The everydayness of instructional design and the pursuit of quality in online courses

A couple of years ago I decided we needed some good ethnographies of instructional design work. Life in organization is so complex, and never static, and imbued with so many competing considerations and values, that all the studies of instructional design I knew about seemed to reduce it to a simple, input-output model. Even our attempts to be sophisticated at best call it an “iterative process.” Through my ethnographic look into design I wanted to complicate this picture. Of course, no formal research can capture that completely, especially in only 30-some pages. But I gave it a try. And I do think it offers a pretty compelling picture of what makes this form of life what it is.


This article reports research into the everydayness of instructional design (meaning designers’ daily routines, run-of-the-mill interactions with colleagues, and other, prosaic forms of social contact), and how everydayness relates to their pursuit of quality in online course design. These issues were investigated through an ethnographic case study, centered on a team of instructional designers at a university in the United States. Designers were observed spending significant amounts of time engaged in practices of course refinement, meaning mundane, workaday tasks like revising, updating, fine-tuning, or fixing the courses to which they were assigned. Refining practices were interrelated with, but also experienced as distinct from, the specialized processes of instructional design or innovation that the designers also applied. Refining played a meaningful role in designers’ pursuit of course quality, both to help them achieve quality, as well as to understand what the ideal of quality meant in specific instances. The article concludes by exploring what implications these findings have for the study and practice of instructional design in the context of online course development.


At ResearchGate

At BYU Scholar’s Archive

At the journal website


McDonald, J. K. (2023). The everydayness of instructional design and the pursuit of quality in online courses. Online Learning, 27(2), 137-169.

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