“A Discussion of Instructional Systems and Instructional Materials”
When discussing aspects of instructional design, there are an abundance of important terms, terminologies, processes and theories. It is important to lend time to the discussion and understanding of these items. Understanding the parts or building blocks of the whole lends to increased understanding of the whole itself, thus creating an environment for production of the best instructional products. One such example is the discussion of instructional systems and instructional materials. This paper will define these two terms and examine the commonalities and differences between them, adding to important discussions in order to expand understanding providing a helpful foundation for instructional designers.
According to Banathy (1968) the term systems can be defined as “deliberately designed synthetic organisms, comprised of interrelated and interacting components which are employed to function in an integrated fashion to attain a predetermined purpose” (p. 2-3). For example, an engine motor in a car or a natural ecosystem in the ocean. An instructional system can be defined as “deliberately designed instructional materials that are intended to function interrelatedly to achieve predetermined learning outcomes” (Harris and Harrison, 1988, p. 6). Additionally, Smith and Ragan (2005) define instruction as “the intentional facilitation of learning toward identified learning goals” (p.4). So it can be deduced that instructional materials are the content and result of application of the instructional design process. In other words, what is physically developed as a result of going through the instructional design process. Notice that “instructional material” is part of the definition of instructional system. This might seem to indicate that the two are the same. However, they are not. Even though many aspects of each term overlap and have commonalities they also have significant differences.
Some of the important commonalities between instructional systems and instructional materials reside in the characteristics of each. Characteristics that the two share include: some type of instructional analysis such as needs assessment, task analysis or performance analysis, goals and purposes are clearly defined as a result of the analysis conducted, instructional objectives are clearly defined, behavior of learner is identified, uniform high levels of achievement are expected, components complement each other so that goals and purposes align, they both have instructional alignment, room for remediation, generally follow a design then development order, use forms of different media and include evaluation and feedback (Harris and Harrison, 1988). By having so many characteristics in common it is clear that instructional systems and instructional materials are interrelated – arguably almost the same. Yet, not all their characteristics always overlap.
Unless instructional materials contain all the characteristics of an instructional system then the materials are not actually an instructional system. Additionally, instructional materials include aspects of instructional systems however, not all instructional materials can be considered instructional systems (Harris and Harrison, 1988). This holds true even if the instructional materials have been designed using a systematic instructional design process model such as the Smith and Ragan model.
Five characteristics of an instructional system that may not necessarily overlap with instructional materials are: instrumentation is included, system-provided feedback is provided/used, system is exportable, summative evaluation is conducted to determine if system is consistent and systematic review is built into the instruction (Harris and Harrison, 1988). For example, a classroom text book is considered instructional material but is not an instructional system because it does not include some of the above characteristics. The book does not provide system feedback or systematic review.
According to Hannum and Briggs (1982) traditional instructional design focused primarily on the instructional content and instructional materials without consideration of instructional systems design. This caused weakness in the quality of instructional materials. Therefore in order for there to be the highest quality of instructional materials instructional designers and the like must consider characteristics of the instructional system and instructional system design process. Careful attention must be paid to the overlap of qualities and characteristics between the two terms in mutual benefit garnered from each other.
In order to create the strongest instructional products possible it is important to understand the characteristics of both instructional systems and instructional materials. It is also important to understand the similarities and differences between the two terms so that the proper outcomes of the instructions purpose are fulfilled. If instructional materials are being developed whose purpose it is to be a true instructional system then all characteristics of instructional systems must be met including the feedback mechanisms and consistent review and updating of the materials. If these characteristics are not met then the purpose of the original intended materials is unsuccessful thus, creating an environment for decreased quality of instruction. However, if all characteristics are in alignment then the quality is increased. This does not mean that all instructional materials have to be instructional systems to be successful but rather a basic understanding of each term and their characteristics will give designers the foundation to be able to identify if certain characteristics are being met in agreement with the original intended purpose of the instruction.
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Harris, B.R., & Harrison, G.V. (1988). Instructional systems versus instructional
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from Traditional Instruction? Educational Technology, 22, (1), 9-14.
Smith, P.L. & Ragan, T.J. (2005). Instructional Design. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley &
As an instructional designer my focus is the design and development of effective online instruction, interactive learning objects, instructional alignment and the visual aspects of instructional materials. Specifically, how the inclusion of visuals within instruction can help facilitate learning.