I’m at risk of flogging a very dead horse here, but some recent posts from Ellen Wagner (What is it about ADDIE that makes people so cranky?) and Donald Clark (The evolving dynamics of ISD) got me thinking about instructional design process and ADDIE in particular (please don’t run away!).

Much of my career has been involved in applying ADDIE in some form or other and I’ve landed on a conflicted LOVE/HATE relationship with it to which you will now be subjected.



Throughout the 90’s many Instructional Designers and e-Learning Developers (me included) grew disgruntled with ADDIE (and its parent process Instructional Systems Design—ISD) as training struggled to keep up with business demands for speed and quality and as we  observed process innovations in software and product development field (Rapid Application Development, Iterative prototyping etc).

In 2001 that frustration was given voice in the seminal article “The Attack on ISD” by Jack Gordon and Ron Zemke in Training Magazine. The article cited four main concerns:

  • ISD is too slow and clumsy to meet today’s training challenges
  • There’s no “there” there. (It aspires to be a science but fails on many fronts)
  • Used as directed, it produces bad solutions
  • It clings to the wrong world view

I have memories of early projects, driven by mindless adherence to ISD, where I learned the truth in each of these assertions the hard way. For years I have kept an “instructional objective” from an early military project as a reminder of what not to do and a guard against blowing my brains out in future projects.  It still makes my eyes burn.

Early ISD/ADDIE aspired to be an engineering model.  Follow it precisely and you would produce repeatable outcomes.  The “one best way” thinking appealed to the bureaucratic style of the times but it couldn’t be more of an anathema to the current crop of learning designers, especially those focused on more social and constructivist approaches to learning.  And they’re right.

Another criticism of ADDIE I have parallels Ellen’s comments.  Adherents and crankites alike view ADDIE as an “instructional design” methodology when in fact it should be viewed more as a project management process for learning projects.  Viewing  Instructional Design as synonymous with ADDIE does both a disservice.  There is loads of ID going on inside ADDIE but it is primarily in the Design phase of the process, and it can be much more creative than the original model prescribes.

In the end, the Achilles heel of formal ISD/ADDIE rests in its prescriptive posture and foundation in behavioural psychology.  Behavioural psychology and performance technology–its extension in the workplace–have added greatly to our understanding how to improve human learning at work, but we have learned much since then, and technology has provided tools to both designers and learners that profoundly change the need for a process like ADDIE.

Of course the ADDIE process was (and is) not unique to the learning design profession.  For many years the five broad phases of ADDIE were the foundation for the design of most systems.  Software engineering, product development, interactive/multimedia development are all based on some variation of the model.   Most however have evolved from the linear “waterfall” approach of early models (can’t start the next phase until the previous has been done and approved) to iterative design cycles based on rapid prototyping, customer participation in the process and loads of feedback loops built into the process.  And learning/e-learning is no different.  It has evolved and continues to evolve to meet the needs of the marketplace. Much of the current gag reaction to ADDIE, is based on the old waterfall-linear approach and the assumed instructivist nature of the model.  And again the gag is entirely valid.

However, if you can break free from the history, preconceptions and robotic application of ADDIE, you may find room for something approaching…


I can’t say I ever use ADDIE in its purest form any longer.  For e-learning and performance applications, I prefer processes with iterative design and development cycles that are usually a variation of rapid application development process like this one from DSDM.


Or for an example specific to e-learning,  this process from Cyber Media Creations nicely visualizes the iterative approach:

Or for the Michael Allen fans out there, his Rapid Development approach described in Creating Successful e-Learning is very good.  There is a respectful chapter in the book on the ADDIE limitations and how his system evolved from it.

For me, ADDIE has become a useful heuristic,  not even a process really, but a framework for thinking,  coaching instructional designers,  and managing learning and e-learning projects.  Many e-learning designers these days are not formally trained in Instructional Design and initially think of it as instructional “writing” more than the holistic and systemic approach at the heart of ADDIE.   Likewise, customers and subject matter experts are much easier to work with once they understand the broad project process that ADDIE represents.  For these two purposes alone I am thankful for ADDIE as a framework.  ADDIE has staying power because of its simplicity.  Purists will say it has been watered down too much but in many ways that’s what keeps it alive.

