Instructional Design

So You Want to be an Instructional Designer?

When I transitioned from the public school arena to instructional design, a lot my fellow teachers asked me: “how did you get that job”? In fact, I was asked just a few days ago, which is what prompted this post. I think as a teacher, it’s a fairly lateral move, in fact, I work with an instructional designer who was also a teacher. Many of the skills I learned in my undergrad degree, or as a teacher are applicable. So how did I get this job, and how do you become an instructional designer?

The short answer: “apply for a job as an instructional designer”. The longer answer is “cultivate a set of skills that will allow you to synthesize information, reduce it to easily understandable bits, organize it in a logical sequence, and create materials that make it easily deliverable by other people”. That, along with a good dose of documentation (because I work in an FDA regulated industry) is instructional design in a nutshell.

Before I get into things, I’d like to make a distinction between instructional designers, and e-learning designers. I design e-learning, but it’s a small part of what I do. E-learning is just a method of delivery containing graphics, text, narration, video, and interactions. Or maybe not the interactions. You can design e-learning without having to design the “meat” of the educational material. You can be an e-learning designer without designing the content, essentially you’re designing the delivery method.

Digging for Information

One of the most important skills you’ll need is to get the details you need, from people who don’t quite understand what you do. Because I don’t always know all the technical details, I get my information from subject matter experts (SMEs). Those busy SME’s will often give me short answers when I need much more information. Being able to ask the questions that allow you to design effective training is key to the job.

How do People Learn?

You’ll also need to know how people best learn. If you’re designing for multi-media delivery, then you should at least be familiar with Mayer’s multimedia principles. Knowing how to sequence information is important too. Can you determine whether or not training is even needed? My department often gets requests for training, when a job aid would do. You might also find that errors are happening not because of lack of training but because supervisors are not making sure employees follow procedures.

Was Your Training Effective?

Another part of the job is measurement. How do you know that employees have learned to do what you want them to do? I design a lot of training checklists that are meant to be delivered in person with a trainer. That employee is not qualified to do that procedure until they’ve done it a certain number of times without error. That’s fairly easy to determine, but what about a written test? Just because they can answer questions about a procedure, can they actually do the procedure? As an instructional designer, you’ll determine that.

Delivery Methods

Multimedia is also an important component of instructional design. If you’re lucky you’ll have a graphics design or video department to provide what you need. You’ll still have to determine which media is best. If you’re like most instructional designers you’ll have to do it all yourself. I design most of my own graphics, and I do all of my layouts myself. Luckily we have a really good videographer on staff who can capture and edit video, usually in a day or two, so I can offload that to him. I use primarily PowerPoint and Articulate Storyline for multimedia delivery. I’ll also use Photoshop to create animated gifs, and edit some of the photos I need. I seldom use photographs, I’ll tend to use vector drawings of what I need. We use so many items that are industry specific, it’s easier to draw them myself, rather than searching for stock images – which don’t exist in many cases.

You typically need to be a jack of all trades if you’re thinking of instructional design as career. You also need to be willing to keep learning and updating your skills. You can’t be afraid of new software either. We’re always updating, and using new tools. I’m now using 5 new pieces of software I wasn’t using just a year ago.

I know this isn’t the most detailed list of skills you need, but it’s a good overview and it’s in line with what I do almost every day, and it’s probably the same for other instructional designers. My job is probably a little different than most in that many of the tools we use are for document control. We need to be able to track why every edit was made, and when it was made, because we’re an FDA regulated industry. You probably won’t be strong in every component listed here, but a willingness to learn is essential.

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