Monday, January 19, 2009

Instructional Design: What's in a name?

I stumbled across this on a writer's blog today: "Officially, I’m now an Instructional Designer. A fancy term for writing training material." [Blog link not provided to protect the innocent].

Koreen Olbrish asks "Is Instructional Design Dead?" If all we do is write training material, then perhaps yes.

The debate has raged here and elsewhere as to whether instructional designer's need to have advanced degrees in ID. The ID survey on this blog now has over 200 responses: 62% do not have advanced degrees.

We have questioned the value of Instructional Designers.

Perhaps the term Instructional Designer is simply overused. Some folks are "writers of training material." Some folks are curriculum designers. I say there are shades of instructional design.

I am an "Instructional Designer". I write and design self-paced eLearning for the corporate market. Plus a bunch of other stuff, which you can read about in my job description. What shade of instructional designer are you? What's your scope?

Listen to John Curry's interviews for some different day-in-the-life scenarios of four different instructional designers (myself included).

And then, let the debate rage on.


Nicole said...

Interestingly I've run up against this topic a few times because Litmos ( ) is a training delivery platform that anyone can use. ID's have told me in the past that it's not right to allow just anyone to design, build and sell training without the help of their expertise.
But I say that if these trainers have good content and their courses keep selling, what's the problem?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Cammy

As a teacher for decades and a writer of training material for nearly two decades, I often feel a tinge of cynicism when I listen to IDs waxing the eloquent about their profession.

Professional content

It may be my perception, but the pedagogy that is often so prevalent in the writing of teachers, about resources for teaching and learning, is often scarce in the writing of instructional designers, when writing about the same things. Pedagogy is as important to training resources as it is to educational resources and it is often impossible to tell the difference between the two types.

How much of the pedagogy used by IDs is less to do with learning and more to do with design? And by asking this, I'm not suggesting that design isn't important, for it is - it's seen by some as part of the pedagogy.

Scaffolding is also something often spoken about by teachers, less so by IDs. I wonder about this, for scaffolding is important for the effectiveness of resources that are used.

The worth of the degree

While some teachers have advanced degrees in education, these quals don't make good teachers. I suspect that the same will apply to advanced degrees and IDs.

We are living in an age where degreed people aren't necessarily best at their profession - this is recognised - and yet society still follows the precept that degrees can be used to measure 'value' of the holder. Partly as a result of this, the degree has continued to devalue.

How the position is advertised

In terms of the name "instructional designer" used by someone who thinks their job fits this description, I'd say that it all depends on how the position is advertised and written in the position description.

There has been some special aura associated with the term 'instructional designer'. Perhaps IDs are now becoming uncomfortable about the lack of use of this term in position descriptions for jobs that would otherwise be seen as ones for IDs.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

Anonymous said...

When someone believes that "writing content" is instruction, he probably also believes that instructing is what causes learning to happen.

It's an understandable shortcut, but it contains hidden assumptions and thus hidden discriminations. One of the assumptions is that there's a skill/knowledge deficit that needs resolving, and another is that "instructing" is going to be the resolver.

Even when an important, job-related skill/knowledge deficit does exist, one problem I see is that "instructional designer" ought to mean "person who can help maximize the chance for people to learn."

My former colleague Marianne Hoffman once offered a conference session on "controlled chaos" -- ways to figure out what part of a logical process to shortcut when you have to. Her assumption was that you have a logical process, so that you can weigh the tradeoffs and make reasonable judgments about what to toss overboard.

Ken's scaffolding is a great example. If you've got a complex subject, or one without clear procedural rules, then one way to scaffold is to have people work with increasingly complicated (and thus increasingly more lifelife) situations, requiring them to produce a solution before they get feedback.

As a simplistic example, if I had to cut corners, I'd probably cut those for high-end graphics in order to build richer examples, rather than skimping on examples so as to have production-value graphics.

Anonymous said...

