Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Accidental Instructional Designers #dl09

coffee At DevLearn ‘09, I had the pleasure of hosting a Thursday morning Breakfast Byte. 

Conference participants gather around a topic of interest at an ungodly early hour, while sipping coffee and eating croissants.  A bleary-eyed, loosely organized conversation.

If you know me, you’ll know my topic was right up my alley:

 “Instructional Design:  You Do What for a Living?”

Over 25 IDs gathered to talk about how they got here and where they're going.

I asked people to introduce themselves and tell their stories – how they each got into instructional design.

Some points of notes:

  • Of the 25 plus IDs in the room, only two had advanced degrees in ID.
  • Most people found themselves in the role of ID somewhat by accident – by “discovering that I had a knack”, demonstrating an affinity for ID, by being a good teacher, etc.
  • We all agreed that no one set out in their early days with the grand vision of becoming an instructional designer.  Many of us thought that we would be teachers.
  • A senior ID at a well-known high tech firm in Silicon Valley told us they had hired a number of well-degreed IDs.  None of these IDs made it longer than 6 months as they were too rigid in their approaches and not able to work in the open-minded, flexible way that the business required.
  • Steve Nguyen said “Why can’t we just be seen as people who create great content?”  He mentioned the LeFevers at CommonCraft who create amazing instructional videos without an ID degree!  Ah – the heresy…
  • The perception was that ID degrees teach people the technology and the means, but not how to focus on the content.  Instead it’s about the bells and whistles and flash.
  • One participant revealed himself as a non-practitioner – a manager spying on us IDs.  He thought the phrase “we create content” an interesting one.  “Do you really create content?  Isn’t it out there already?”  We talked about packaging content.  But some said, “well, I create new graphics, new ways of seeing things so that’s creating content.”

I then asked the group to think about essential ID competencies: 

  • Creativity
  • Know the science behind learning – know what works.
  • Keep up with things
  • Know when to stay quiet, when to speak.  Make it relevant.
  • Help teach people how to learn in new ways.
  • Journalism skills – how to interveiw a SME, how to look at aggregate content and sitill it to the essentials.  The journalistic pyramid.
  • Consulting skills rather than order taking.  Help the business by identifying what problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Challenge the status quo – what if we do it differently?
  • Create learning experiences – what is fun?  what turns people on?
  • Know how brains tick.
  • Know how to facilitate.
  • Build in motivation.
  • Know story and design and how it translates to people.

What about you?  What was your road to ID?  What do you see as key ID competencies in the 21st century?

Photo credit:  Free Cup of Coffee and Flowers at Daybreak Creative Commons by D Sharon Pruitt


Rich Benak @Defiant_Design said...

Missed your session, but grateful for the recap.
In the same boat as the rest of them really. Started e-learning 11 years ago as a graphic designer and have been doing ID, Development & LMS admin ever since.

I think that an ID's future is more strategic than anything else, seeing the content, the delivery method, the organization and the outcome simultaneously.

bschlenker said...

Now THAT'S how a DevLearn Breakfast Byte is supposed to be done. Kudos to you.
It sounds like a great conversation that maybe we need to expand upon.
My story is similar to the others: First career in Media led me to New Media and ID.
The rogue attendee (manager) was right to point out that the content is already out there. This is even more true with today's rise of user generated content. I see New ID as being more about aggregating and monitoring the existing content streams. And identifying the critical information, highlighting it, and improving upon the media that explains or clarifies the content.
Of course there's more to it than that, but I hope readers get the point.
Thanks Cammy! Great job!

Julia Bulkowski said...

It seems that I am one of the few IDs in this limited sample size who received a practical ID education during my Master's program. I started out teaching, then training, then became an ID/performance consultant while earning my M.A.

Just because you have a degree in ID doesn't make you an expert (or even guarantee greatness). Many programs are academic and don't focus enough on how to apply the skills. This is true in other professions as well, where having a degree does not guarantee greatness or proficiency in the real world. Ever have a bad doctor? dentist? lawyer?

In my opinion, performance consulting is a key competency for IDs. The ability to diagnose a performance problem, offer solutions (which may or may not include learning solutions), and measure the impact of the solutions are key!

Cammy Bean said...

Ellen Wagner and I were talking about ID programs in general and specifically this gap that many IDs have: going from practice to really thinking about what drives business value.

