So You Want to Be an Instructional Designer?

So You Want to Be an Instructional Designer?


Good listener. People person. Lifelong learner. Sound like you? No, we’re not trying to arrange a first date. These are some common traits of people with successful careers in a booming job market: instructional design.

Colleges, K-12 schools and companies increasingly turn to  instructional designers to help them improve the quality of teaching in in-person, online or blended-learning environments.

Once-lonely techies who helped faculty figure out Blackboard and dwelled in university IT departments, IDs now are growing in number and gaining celebrity status at their institutions. Arizona State University employs roughly 40 of them, and the role ranks among The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Top Trends of 2016."

Jobs in the industry take many shapes, but instructional designers act broadly as shamans who guide educators and institutions through the world of digital learning. So who’s a good fit for the role? We talked to professionals who’ve been in the field since long before it was “hot” and more recent transplants to identify key traits for successful IDs.

You’re a good listener

IDs often start the design process by talking to faculty and subject matter experts about the courses they teach. “A lot of the job is translating from expert to beginner,” says Christine Bower, who’s currently an instructional designer at YouTube’s Creator Academy and previously was at General Assembly. It’s the ID’s job to ask questions and understand not only what’s on the syllabus, but also what instructors want students to get out of their classes.

You enjoy working with diverse teams

Instructional design work is unique to any given organization, but odds are it involves collaborating with people who have vastly different roles and personalities. IDs work with faculty and subject matter experts, designers, videographers, developers and data analytics experts to build an educational experience that fits the curriculum and achieves desired outcomes. “The designers are the connective tissue,” says Rebecca Petersen, director of Online Experiential Learning at Northeastern University.

You have a passion for teaching and learning

Many instructional designers have backgrounds in education. Natalie Milman, director of the Educational Technology Leadership Program at the George Washington University, says she was drawn to the field when she was a classroom teacher and found herself helping students and other faculty use technology in their classes. “I realized what a powerful and wonderful tool tech is,” she says. “I had kids who were the worst kids you can think of and then in my class they behaved because they wanted to work on the computer.”

Instructional designers understand that people have distinct learning styles. Bower says “figuring out how people tick” is a lot of the job. She’s taken every kind of class imaginable, from night school to online programs, and says it’s important to see different teaching styles and observe how others learn.

You have a project-manager mindset

More IDs are being asked to track all of the aspects of production of a course, which means they need to coordinate all of the day-to-day work that goes into them from all of the different contributors. “You need to understand and articulate how long something may actually take to produce and manage people’s expectations on what it really means to develop a course,” Petersen says. “Being able to articulate progress and create systems for faculty that you’re working with is really important.”

You can check your ego

Many faculty get a little squeamish when they think of instructional design, Petersen says. They think online courses are inferior to their in-person lectures and they fear they’re giving up control over their lessons. It’s an ID’s job to reassure educators that the design work is meant to help—not replace—them. “You’re supporting the work of the faculty and the college. While you're not the star, you are an integral part of the work getting courses up and running,” Petersen says.

Bower has designed courses in the programming language SQL and is now creating classes that teach people how to make better YouTube videos. Both fields were new to her, and she stresses the importance of bringing a beginner mindset to the table. “Don’t ever assume you’re an expert in anything,” she advises. “You have to be humble.”

You’re technology agnostic

The technology will constantly change, so IDs need to understand the principles behind it. Milman says GW’s Educational Technology Leadership Program doesn’t teach any specific software. “We try to teach students skills and theory, and apply theory to practice to prepare them for being ed-tech leaders,” she says. Part of an instructional design job is knowing where to get more information for new tools and what questions to ask. “It’s really a field that’s impossible to know everything there is to know,” Milman says.

Do these traits describe you? Are you itching to jump into instructional design or boost your existing skills? There’s a growing number of resources for new and experienced IDs to stay current in the field. Industry groups like the Higher Education eDesign Association, run by Milman’s colleague at GW, are growing in membership and informal ID meetups happen all over the world. Petersen recommends reaching out to nonprofits like museums that are looking to move some of their materials over to digital formats and could use volunteers.

As instructional designers work to improve learning outcomes, they’re constantly continuing their own education. As Milman says, “I’ll never be bored because the field is always changing.”

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