Saturday, July 18, 2015

What the heck is an instructional designer?

"Instructional Designer" - by AK & Net Art Generator
- for #CLMOOC
Continuing on my quest to read through what I've accumulated in my Pocket account, I came across a blog with the title Learning Experience Design: A Better Title Than Instructional Design? The title was catchy enough for me to save it to pocket for later reading (which seemed to be forever ago).  In any case, Christy seems to be making the point that people, who are not in the field of instructional design, are perplexed when someone tells them that they are Instructional Designers, or that they earned their degree in Instructional Design.  What the heck does that mean?  What is an instructional designer qualified to do? This is a good conversation to have over a drink or a cup of coffee, but since my instructional designer friends are nowhere to be found, it's blogging time!

That's a good question, and I am sure that if you ask 10 different instructional designers what they do, there will be some common aspects, and some points of divergence.  I do not think that using a different term to describe us, a term such as Learning Experience Designer, or Learning Architect, or even Learning Designer will do the trick of better explaining what we do. I know that there is a debate inside our profession about teaching (or instructing) versus learning.  One being more teacher-focused and one being more learner-focused. Of course our preference would be for being more learner focused, however I think that this distinction is really lost to people outside of our teaching & learning professions. Thus, these terms that focus on learning as they key term really don't do any better at explaining to non-insiders what we do.

Specifically, the term learning engineer, or learning architect seem somewhat awkward. Engineers build systems, architects design buildings, but that doesn't really tell us how people use these systems and these buildings.  Perhaps this is apropos because most instructional designers aren't also aren't directly involved in the teaching of the learning interventions that they design. However, there is something to be said about the usage, navigation, and paths, that learners take toward that ultimate goal of knowledge.  Using terms such as engineer and architect also feels a little cold to me, and it seems quite artificial.  The mental image that comes to mind is sanitation engineer.  People don't know sanitation engineers but they do know garbagemen.

The term learning experience designer also seems a little odd to me. Perhaps in a company like Disney or an institution like the Smithsonian this title might fly because instructional designers learning experience designers have control of the much broader learning experience that goes beyond a computer screen or a piece of paper. They can really design an experience and pull it through.  I should note that this also take coordination among many individuals with various ranges of talents.  This brings me to one of the big issues of our profession: Instructional Designer does not mean anything in specific because it means many things to many people.  For instance, by looking at 10 randomly selected job posting for instructional designer, I picked out the following general duties for across all jobs (with the same, or similar, title mind you!)

  • Project management
  • Design courses
  • Design curriculum
  • Delivery of training sessions (virtual and in-person)
  • Develop standardized course materials [this doesn't bode too well for the design part!]
  • Support development of documentation for ID strategies
  • Repurpose & expansion of previous eLearning products
  • Creation of Multimedia
  • Provide consultation for faculty
  • Remain current with trends in ID and Online pedagogy, make recommendations based on this
  • Coach others
  • Create and revise existing digital assets [videos, audio, flash, HTML5]
  • Develop web pages (e.g., pages, graphics, animation, functionality) and associated infrastructure
  • Develop participant guides, leader guides, manuals, etc.
  • Develop games and simulations
  • Conduct research

Here are some of the skills requirements for the job:
  • Knowledge of SQL, XML, HTML
  • Knowledge of MS Office
  • MA in Education, ID, Adult Education, educational technology, or similar
  • Skills in developing software training
  • SCORM
  • Technical Writing experience
  • Knowledge of eLearning programs
  • Knowledge of Web 2.0 tools
  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • Captivate, Camtasia, Storyline, etc.
  • Learning Management Systems Knowledge
  • ADDIE
  • Agile ID
  • Usability principles knowledge
  • HTML, jQuery, XML, SQL, PHP
  • 3D Modeling tools

I made sure that my random sampling included instructional design jobs for both higher education instructional designers, and for corporate instructional designers.  What's clear to me from reading these job descriptions, and (hastily) putting together these is that there is no common conception of what an instructional designer does.  What people want instructional designers to do is everything.  From server administration, to course design, to course creation, to course facilitation, to digital asset design...to...to...to...

I think that we all need to be realistic and know that someone who graduates with a degree in instructional design (or related degree) won't be able to do everything and do it well.  Some people do end up specializing in the creative aspects of ID (video, audio, animation, etc.).  Other people end up specializing in the coding aspects (web and app creation), and others end up specializing in the management and coaching aspects.  Do all instructional designers know something about everything?  Probably yes.  There are enough core courses that provide a common core of knowledge to be conversant about a variety of topics. However, to do things well you need much more practice than any one course, or even one job, provides you with.

I see the instructional design degree sort of like an MBA.  When you pursue an MBA (at least at UMass Boston where I got mine), you explored introductory knowledge in a variety of areas (IT, Finance, Accounting, Management, Marketing), and then you could choose to concentrate and focus on some of those areas, as well as other areas such as HR, International Management, Healthcare Management, Entrepreneurship (and the list goes on). At the end everyone graduates with an MBA, but there isn't one singular conception of what an MBA does, or should be able to do.  Thus, for me, it's really a moot point trying to figure out one name that best describes an MBA, that is different from MBA.  I think that the analogy also applies to instructional designers.  It's a moot point focusing on what we call ourselves. I think it's better to demonstrate what we do, and we call ourselves won't matter.

Your thoughts?
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