What Makes a Good Online Instructional Designer?

instructional design
May 16, 2019

instructional design

There’s a big difference between designing distance learning and designing online curriculum.

There’s a question we often get asked: “How can I become an employed Instructional Designer?”  Some job seekers want to know what sort of certification they need in order to get a job. Other job seekers are frustrated that, despite possessing a lot of training in instructional design, they find it difficult to get a job.

When answering these questions, we always make the distinction between the skills needed to develop distance learning curriculum, versus the skills needed to design asynchronous online training—distance learning and online training are often quite different.

The challenge that many newly-minted instructional designers face when trying to break into the industry is they often have been trained in the techniques of distance learning by University instructors whose sole experience has been in traditional learning theory.    While distance learning is indeed delivered online, essentially it’s similar to face-to-face learning in that it frequently involves ongoing interaction with an instructor or with other learners. By using technology, students are still able to participate remotely in a course designed much like a traditional in-person lesson and therefore subject to the same pedagogy.

So, commonly in distance learning, a computer facilitates a knowledge transfer, and a classroom instructor is still required to teach and manage the course and stimulate more active learning. Pedagogy is still rooted in the paradigm of in-person lectures, interactivity between real people, subjective assessments, etc. with some asynchronous bits thrown in for the online learners who couldn’t attend the classroom.

This sort of training and approach is still in high demand in post secondary and even K-12 institutions. But these skills are not quite as relevant for an online instructional designer who wants to find a job in industry, or in corporate and Government training departments.. So it comes as a surprise when despite being highly qualified, the company they are applying to seems to be more interested in other skills or experiences they might have.

As an employer of several instructional designers it seems to me that certificates are a dime a dozen these days as more colleges and Universities offer courses and degree programs that are supposedly aimed at would be Instructional designers. If we advertise a position we will be inundated with applications from  people who have a certification of one type or another, but many of them will not be of interest to us. Why? Some of the best instructional designers Udutu has worked with actually did not begin their careers in Instructional design. Some of the best have been such things as a children’s book illustrator, a musician, a storyteller, or a videogame illustrator.

For example, one of the best instructional designers I’ve ever worked with was a successful children’s author. She was a great storyteller, with a strong visual flair. Someone else came to Udutu after a successful career as a chef. A new graduate came to us with a Fine Arts degree — she could tell a story with a picture or with a single carefully framed photograph. They all had vivid imaginations, and all had a varied working life before the move into Course development.

Most often they would have been hired in a role as a content developer, and only after beginning that job would they go and get educated in Instructional design principles.  It has seemed easier to teach ID to creative people, than to teach creativity to instructional designers.

Process-oriented thinking was also a key attribute. With distance learning, an instructor guides students through the curriculum in a more-or-less linear fashion. Online learning, on the other hand, is intended to be entirely self-directed, with a computer or an algorithm providing automated assessment and feedback.

The branching twists, and remedial learning make the content unpredictable, and that is a part of what keeps the learners engaged.  With asynchronous online training, often aimed at many thousands of learners, human instructor intervention is not practical. In fact online courses that require instructor intervention usually become unmanageable with more than 25 students. That is because if a student knows the instructors perception is key to success, then they will continually try to communicate and the instructor is soon overloaded with round the clock emails and text messages and forum posts.

Successful online instructional designers, then, have to determine an efficient yet challenging way to teach material with no human intervention, and then send a student back for more remedial work if need be, just like when you attempt to clear a level in a video game. If you “fail”, you go back to the beginning, and keep trying until you win.

Actually, Iknow of more than one  video game designer who has morphed into an excellent instructional designer. Just like online learning, video games allow you to fail at something, and to keep trying until you get it right. But importantly, these people have learned how to make an illustration tell a meaningful story, and they are less likely to punctuate a course with meaningless clipart or bland scenes of people in business dress clustered around a compiuter, etc. (we’ve all seen those courses).

A little bit of diverse work experience also helps. For example, because one instructional designer at Udutu had worked as an electrician before he went to school to retrain as an ID, he  innately understood how trainees would approach the curriculum we were designing for many industrial workplace situations, and so that prior experience was an asset.

So if your interviewer seems focused on creativity and artistic talent, or the ability to use software tools such as Photoshop and Illustrator, don’t be surprised. At Udutu, we have often found it easier to teach the principles of instructional design than to teach how to become an illustrator who can tell a story with a combination of imagination and Photoshop or other software tools.

In summary, intangible assets such as those we have described above make for stronger instructional designers, and may stimulate more interest than just the possession of a certificate. Ultimately, schooling might be less important than what else you’re bringing to the table when you are trying to break in to the industry.  If you can start be making an inventory of your less tangible assets before you invest in the formal training, you may well be able to get an employer to pay for that certificate after you have started on the job..

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