Workplace Learning Paradigms Characterized

In the field of education, instructional design has traditionally been applied using established models, typically using a top-down approach, that focus on explicit definitions of audience, environment, strategies, activities and outcomes. However, when different traditions of design are considered, more creative and organic elements are emphasised, which also embrace a ‘bottom-up’ strategy.

Kays, E, & Sims, R. (2006).

All phases of product development — from initial conceptualization to finished product or service, and on to deployment and support — require workers to have both depth and breadth of knowledge. The primary method to meet these needs is through the use of teams that traverse domains of expertise, organizational functions, and geographical distance.

We can say that three workplace learning design paradigms are generally used (with notable exceptions) in today’s corporations and institutions:

  1. automating the traditional top-down systems approach
  2. incremental development (Agile)
  3. customer creation environments

The systems approach to development is well-documented and (I assume) familiar to education, learning & development professionals. As an aside, I’m planning a series of posts on instructional design to be published soon just in case you need to brush up on your ABCs, and indeed your ISDs. The central tenet of the systems approach is to make the core development processes work more effectively by automating and improving each step in the process by the use of templates, “cookie cutter” learning and assessment objects, and so on. This can assist in enabling organizations’ training departments to efficiently output content in a regularized and consistent manner.

Incremental development represents a “marked departure” (Klein & Eseryel, p.5) from the traditional systems approach and goes under a variety of names including agile development, adaptive development, rapid prototyping, and spiral development. While the approach is primarily currently used for developing software, it can be applied to a variety of contexts, including workplace training and development.

According to Ambler (2003) and Larman (2001) the key distinctions between the two approaches can be summarized as follows:

  • Design and development is incremental and iterative. Traditional development uses a waterfall or sequential lifecycle in which all requirements are first defined, then followed by development, integration, and testing. In the iterative approach, development is organized into small mini-projects of short time periods, each of which produces a tested, integrated, and functioning system. Overall product development consists of successive enlargement and refinement of the system through multiple iterations.
  • Feedback drives the process rather than full and complete specifications. In traditional development methods, requirements are specified and frozen — then development begins. Any change in requirements creates havoc in subsequent development phases. In the iterative paradigm, change is expected and embraced. Consequently, the product’s architecture and the development environment are designed to support change, rapid development, and testing.
  • Close customer involvement during development. The traditional approach normally organizes people by function. One organization does the front-end phase of meeting with customers and developing requirements, which are then passed along to the development organization. Iterative development staff, on the other hand, works directly with customers as they design and develop the product as they have the main responsibility for both deriving requirements and developing the solution. The rationale is that:
    i. written specifications do not communicate very well,
    ii. customers are not sure what it is they want and are poor at articulating requirements,
    iii. translations and intermediaries between the customer and those designing the product often result in confusion, and
    iv. one can leverage the expertise of the development staff, since they are the people most familiar with the technology.

Iterative development focuses on high-risk, high-value features first. The most difficult features are tackled first in the incremental development approach. The basic idea is that if one cannot solve the most complex and critical problems, then one should not continue. Larman (2001) illustrates this point with exceptional clarity:

If I want web pages to be green and the system to handle 5,000 simultaneous user transactions, green can wait.

(p. 37)

Rod Sims and Deborah Kones have devised the Three-Phase Design (3PD) approach to leverage the concept of iterative development. As illustrated in Figure 1, the 3PD process is supported by a “team” (p.8) consisting of an academic (A), a developer (D), and an educational designer (ED) who all contribute to each part of a learning program’s iterative progression through the model. The authors’ consider that the  “ultimate goal” of the model is to disintermediate the Developer and the Educational Designer, enabling the Academic to function as an independent Developer and Educational Designer over time.


3PD model including ADDIE components

Figure 1. The 3PD model including ADDIE components (after Sims & Jones, 2002)

I would assert that in its stated goal, and to a certain extent in it’s execution, that the 3PD model is a direct-line antecedent of the Rapid E-Learning approach to courseware design, development and delivery. It’s important to point out thought that Sims and Jones themselves view online course creation

…not as a short-term development process, but rather as a long-term collaborative process which would “generate and evolve into focused communities of practice with shared understanding and a philosophy of continuous improvement” the value of 3PD would be realised through a three-step process of develop functionality, evaluate/elaborate/enhance and maintain rather than the more traditional sequence of design, develop, implement, evaluate.

(2003, p. 18)

Three-Phase Design also integrates the three “essential competency sets for unit or course development” (Sims, in press)  – design, subject matter exposition, and production, in a cohesive rather than disparate fashion. Here, development is not driven by a an overarching and inflexible process, but rather it is the context of the learning materials  which determines the development in a targeted and effective manner. The approach is based upon the assumption that learning takes place in an online an collaborative environment. Sims and Jones state that 3PD “proposes four critical factors:”

  1. Instructional design must align with institutional expectation, contemporary pedagogies, and available resources and skills
  2. Skills building is facilitated through the scaffolding process to enable those less proficient in design and development to develop the appropriate competencies.
  3. A team-based approach is used to develop communication and collaboration among group members. Sims and Jones (2002) point out that the growth in social media reinforces the importance of this factor.
  4. Scaffolded support is incorporated into content design-time to enable instructors and staff to confront new and learning paradigms.




Ambler, S.W. (2003). The principles of agile modeling. [Internet] Available from: http:/www.agilemodeling.com/principles.htm [Accessed 26 August 2017]

Klein, J. Eseryel, D. (2005). The Corporate Learning Environment. [Internet] Available from: http://www.igi-pub.com/downloads/excerpts/159140505XCh1.pdf [Accessed February 18th 2010]

Larman, C. (2001). Applying UML and patterns: An introduction to object-oriented analysis and design and the unified process (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sims, R. (2006). Beyond instructional design: Making learning design a reality. Journal of Learning Design, 1(2), 1-7. [Internet] Available from: http://www.jld.qut.edu.au/ [Accessed 3 June 2017]

Sims, R. (in press). From three-phase to proactive learning design: Creating effective online teaching and learning environments, in J. Willis (Ed), Constructivist Instructional Design (C-ID): Foundations, Models, and Practical Examples.

Sims, R., & Jones, D. (2002). Continuous Improvement Through Shared Understanding: Reconceptualising Instructional Design for Online Learning. Proceedings of the 2002 ascilite conference: winds of change in the sea of learning: charting the course of digital education. [Internet] Available from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= [Accessed 3 June 2016]

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