments and allow the learner to control the pace
  • Remove non-essential content
  • Words should be placed as close as possible to corresponding graphics
  • Don’t narrate on-screen text word-for-word
I have developed an iTunes U online course (which I used in a face-to-face classroom) for four years. Cognitive overload is something that I have to put at the front of my steps so that I can ensure my blended courses help my students learn at the depth and complexity they need to learn at. There are so many good resources for biology classes (animations, videos, articles, activities), but I need to think about the quality of learning in the activities they are doing, not the quantity of activities they do. By methodically designing backwards with objectives in mind, this can be achieved.


Bates, T. (2015). Teaching in a digital age (Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia).
ChangSchool (2011, January 26). Perspectives: teacher skills in a digital age. Retrieved from
Dabbagh, N. (2006). The instructional design knowledge base. Retrieved from
Morrison, D. (2013 May 7). Why online courses really need an instructional design strategy. Retrieved from design-strategy/
Project Tomorrow (2015). Trends in digital learning: empowering innovative classroom models for learning. Retrieved from
Guyan, M. (2013, November 1). 5 Ways to reduce cognitive load in elearning. Retrieved from

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