The Case For Instructional Forensics: What Went Wrong?
Sergey Nivens/

Taking A Different Approach

In 2001, Instructional Design forefather, David Merrill, published a set of qualities that makes Instructional Design function at its highest level and pushes learners to learn at the highest level. He charged that great Instructional Design includes:

  1. Real-world scenario problem solving
  2. A recognition of the previous knowledge and experience of the learners
  3. Demonstrated learning and not just regurgitation of information
  4. Opportunity for practice and application of the newly acquired knowledge or skill
  5. A plan of provision for the transfer of these newly acquired knowledge bases and/or skills to their everyday working infrastructure

It is within this holistic paradigm that great instruction can happen and learning can be anticipated and also measured, which is also critical to the process of effective and strategic learning on any educational level. Along with this paradigm, Merrill began the work of fleeing out some of these qualities by asking a set of questions that would help detrain the efficacy and impact of each of these qualities on the Instructional Design process.

What makes all of this interesting is that Merrill is assuming a number of things that you would expect would be known by those who are creating courseware. For Merrill’s 5-star qualities to exist, it is rightly assumed that:

  1. The courseware has captured a real problem and is presenting and demonstrating a real solution to a problem.
  2. The developers of the courseware are well versed in the prior knowledge and experience of the learners and the depth of that prior knowledge. Further, it must also be assumed that the Instructional Design team understands any range of prior knowledge and experience that might exist within a group of learners and how that impacts the coursework being presented.
  3. The courseware is accessible by all learners, and the demonstration process is equitable and easily facilitated in all environments where the solutions are being transferred.
  4. The learning activities and practice sessions are sufficient for every learner to practice and apply the solutions or knowledge bases to their learning scenario.
  5. The learning is transferrable to any scenarios that the learner may be exposed to where the learning, skills and/or solutions is being applied.

For most, even this level of analysis by most anyone would lead to an understanding that Instructional Design learning can fail even before it is ever delivered. It would seem that a different rule perhaps needs to be applied, “If at first you don’t succeed, analyze the failure.” In other words, conduct an audit of the instructional forensics™.

What Is Instructional Forensics™?

The idea of forensics has been around a long time and is most closely related to a situation where crimes have been committed. However, there are other industries that have adopted forensics as a real niche in their industry, including engineering and building science where, although criminal activity could be the result, it is also inclined to look for failure points and understand how these failure points occurred (Odom and DuBose, 2003). Instructional forensics™ in its simplest form is the applied evaluation of the Instructional Design and implementation processes within the production and implementation of courseware to facilitate the understanding of instructional and learning failure. Ultimately, the goal of instructional forensics™ is the discovery, mitigation, and prevention of instructional and learning failure by understanding the pinch points of failure within the instructional design, implementation and facilitation processes. The approach is necessarily contrarian, but the outcome means a more positive instructional experience for designers, instructors and learners alike.

For many, the introduction of technology was the great hope against such failures, but time and time again, education has learned the technology only continues to accelerate what we do well and amplify intensely what we do poorly. It is not a mechanism of the change itself necessarily, it is only a mechanism to accelerate change, and to expose forensic areas that need to be better understood and mitigated against. In other words, technology can help facilitate the change but it does not solve the charge that is needed just because it exists (Collins, 2001). Technology continues to hold great promise for instructional use and it can be a powerful tool in the forensic analysis of learning and instructional failure. Technology is certainly not the enemy, but much is needed in order for technology to function as the friend and partner that it could be to education. Instructional forensics™ has a unique opportunity to harness that power for the good of education and instruction going forward.

The time has come for instructional forensics™ to become a viable option for the whole scope of educational and instructional research, design, production, implementation, and analysis. Instructional forensic experts™ are the next niche of Instructional Design professionals that will be needed to make sure that courseware and training that are being produced succeed by looking at the matrix of failures that so often plague the educational processes at every level. These professionals are experts at finding failure points and who can work within those failure points to find solutions that mitigate any immediate needs. Also, these professionals help plan for the future of educational and instructional rollouts.

This is especially needed for the increasing amount of education and instruction that is being created for deployment in digital environments, where already we are seeing complex learning issues that are leading to catastrophic failures for learners and instructors alike, especially in industry. As these digital environments continue to grow in popularity among all levels of education and instruction, it is imperative that experts emerge who can help examine, mitigate and prevent instructional failure today, tomorrow and in the future.


  • Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don't. New York: Harper Collins.Merrill, M. D. (2001). 5 Star Instructional Design Rating. Unpublished manuscript, Utah State University.
  • Odom, J. David, and George H. DuBose. Preventing Moisture and Mold Problems: Design and Construction Guidelines. CH2MHill, 2003.