There's a line in the Jack Black movie "School of Rock" that's not original but is a common joke in the education field. I think of it in moments like this..."those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym." So, in that context I now research the way people write training materials, they way they design curriculum, the way they design self-paced e-learning, etc. and I analyze it and try to make sense of, yeah I teach gym.

Cammy Bean said...

Many teachers make the leap from the classroom to ID. Is this a natural and obvious transition? What makes a teacher qualified to be an instructional designer? Is it the pedagogy? What do teachers have to learn differently when they start designing, or is instructional design inherent to being a teacher?

Anonymous said...

Some pretty "heady" comments here.

What I find most annoying is that many IDs are not really IDs. Some claiming to be IDs have no idea how to present information, how to logically order the presentation, or how to write. This generally happens when a trainer morphs into an ID.

I am first a technical writer. One of my skills is ID. I get paid more to create training materials. Why, I do not know, as generally speaking, the user guides I write are more complex than the training materials I create.

Part of that reason is in how I just said the difference - I write user guides, but I create training materials - thus, the "design" of ID.

I recently purchased a course from a marketing person. It cost me $300. It was unorganized. It was impossible to find anything quickly. There were no "tells." It was obvious that this person knew a lot about marketing, but not a thing about training (especially self-paced).

That is why you need a professional instruction designer or technical writer.

Anonymous said...

As I read the posted comments I begin to wonder how much people actually know about higher educated Instrcutional Designers and what they can offer an organization.

As I progressed through my career (over 20 years in education, training and development) I have learn't more and more about education, teaching and the design, development and creation of curriculum.

As a teacher I knew all about Pedagogy and could create a great lesson and provide a excellent learning enviroment, I had great reviews and my students/trainees achieved great results.

Once I completed some higher education/training in instructional design a great deal of information and concepts were revealed, that gave me a much better understanding about how the entire learning process was created, not just the presentation.

Instructional design incorporates all aspects of the learning not just the instruction time, which most teachers are focused on, which is fair enough that's all they are trained in, know about, payed for or involved in.

For a person to believe that without formal training in instructional design that they can produce just as good curriculum as a educated instructional designer, I say you are naive and do not know what you are talking about.

I would recommend to anyone who has a choose between having the input of a qualified ID, to take that input. You will get a much better product that will suit not only your learners but your organizations aims as well.

In a time of economic turmoil Return on investment (ROI) is just as important as the eduction/training.

What most trainers/teachers don't understand is exactly how the information they are providing will impact a organizations bottom line. Neither should they, they are required to meet deadlines and get set information across to students.

When Instructional designers are employed to assist organizations a lot more analysis needs to happen. The first question a lot of CEO's ask when presented with a new training programme is "how will this improve my outputs".

Educationists don't work that way, Instructional designers do. We put together training program's that meet all the needs of an organization, community, individual or group.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tenei to mihi ki a koutou.

Wow there's a lot going on here. I think where we're all at right now is to do with perspective.

We are all seeing things from our own perspective and it should be important for us to recognise this and to enjoy the perspective of others.

One of the perspectives that I see, and that has not been aired here, is a matter of co$t.

Anonymous - you said that most teachers are focused on instruction time. I wonder about this aspect you bring forward. For many employers of teachers, the co$t is decided when the teacher comes on the payroll. Are teachers more focused on 'time' because co$t isn't an issue for them?

When an instructional designer is given a project, is time never an issue that's considered at when planning the development? I warrant that co$t certainly would be, but there are usually also time constraints, and time and co$t are usually interrelated.

I know from my own experience of teachers that the 'time' that the teacher spends on the job is only partly related to the time spent in the classroom. So I wonder if 'time' is really an issue that we can use fairly when comparing. We'd need time sheet data and a breakdown of time spent on each task to do that analysis properly.

Cammy - I paused at your use of the word 'leap' in your comment. Is this to draw a line of status between teacher and ID? I understand a need for posturing, however, as you say in your post, "we have questioned the value of instructional designers." What do you mean by 'value'? Is it to do with salary? Or qualifications held? Or what? Is the issue that you just feel undervalued?