I said out loud, "maybe ID programs need to come out of business schools instead of education schools." How's that for a crazy notion?

Obviously not a fit for all -- but if what we're saying is that strategy and focus on business outcomes is key in the corporate sector, maybe ID programs need to rethink that part of the curriculum.

Terrence Wing said...

Sounds like I missed out on a great discussion. As a holder of an advanced degree, I feel the need to come to its defense. I have never found having this degree as a disadvantage but instead it has provided me with incredible insight into how adults learn. Is it a must for IDs. NO! Absolutely not a necessity but an invaluable asset that can differentiate you from the pool of talent.

Also, as an ID I structure content not create it. Rarely do I consider myself a content developer unless I happen to be the subject matter expert. The SME creates the content, the ID designs the instruction.

Just my thoughts. Thanks for the blog.

Neil Lasher said...

This was one of the best discussions of the week. A true eye opener. Glad to be able to say ' I was there'. Thanks Cammy

Holly Peters said...

My road to ID was not through education, but by way of the theatre. I have a BFA in Theatre and used to be an actor. When I decided to leave the stage, it took a while for me to find my way to a new career.

I must admit, I was originally attracted to pursuing a degree in Educational Technology by the "bells and whistles and flash" I thought I would find. And guess what... they weren't there. I'm half way through the Masters program at SDSU and students there are sometimes heard bemoaning their desire to get their hands on the latest technology. But our instructors remind us that a strong foundation in learning theory and practical application of ID principles will far outlast the every-changing technology that supports it.

As a result of my education, I was able to land a job as an ID that I love. I'm able to use what I've learned recently in conjunction with my natural creative abilities and previous undergrad training. I would add continuous learning to the list of essential ID competencies.

Richard Goutal said...

Great discussion and comments. I really find the thought about ID being taught in business school interesting. It's a tough call. An ID professional must satisfy the business requirements of the project or they have failed. This is much like HR having to do the same. On the other hand they must perform a specialized craft to create a product - a learning and performance product, be it job aid, elearning, or actual class. Compare this to a physicist in a semiconductor company or a biochemist in a pharma company. They must be good at their craft and must produce products that satisfy business requirements also. But clearly chemistry is not best taught in a business school. Still, a chemist who just wants to "play" chemist, have fun with all the bells and whistles of research, and fail to produce solutions for the business...

My point? Some schools, perhaps like the SDSU program, may do a better job on focusing on results. But in the end, hiring managers with experience probably have learned to see through candidates who are too rigid and candidates who are more focused on the latest buzz instead of performance results.

Allison said...

Full disclosure: I've taught in an academic program in instructional design and technology for 30+ years. I could not handle thinking that what we have been up to has been creating rigidity not creativity, fondness for form over substance and client centric outcomes.

To me we should consider Jaime Escalante when we reflect on the question of ID and academia. Jaime, the great LA teacher who taught kids who had never succeeded to succeed, was not born of a teacher training program. He was a gift. He was unique. He had a gift.

But the LA schools, and SD and Chicago, Boston, and Youngstown, well, those schools need tens of thousands of able teachers. They need systems that develop them. And of course, great if we could look to aligned systems to support them when they are in the schools. They cannot wait for the Jaimes of the world to sign up.

They must rely on development systems with evolving outcomes. Yes, ID and academia are in the middle of all that-- research for the evolving outcomes and delivery to aspiring people and organizations.

How are we doing? Not perfectly, for sure. But ID has value. Look at the promised (taken from an article I wrote with Dawn Papaila for a volume in honor of Dave Merrill):

(see next post, please)

Allison said...

