Homemade or packet cake mix? How do you eat your Instructional Design cake?

This is a short reflective synthesis paper I recently wrote from my Instructional Design subject (Edtech503) as part of my Masters in Educational Technology. Like all of my blog entries I’m not claiming to be correct, I’m just sharing and reflecting on my thoughts for my own benefit and perhaps the benefit of others. Please share this with your PLN and leave your comments or feedback below.

A mixing bowl with cake ingredients.

Making it “homemade”.

Learning the difference between how we learn and how we think as humans is perhaps the most critical element a student can discover from this course. According to R. Gagne (1985) there are two primary kinds of cognitive strategies, those for learning, and those for thinking.

Cognitive strategies for learning are mental tactics for attending to, organising, elaborating, manipulating, and retrieving knowledge. Cognitive strategies for thinking are mental tactics that lead to discovery, invention, or creativity.” (Smith & Ragan, 2005)

It is these differences that truly inform how all instructional design is created. At the very heart of instructional design is the desire to teach somebody something. Whether it be how to pass a football, ride a bike, write a sonnet or solve a mathematical equation, the ultimate goal is to teach. The proof of success is whether the learner can complete the task themselves after being taught. Hence one could say the rest of instructional design and the systems related to it, such as ADDIE, are just ways of “scaling up” a one-to-one batch process. When the instructor knows the learner on a one-to-one basis they most likely know that person’s interests, their motivations, their ability and can therefore create and tailor instructional materials specific to their needs. This is what is meant by a one-to-one batch process, consider it like baking a cake from scratch or “a homemade cake”. In your kitchen at home you have the raw ingredients of flour, sugar, eggs, butter and so on to make a single batch of batter to then place in the oven and bake. Variations in this batch are up to the expertise of the baker and the recipe they follow, essentially allowing them to bake the cake to order. However, as anyone who has baked knows, every oven is different, and once the batter is mixed and placed in the oven there is still an element of surprise as to the result, much like a learner’s brain.

The systematic process of instructional design most commonly referred to using the ADDIE (Anaylsis, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) framework takes this

A box of cake mixture.

A more systematic way is “Cake Mix”.

one-to-one batch process of ID and places it in a system so that it can be applied on a much larger scale. It is an industrialised model, with origins in the military complex of training and teaching individuals en mass (Clark, 2004). In terms of the baking a cake metaphor it is the “packaged cake mix”. The system takes the common ingredients of baking a cake and tries to remove the variability of human error out of the system. By packaging the key steps in the process with “just add water” the result is another cake. This evokes some interesting questions, is it a better cake than the homemade variety? Does the baker truly know how to make a cake if they used the cake mix, as opposed to making it from scratch?

This metaphor, in some respects, summarises what has challenged me this semester and what I have learned about Instructional Design (ID). In an initial task of comparing ID to teaching I was faced with the realisation that I performed the ADDIE process and the role of an instructional designer on a daily basis. However because of my role as the subject matter expert (SME) and time restraints on the curriculum, teaching timetable, shortcuts were taken in the process. Early in the course the process of ID inspired me and reminded me of why I became a teacher and how critical my role is in making engaging, effective instructional material. It expanded my thinking around ID in the corporate world, away from teenagers and classrooms. It made me think about my skill set as an educator and how that could be transferred in to other professional realms, an incredibly encouraging reminder.

On reflection of my prior knowledge and appreciation of ID, this course has highlighted, some of the stark differences between the three core instructional formats, classroom face-to-face instruction, blended/hybrid learning, and online learning. In most classrooms the teacher is usually the SME and the instructor. They may or may not have written the curriculum or objectives that have to be taught but they more than likely adapted them and the learning materials for their students. They, as the instructor, are in control of what their learners see, hear and do, and the time at which they do it. They also have the ability to motivate extrinsically through verbal praise, rewards and encouragement at critical junctures in the learning experience. Hence the instructor themselves is the major component of the instructional system design process. Via time constraints and a myriad of other competing priorities classroom teachers, as instructors, can survive without ADDIE per se. However the same instructors who are now beginning to shift, via acceptance of Educational Technology, to the blended/hybrid or online learning environments are not granted such luxuries. When your instructional content becomes lodged forever in the text of a webpage or framed in a tutorial video hosted online it is accessible by all and becomes an extension of your professional profile. This is why ID is important to any future work in the field of Educational Technology. It is why any educators, myself included, who are pursuing professional positions in the Educational Technology space must be well versed in ID, its theories, its pitfalls, and its future.

My personal process and experience of ID links well with Educational Technology. This is because not long after beginning teaching eight years ago I quickly began investigating how I could host my learning materials online. This in turn led to making better presentations via powerpoint, making podcasts, making videos and then structuring these resources on a website that enabled the learners to access them quickly and easily. Without high quality ID, Educational Technology would be a failure. My experience has also taught me that when you take traditional paper based ID materials and transfer them to a digital or e-Learning format they actually require more ID. That is they require a systematic process such as ADDIE to ensure a certain level of professionalism. It seems that every time you remove the aspect of a physical “person” (i.e. the teacher or instructor) from the ID process your ID requirements increase exponentially. For example if it took you 5 hours to design a classroom unit of instruction then the work required to transform all the learning materials from that unit to put online for a hybrid or solely online course could be something like 1.7 to the power of 5 which equates to fourteen hours of work!

Using the previous metaphor, it is no longer a one-to-one batch process of a “homemade” cake. One has to consider the research and development that would be required to create a “cake mix” that could be packaged. Hence the same can be said when taking a unit of instruction developed for the traditional classroom and transferring it online. It requires a systematic process such as ADDIE to ensure a certain level of professionalism.

In conclusion this re-discovery of ID has been an awakening. A reminder of processes that work in some situations but perhaps not in others. With the current educational trend of student-centred learning, 21st century skills, and problem based learning, a whole new way of looking at ID will be required. Students are now being invited in to the process of, and direction of, their own learning. Technology is advancing so rapidly that yesterday’s subject matter experts may not be tomorrow’s. It’s an exciting time, as Dansereau (1985) and McCombs (1981-2) stated, to be learning how to learn.


Clark, D. R. (2004).The Art and Science of Leadership. Retrieved Apr 26, 2013 from

Dansereau, D. (1985). Learning strategy research. In J. W. Segal, S. F. Chipman, and R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills, Vol. 1 (pp. 209-239). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gagne, E. (1985). Cognitive psychology and school learning. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.

McCombs, B. L. (1981-82). Transitioning learning strategies research into practice: Focus on the student in technical training. Journal of Instructional Development, 5(2), 10-21.

Smith, P. L. & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional design (3rd Ed.). Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Sons.


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