You also ask "What do teachers have to learn differently when they start designing, or is instructional design inherent to being a teacher?" I guess in general terms, teachers will need some training in the same way any change of job requires this. They will have a few things to do with co$t and time to sort out, which for most may not be difficult.

My first reaction to the second part of your question is perhaps instructional design IS inherent to being a teacher. But this may be too presumptive of me. I think that every teacher is different, just as we get IDs who are different in their abilities, knowledge and skills. What comes naturally to one teacher when moving professions may not be so easy for another.

For me, as a teacher, instructional design IS inherent to me being a teacher. When I make (for want of a better word) an elearning resource, there is no doubt in my mind that instructional design is an integral part of my teaching. If I draw a Venn diagram of this, it is plain to see that ID is part of what I do as a teacher.

Perhaps IDs see teaching as part of what they do as IDs?

Catchya later

Unknown said...

As a former teacher who made the "leap" to ID, what I found most disheartening is that most IDs only did a small portion of what I did as a teacher. And they drew that delineation between what trainers did, or what writers did, or what consultants did...and what an ID does. The truth is, if you're a good instructional designer, you understand that you need to write, train, consult, and project manage, do some user design, act as a leader in your organization, research, and challenge those around you to expand their understanding of the value of human capital. Do I think you need a degree in instructional design to do all this? No. But I do think you should have a passion to lead the profession forward and a willingness to challenge yourself, to learn and to participate. Sadly, most people who call themselves IDs don't.

Cammy Bean said...

I agree with Ken that it's all about perspective, which is the point I've been trying to make. Shades of instructional design. There are many flavors of what we do as IDs.

I apologize for the choice of the word "leap" -- I had not meant to imply a status or posturing at all, but rather (what might be seen by some) a big change. Shifting from classroom teaching (k-12, academic) to the corporate ID field is a big change. Some might call it a leap across a chasm. Different worlds? Perhaps. Similar skills? Perhaps.

I agree that being a teacher requires instructional design skills. That's what you're doing in the classroom. As to instructional designers being teachers, I'd like to think so as well.

As to the "value" of Instructional Design: I think it's more a question of need. Last year, the chatter was all about Rapid eLearning, the rise of the SME and the fall of the ID. If that's the model corporate learning has moved to, where does the ID fit in?

Koreen's definition of ID fits what I do, more or less. "The truth is, if you're a good instructional designer, you understand that you need to write, train, consult, and project manage, do some user design, act as a leader in your organization, research, and challenge those around you to expand their understanding of the value of human capital."

Does that description fit what you do?

Anonymous said...

I was "schooled" in ID by former cowokers that had studied it. I probably knew about 25% of what it means to be in ID. I applied to a number of jobs that required the ID and I did not get them due to lack of an ID degree. I am now an ID student (half way done).

What I am learning in class, and what I see in the real world point to a disconnect. LMS support, LMS training, Asynchronous software support and Management jobs I've seen all require an ID degree, however the duties don't seem to warrant a degree in ID.

I like what I am learning. I want to practice it, but it seems that in many instances management dictates what you need to create training in instead of analyzing your needs first.

Cammy Bean said...

@ ID Student -- Thanks for your input! I think you're right on about that disconnect. I'm curious if you're getting any guidance from your professors/school as to where you will be able to put these skills to work in the way that you want to?

Nicole said...

Hi Cammy,
After I commented on your blog (at the top) I posted it on LinkedIn and some interesting discussions have developed in there too in the "Learning, Education and Training Professionals" Group (some of the same comments are posted here). It got me thinking that maybe we should be working towards a matching service of sorts between ID's & Trainers/SMEs in the online learning arena so the effectiveness of such courses can be maximised. Anyway, I posted about it today and would love to hear what you think:

Cammy Bean said...

Nicole, I've had your post open in a browser tab for the past hour, musing on it...I love that you got the conversation stirred up on LinkedIn as well. This topic creates much flurry and excitement, that's for sure. I love stirring up the pot from time to time...