Some see ISD as procedural, rigorous, characterized by one box each for analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation, with arrows linking the boxes and dependable steps directing what to do and in what order. Others see it differently. They emphasize what goes on within the boxes, inclining towards a more heuristic approach, with rules of thumb considered as the process moves forward. In the former, instructional design is a favorite recipe. In the latter, it’s about continuous tasting, guided by a mental model derived from the literature, data, and past successes. My view of ID…..
• Theory drives practice. There are reasons for the decisions that are made, and those decisions are based on the literature and best practices regarding learning, communications, technology and culture. Years back, when working on a sales training program, we included think-alouds from expert sales professionals, an approach inspired by cognitive perspectives for learning and performance. We attempted to influence attitudes about cold calls through the literature on motivation and persuasion. Today we look at web usability studies and examples to guide decisions about interfaces for online learning.
• Data direct decisions. Instructional designers make decisions based on data from many sources, including clients, job incumbents, the literature, work products, and error rates. Data focus the instructional designer’s attention, with output from one phase of the effort enlightening subsequent actions and decisions. When a client says, “Train them about performance appraisals,” instructional designers look to narrow the problem by turning to data, such as existing appraisals, help desk logs, and law suits. Where are the problems with the appraisals? Where are they not? Do concerns center on the amount or nature of participation? On planning, interviewing or the forms themselves? Throughout the development effort and after programs are completed, monitoring yields data and data influence revisions and adaptations.
• Causes count. Once the mission is targeted, instructional designers want to know why? Why are appraisal forms flawed? Why is line 7 filled out inconsistently? Why are lines 2, 3, and 5 and 6 on point? Is it that they don’t know how or that they don’t think it’s worth doing or that doing it results in a hassle? Why does the group in Belgium do it, when the group in Boston doesn’t? Somebody in the organization will conduct a study, large or small, formal or informal, to find out what’s driving success and failure. Once the causes are known, then a solution system can be tailored to the situation.
• Instruction is good, but not sufficient. Wise instructional designers ask questions about cause in order to use instructional resources where they can do the most good. Back to the appraisal challenge. Are the flaws in line 7 caused by not knowing how to write it up? Have they forgotten? Do supervisors doubt the value of line 7 or fear that honest and detailed entries could lead to unhappy employees or even lawsuits? When they’ve punted on line 7 in the past, has it made any difference? If doubts and fears cause lame entries, training alone won’t improve performance. Instruction is only one thing we can do to develop and enhance performance.

Want to read more about it?
Rossett, A. & Papaila, D. (2005). Instructional design is not peanuts. In M. Spector & D. Wiley (Eds.), Innovations in instructional technology: Essays in honor of M. David Merrill. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum. Pp.253-261.

***** If you are a Jaime or know many, you do not need academic ID. If not, well…..

Karl Kapp said...


In a good way, you continue to drive me crazy:)

Some general comments (and you probably know where I'm heading).

Just because one company had bad experience with IDers with degrees doesn't make having an ID degree a bad thing. Come on?

Good ID programs create good instructional designers and an instructional designer from a good program can do some wonderful, creative and innovative instruction without having to gain experience over 11 or so years before they are able to do so.

Perhaps the folks that attended the session where more disposed to attending because they didn't have the degree.

Once again if "anyone" can do ID than anyone will continue to do ID and we'll continue to have a lopsided, haphazard field that continually fails to present itself as strategic because we have this type of infighting.

Do lawyers argue over needing a degree? Do teachers? Yet there are bad teachers and lawyers, we don't then blame the degree...we rightfully blame the individual.

We continue to hurt ourselves with this discussion.

Additionally, we can't continue to perpetuate the the myth that people who don't have degrees in instructional design are somehow "better" than those who have a degree.

For example, maybe the firm in Silicon Valley is presenting awful courses to their employees because they didn't want to follow the "formal" ID process and found some hacks who would shortcut it. So that is why they like people without degrees. Sure they are now meeting the demands of management but not learners.

Cammy Bean said...

Karl -- You know I live to make you crazy!

But seriously, I don't think the discussion itself is hurting anyone. It's pointing out what's going on in the field. I still say many people find their way to ID by "accident" and I don't know that this will ever change.

So how can we provide better tools and support and direction (perhaps in the form of great ID programs that people will choose mid-career once they realize they have that affinity)?

I do think there are some great programs out there -- SDSU, Bloomsburg -- to name a few.

Karl Kapp said...


Maybe the discussion should go more toward what aspects or attributes make a good ID (which you did toward the end of your original post). That way we can find people with those attributes and/or incorporate more of those attributes into existing ID programs. There really are many good programs out their that are not rigid as Allison points out, maybe we are focused on the wrong discussion...not degrees vs. non-degrees but what competencies, skills and knowledge make a good designer and how to help mid-career and others gain those skills.

As always, an engaging discussion

Cammy Bean said...

Karl, I definitely agree and that's where I've been trying to take the conversation! Will definitely be talking with you more about this.

