Towards a view of originary theory in instructional design

This is a theory paper written with my colleague Stephen Yanchar. It came out of conversations we had about how it seems that the modern field of instructional design always seems to be looking for some shiny new thing to guarantee its success. We most often notice this when it comes to technologies; when a new technology is introduced there’s a flurry of activity around how it can be used for learning. But harder to see is how we do the same thing with theory. We get excited about new theoretical developments in other fields but often don’t take the time to understand those developments properly before trying to use them to solve problems. We also don’t see that issues in the field might be unique enough that our theoretical views might be required to address them adequately. So in this paper we wanted to both draw the attention of researchers and professionals in the field towards the need to consider imported theory more critically, as well as build confidence in ourselves that we, as a field, can create legitimate theory that is powerful enough to solve the problems we face.


In this paper we offer a call for the development and utilization of originary theory in instructional design. Originary theory, which is generated by scholars within the field of its intended application, can be contrasted with imported theory, which is formulated in one field and later moved or “imported” into another for new purposes. In making our argument we first review the use of theories imported into instructional design and address limitations that might arise if these theories are overly relied upon, such as if they are treated as the primary source of insight for supporting the work of practitioners. Next, we define originary theory and argue that it should be emphasized within the field of instructional design because of the central role it can play in facilitating the field’s work of designing and developing excellent learning experiences. We further explore how originary theories can support instructional design practice by considering two examples of recent theoretical work that speak to the values, and challenge the assumptions, of instructional designers, disclosing aspects of the field that can help them better accomplish their work. First, we consider originary theory that conceptualizes instructional design as a design discipline; and second, we review originary theorizing that provides alternatives to common views about learners and learning. We conclude by considering what it might mean for the field to more intentionally develop and apply originary instructional design theory.


At ResearchGate

At BYU Scholar’s Archive


McDonald, J.K., & Yanchar, S. C. (2020). Towards a view of originary theory in instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 68(2), 633-651.

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