ADDIE phases are also a useful way to think about organization design and structure of a learning function.  They are the major processes that need to be managed and measured by most learning functions.  Just think of the functionality of most LMS systems have added since their inception.

In the end, ADDIE (and its more current modifications) is probably most valuable because it makes the work of learning design visible. This is an essential feature of productive knowledge work of all kinds.   Almost every learning/training group uses an ADDIE as a start point to design a customized process that can be communicated,  executed,  measured and repeated with some level of consistency.  Equally important in knowledge work is the discipline of continually improving processes and breaking through to better ways of working.  This has resulted in the many innovations and improvement to the ADDIE process since its inception.


I’ve come to believe that the power of ADDIE/ISD lies in the mind and artful hands of the user.  In my experience, Rapid Application Development processes can become just as rigid and prescriptive under the watch of inflexible and bureaucratic leaders as ADDIE did.

There’s an intellectual fashion and political correctness at work in some of the outright rejection of ADDIE.  It’s just not cool to associate with the stodgy old process.  Add Web 2.0, informal and social learning to the mix and some will argue we shouldn’t be designing anything.

For the organizations I work with, there is no end on the horizon to formal learning (adjustments in volume and quality would be nice!).  Formal learning will always require intelligent authentic learning design, and a process to make it happen as quickly and effectively as possible.

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15 Responses
  1. Cammy, I resonate with your assessment. Mostly ADDIE is wrong because how it’s implemented.

    I recall a casual comment on an ITFORUM discussion that I followed up. An unpublished study was done investigating the projects by recent graduates, and then 10 year graduates of programs. It was easy to tell the programs by the projects, apparently, but only for the recent graduates. The projects by the experienced graduates, in contrast, were only discriminable by the rationales that accompanied the designs.

    In short, processes are useful guides for initiates, but as we get experienced we find ways to incorporate flexibility within the processes. I think our big problems are when we use process as a crutch, not as a guide, and I think that happens all too often.

  2. I am always surprised at how those in the know want to dicount ADDIE but often offer nothing to replace it. You gave done an admirable job in doing so. Well done.

    If you look at the replacements they are in all honesty based at heart on the 5 stages of ADDIE but with many new additions and branches.

    I always smile however that the reason ADDIE is dead for many is because the developers using it are just that, developers not learning providers. What they end up with is DDIE. The ‘A’ done by someone else vi call this ‘ D or DIE’.

    It is certainly not dead, however it is just one model of many, but one that is actually still pretty easy to follow and still works for the vast majority.

    You like I have however tailored its use to suit the current need, add where required and take away where it is not.

    Anyone interested in more? http://www.trainer1.com/mid.html


  3. Pretty close to my own view of matters. I guess I never learned ADDIE as a “waterfall.” The first I saw that term was in Michael Allen’s book where he pooh-poohs the idea of ADDIE (which I guess I saw as more argumentative than respectful ) but, as you point out, goes on to use it anyway calling it an iterative approach. The “waterfall” view he mentions sounded like a straw man for an argument against the process. Efforts to discard the process, in my view, only leads to projects where people roam endlessly in a blinding blizzard until they drop dead.

    I have always presented it as a guideline. Much the way Laura Ingalls Wilder describes what her Pa did in the Long Winter out on the prairie. He strung a clothesline from the back door of the house out to the barn. He held on to that clothesline so that he could get safely to the barn and back in the blinding whiteness of the blizzard. ADDIE is a guideline that reminds of the strategies and techniques that will get us home – namely the improvement in performance that we seek, and the related business outcome that we seek.

    I especially like your words here: ADDIE is not about instructional design, “in fact it should be viewed more as a project management process for learning projects.” I believe this actually has been taught even from the behaviorists like Mager – Keep in mind Mager’s early charts for performance analysis.

  4. It IS process, and really not that objectionable a process at that (blogged about it here http://bit.ly/4EyHOX).

    I suppose it’s an interesting question — how much does process impact outcome? It’s kind of like asking if the medium is message. Is the process the outcome? Or at least fundamental to the outcome?

