Becoming an Instructional Designer (ID)

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking on what an instructional designer does and how to get into the field. The growing field of instructional design presents a plethora of job opportunities for those looking to break into the field. I love instructional design because it is a field where I am constantly learning and I have a great variety in what I do. I use so many different skills—writing, web design, graphics, collaboration, planning, plus of course how people learn. I thought it would be useful to collect all the information and post it here.

The first step can be to get more instructional design experience at your current job, if possible. For example, if you’re offered the technical writing part of a project, you might ask about other training and support materials that the project requires and what the larger business need for the project is, and suggest that you could design those other materials to meet that need.

My job was a combination of support, technical writing, and training, so I was in a good position to identify ways to improve the organization’s performance. By volunteering to improve processes and create training and support materials beyond my official job description, I created items for my portfolio and eventually transitioned into a more “pure” instructional design role.

Another approach is to politely offer to overhaul an existing course or other learning intervention that isn’t working or that people complain about, even if has nothing to do with your job description. That way you can show what you can do, save your colleagues from suffering, and learn how to redo others’ work without stepping on toes, which is a valuable skill in our field.

Hopefully you can do this sort of thing while still employed and build a portfolio, which will be your key to getting ID work.

If you want to do instructional design and not just e-learning development, be sure to explain the instructional decisions you made for each sample in the portfolio. The most common mistake is to simply show the material without discussing the strategy behind it or linking it to any larger need in the organization. IDs with that sort of portfolio give the impression that they view their job as putting information online, which is unlikely to lead to fulfilling work.

If you just do design and not development, put your design ideas in the portfolio. For example, describe the performance problem and the solution that you designed, explaining your reasoning and describing the results.

Learn the theory

If you aren’t doing it already, I’d recommend that you also do some independent reading to get the vocabulary and basic theoretical background that’s expected of IDs. Cammy Bean lists a lot of recommended books and sites that traditional IDs use. I got the most help from Michael Allen’s Guide to E-Learning, Ruth Clark’s research-based books, David Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction, the research-into-practice info from Will Thalheimer’s site.

Since many people in our field like to discuss theory, it’s good to be able to talk about Bloom’s taxonomy, Gagne, constructivism, etc., much of which is described for free online. However, I think it’s equally important to remember that most of it is just theory, and that experiments that seem to support a theory were likely done on students in school, not adults in the business world.

Consider a degree

Compared to other instructional designers, I seem to be less enthusiastic about degrees. I worked with several recent graduates of ID degree programs and usually found that they learned a lot of theory but had little knowledge of business needs and no experience applying the theory to real-world situations with tight deadlines. So if you want a degree, I’d recommend that you consider programs that give you real-world projects in addition to the theory.

Decide: design or development, or both?

As you get more experience, identify what gives you the most satisfaction. Do you love analyzing a performance problem, figuring out a solution to it, and outlining a training program that you know will be effective? Or do you love to create the media for content that already exists, making it more interesting and interactive?

Most jobs that I hear about seem to require both sets of skills, which mean neither gets the time it deserves. If you like both the instructional design and the media creation, there are jobs out there that will give you the chance to do both, keeping in mind that you probably won’t have time to do your best work. The number one complaint I hear from solo instructional designers is that they’re not given enough time for strategic instructional design and are expected to just put existing information online.

If you prefer strategy and design over production, look for a position in an organization that’s big enough to have a separate production team or that outsources the production. Also make sure that your possible employer will view you as a performance consultant included in training strategy and not just as someone who converts information into a course.

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