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Project Management versus Instructional Design


Instructional design (ID), otherwise known as instructional systems design (ISD), refers to the creating of learning experiences that make the transfer of knowledge more effective and engaging, while project management (PM) refers to applying certain processes and skills to achieve specific objectives in a project with targeted outcomes. Pan (2012) states, “Project management methodologies with a strong point in efficiency…can complement ISD’s effectiveness in the design of instruction” (p. 11). PM specifically focuses on the cost, scope, and timeliness of a project, which makes the designing of instruction more productive and successful. Turner and Croy (2010) discuss the tragedy of having wonderful ideas without the project manager’s methodologies to bring them to fruition (p. 1). The authors argue, “Design, without project leadership, cannot transform the world we live in” (Turner & Croy, 2010, p. 1). PM skills help designers of instruction plan ahead and follow through to meet their objectives.

While both ID and PM follow steps, those steps differ. ID is systemic, and most models include the following steps: needs assessment, task analysis, objectives formulation, assessment development, content development, implementation of a developed product, and revision of the product (Pan, 2012, p. 3) Designers can focus on the value of the process before they figure out the plan and evaluation phases tell them whether students are mastering material (Pan, 2012, p. 4). On the other hand, PM knows the plan before the process and outcomes. Each project has a unique goal, a limited timeframe, and coordinated tasks, whereas ID is continuous (Pan, 2012, p. 4)

Designing Instruction: Task Analysis & Task Sequencing

During the process of task differentiation, the project manager breaks down tasks in a hierarchical way so that what students need to be able to do are arranged from the highest to lowest levels (Cox, 2009, p. 53). Task differentiation ensures that a project is thorough, that tasks line up with gaps in learning, that the best activities are utilized, and that it is broken down enough to be able to use certain pieces on future projects. A project manager can accomplish this by first thinking about and separating the physical and cognitive tasks a learner will need to accomplish via the training. This is an important step because it guarantees that the training will target academic as well as behavioral tasks (Cox, 2009, p. 53). Next, the project manager would decide which tasks they need to perform to accomplish the primary tasks, then further break these down into main tasks, and then, even further, break these down into supporting tasks. Once task differentiation has been done effectively, task sequencing takes place.

During task sequencing, the project manager ranks tasks in order of importance (Cox, 2009, p. 53). The importance of a task is calculated based on three factors: time spent on the task, the difficulty of the task, and the significance of the task (Cox, 2009, p. 53). It is crucial to keep tasks in an order that correlates to the duties of the training because it gives learners context and allows educators to reuse materials later. The purpose of sequencing is to mimic the performance of the task to make learning genuine and close the gap in performance.

Personal Reflection

It is imperative that educators are trained in both PM and ID. Considering how much PM supports ID, instructional designers require PM skills (Pan, 2012, p. 8). Pan (2012) asserts, “…instructional designers undertake tasks other than curriculum development; project management is one of the essential tasks required of instructional designers in the field on the regular basis. Project management, however, is seldom included in the graduate curriculum of instructional technology” (p. 8). This is unfortunate, as PM has the potential to positively transform ID for learning. Organizations face challenges when they neglect to integrate ID and PM. If ID needs change, and PM does not exist to foresee those obstacles, chaos will surely ensue (Turner & Croy, 2010, p. 2). Project mangers make sure they identify the various stakeholders before starting the project, so without that process it means many people with a vested interest could be negatively affected. At the same time, a failure to complete the steps of ID can compromise the entire process as well. Pan (2012) explains, “The systemic aspect of the [ADDIE] model is realized through the interrelatedness between the five components through the revision part, which is commonly overlooked by novice instructional designers when referencing the model” (Pan, p. 3). This could mean the failure of instruction.

Furthermore, faculty, especially in higher education, is hesitant to accept PM since it has only emerged as a powerful field moderately recently (Pan, 2012, p. 12). Many see instruction as a project and question the degree to which ID and PM complement each other (Pan, 2012, p. 12). Other challenges in combining the two include how time consuming PM can be for beginning project managers and the fact that there can be flaws beyond the control of the project manager, leading to risk (Pan, 2012, p. 5). However, it is way riskier not to implement PM and ID in unison. All educators need to be able to look through both lenses to optimize teaching and learning.


Cox, D. (2009). Project management skills for instructional designers: A practical guide. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, Inc.

Pan, C. (2012). A symbiosis between instructional systems design and project management. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 38(1), 1-15. Retrieved from http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/591/334.

Turner, B., & Croy, M. (2010). Waltzing with Da Vinci: The role of design thinking in project leadership. Project Management Institute. Retrieved from https://post.blackboard.com/bbcswebdav/pid-2521809-dt-content-rid-22529154_1/courses/EDU627.901013080913/Documents/Turner_Croy_2010%281%29.pdf.

Follow this link for a wide variety of articles on best practices in PM:



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