    I worked for Michael Allen, and used his iterative SAVVY process for years (and believe in it). The elements aren’t different from ADDIE though — you still do all the same things, but not in the same order or with the same emphasis.

    So while I believe that rapid prototyping is a better way to get to good design (more efficient, faster), it’s still mostly just the vehicle. It’s not really the point — it’s only a smallish part of the picture. Basically, ADDIE (or any process) is a necessary but not sufficient part of good Instructional Design.

    Tried to think about it visually – images here: http://bit.ly/Ahltr

  5. I’m amazed at the interest ancient ADDIE can still generate. Maybe it’s because it represents the division line between old and new, and gets used as the pin board for everything that’s right or wrong with the state of Instructional Design.

    Clark (and Cammy):

    I couldn’t agree more that the biggest problem with ADDIE lies in the implementation. That also holds true for poor implementation of iterative, rapid development processes. Experience (and the natural learning that comes with it) and deeper knowledge of the why and how of any process are the best guards against inflexible implementation. I like your research example. Maybe part of the reason new learning designers reject it so quickly is that they haven’t yet learned that it’s OK to use it as a guide and not the crutch you mention. That said, early ADDIE does have a lot of assumptions build into it about the “best ways” to design learning that deserve to be rejected. The newer iterative models are a bit more focused on the process and less on the one right path to instructional godliness.

    Didem and Claude (DesignLearning):

    Thank you for your comments. Much appreciated.


    I agree that some of the problems with ADDIE implementation come from it being used by “developers” and not “designers”, but e-learning production is truly a multidisciplinary team sport, and the process (any process) will only work if everyone understand the whole, as well as their unique part. It’s up to Project leaders and lead instructional designers to help everyone on the team understand the why’s and what’s of the process.


    I think the “waterfall” label emerged from software design process. They were the first to struggle with bulky and slow process. I agree that ADDIE is best thought of as a guide. In fact I’m not sure if ANYONE actually uses it in it’s original form. In that way I think it truly is dead. But it lives on as a loose framework for people to layer on the steps (and underlying learning and methodological philosophies) that work for them.


    Nice to hear from a Savvy veteran. I think you’re saying that the rapid prototyping and iterative development processes now widely in use are primarily to move a project along quickly and effectively and are mostly neutral when it comes to guidelines for the design of learning experiences (instructional design). If so, I agree wholeheartedly. Necessary but not sufficient for quality learning outcomes. A rapid prototyping process (even Savvy!) could be used to efficiently produce a lousy learning program. This is why I don’t really see ADDIE as synonymous with Instructional Design. The design of effective learning experiences is truly a unique skill within the process.

    As an aside, when looked at the blog links in your comment, I noticed you posted last year on ADDIE using the LOVE/HATE schism too. An entertaining coincidence! I liked your Venn models, especially because they separate design from process.

  6. I started replying to this but it got too long, so I’ve blogged about it here: http://patrickdunn.squarespace.com/occasional-rants/2009/9/14/more-on-addie-sorry.html

    But briefly:

    Outside of the military/police and similar, anything like rigorous application of ADDIE is almost wholly absent in the UK/Europe. ISD/ADDIE was and is a North American phenomenon. The really interesting questions are around why, in what ways, the implications etc.

    I’ve heard many times that expert ADDIE/ISD users treat it loosely, which is fine. Where we need to get to, in training new professionals is a point where we get people to the truth – that ADDIE is an interesting concept and a means of design support – very early on in their development. This is absolutely not the case in the military and similar, where hundreds (probably thousands) are still taught ADDIE/ISD as an immovable and inflexible truth.

    Why are we so engaged in still talking about it? Because I think we (instructional/learning design, learning technology etc.) have a sense of insecurity about what we do. We used to have a process (ADDIE), and….eeeek….now we don’t.

    We do have alternatives. We don’t have another huge, comprehensive methodology, but then we wouldn’t these days because life isn’t like that any more. What we have is a messy, evolving, confusing mass of heuristics and half-digested processes, which kind of reflects the reality of day to day design.

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