Karl Kapp said...


Are you trying to bait me? :)

Ok, the difference between a technical writer and an instructional designer (assuming both are on the top of their game) is that the ID person knows how to apply specific instructional strategies to aid in the acquisition, creation, retention and retrieval of knowledge.

He or she matches content type to strategy. Creating a learning environment by providing examples and non-examples for teaching concepts and teaching "soft skills" with modeling, behavior maps and other tools.

A technical writer typically just records procedures or documents processes but doesn't use a systematic approach for applying instructional strategies to aid learning.

The difference is the strategies. Instructional designers know and apply instructional strategies (sometimes called pedagogy) while technical writers apply techiques for using whitespace on a page, creating appropriate numbering sequences and special techniques to make documents easier to reference and to locate specific material.

As practicing instructional designers we should never confuse instructional design with technical writing. Not the same and dangerous to our profession.


Cammy Bean said...


Of course I'm trying to bait you!

I don't argue the difference between instructional design and technical writing with you. Not a bit. But I don't think anyone can argue with the reality that the two are often confused out in the field. (Thus my quote from the writer who equated instructional design with writing training material.) The misconception is widespread.

I stir things up to call attention to the misconception. (And then I go read a book on adult learning theory to make sure I really do know the difference.)

Unknown said...

When I got a hold of my first project (from an overseas client), the first thing I did was rearrange and group the information according to how it would be best presented in an elearning environment, then presented this arrangement to the SME, who liked it. I was glad for my education background, because I managed to make the best of the source (a PPT file).

However, things kind of snowballed because of the language barrier and due to the numerous requests of the SME to add this and that to the course. The company had to bring in another ID (she has more experience in corporate training than I do) to help me out. What happened was that my carefully written first draft was tweaked and edited and stuffed and reupholstered so much to resemble what I now realize was a set of information dump modules.

Which was just the way the SME wants it because that's how much information they give to the trainees in their classroom training. The IDs became technical writers (I nod to Mr. Kapp here)!

I realize now that I, the ID, should have been included in the meetings instead of getting the information second-hand from the project team leader, who has limited instructional know-how. I should have leveraged my experience as an educator and explained what should be kept and what should be left out. A major learning experience that I'm sure to never forget.

Uday Nair said...

One thing is sure; ID would debate on the topic veraciously. I would like to comment on the topic since I use to work for an eLearning company handling Authoring tools. The term Instructional Design I belive is a set of universally agreed guidelines for developing learning material which has been tried, tested and proved effective by veterans. Since there is no formal training or certification for ID I believe any one who can express a topic in words and pictures and make the audience understand / Learn can be an ID. But the funny part is many of course which are made by the so called IDs fail miserably in their basic functionality i.e. Teaching or Learning quotient. In fact when we launched our authoring tool the whole idea was anybody who knew MS word would be able to create eLearning courses. So I guess I also have to end my comment with saying from Shakespeare “What’s in a name?”


Anonymous said...

I'd say that most faculty in class don't explore how to put these skills into good use in the real world. Some do help students out in individual advising sessions. Others hide behind the vail of "I don't want to hinder your creativity" so I've learned who I ask for help.

My problem with the industry is that the degree in instructional design is required of management. which is pretty stupid. My (educational) background is in Management of technology (MBA/IT). I've seen jobs that require a MA/MEd/MS in ID even though those individuals in those jobs don't design instruction. They manage people who design instruction, people who manage LMS, and they are the in-between people between upper management + clients, and the people who provide the design and training.

You truly don't need an ID education for that.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher and I am in an ID program to get a Masters degree. Just because you know the material inside & out, does not mean you know how to teach it. It would make sense to have a trained ID write the program since a company would want to maximize their learning results while minimizing their costs. If they pay lots of money to train people who "know their stuff" but then can't turn around and train others, what good is it? The training program now just cost the company lots of money. Just my thoughts....