It's interesting how the conversation also devolves (!) into the degree vs. non-degree routes. I really don't mean to stir that up (although it's fun ;) ) Feels like a stage in a cycle -- everyone needs to go through that part of the conversation before they can move on.

Sahana Chattopadhyay said...

My response to this post here:
In Response: Accidental Instructional Designers #dl09--Part I

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. I was a journalist and marketing communications professional before getting into ID work. There are definitely lots of parallels between skills learned in journalism and ID. I am now working towards a Master's in Technical Communication and, after being an ID for 11 years, taking my first ever course in ID next semester. Isn't that something? Thanks for the thoughtful recap of what sounds like a very interesting session.

Anonymous said...

I want to jump into the degree vs. non-degree debate just a bit. I don't think that either route is correct by definition. I think what's right for you is what's right. Period. Some people learn on the job. Others learn from school. Either are fine. The competencies that you outlined from the session seem right on target, Cammy. And you don't have to hold a specific degree to have those competencies. They can all be developed in a variety of ways.

I do think that probably the most important quality for an ID to have is to be a life-long learner. That's the reason after many years in the corporate world and then freelance world that I've returned to school as a grad student. You can have all the business background and work experience in the world. But if you don't keep up with the changes in your field, you're not keeping yourself marketable. That means your work product suffers, especially in our field because of the technological developments. Doesn't mean, however, that technology should drive your ID work. But it's so very important to stay current.

I think I got a bit off the topic but I am so happy to have found this blog and this robust discussion. I will tune in regularly.

Apostolos K. ("AK") said...

It's interesting. Some of the comments you received remind me of the "We are professionals, aren't we?" piece by Will Thalheimmer. Some of the comments you got about "just creating content" made me roll my eyes - because as I've written before, it's not just about the content.

I am in an MEd program for ID. I was doing ID before entering the program, but all the jobs that I was interested in required an MEd in ID as a requirement to apply. So here I am. Did I learn new stuff? You betcha! Could I learn the stuff on my own? Of course! (I am a big believer in autodidactism). The benefit of the degree? It opens doors and gives you immediate access to fellow professionals when you had none before.

Wish I were at the breakfast by the way - it sounds like a great place for discussion!

Allison said...

Laurie's comment: Some people learn on the job. Others learn from school. Either are fine.

Let's push that a bit. If the school is distinct from work, offers no access to it (practices, internships) or lessons immediately useful there, well, what's that about? And if the job does not encourage ongoing learning, that's not going to work out for them. Effective workplaces invest in development for their people. Might not be classes, but it sure is something, perhaps conferences, coaches, or even an effort to be clear about next steps and expectations.

Cammy Bean said...

Allison, you're absolutely right. It's about the context. If employers can become more like schools and perhaps schools can become a bit more like businesses (or at least be sure to add that practical, business perspective) -- then the world would be a better place. But it's a rather idyllic dream...?

Rich Benak said...

Since this discussion has been so helpful to me, I was hoping that some of you would come and contribute to what has been a bit of an Identity Crisis for me and comment on a tangentially related post about the various responsibilities we all have and what that makes me/us.

Any comments or contributions would be greatly appreciated!

Allison said...

I am in the dissertation process for my Ph.Ed. in Instructional Design for Online Learning at Capella University, which has a great and progressive program for such learners.

Chris Brannigan said...

I missed the breakfast and only just caught up with this great discussion - Brent, thats a tick for Devlearn where there is just too much of a good thing going on.

Cammy - many people find their way to ID by "accident" and I don't know that this will ever change.

Maybe this is why LD and Training don't (often)get a seat at the top table? It is not professionally configured to focus on and deliver real tangible results to the organisation. This in an era when 'human capital' are supposedly an organisations most valuable asset. As a collective we are charged with improving human performance, yet, as you say, many join by accident.

Unknown said...

I stumbled across this discussion as an assignment in my ID course of study. I'm coming to the ID world from a slightly different light. I teach career tech classes in a high school which are seriously outdated. I intend to use what I learn from the degree to help as I update the curriculum. I don't want to say that I do not intend to be a great instructional designer, but my focus is going to be on providing the information in formats which are going to be relevant to those that my students experience and use regularly in their careers (I intend to continue teaching here rather than become a professional instructional designer).

I have gained much insight from this discussion thus far, but do you have advice for someone who is looking to improve their skills in this field, particularly related to blended learning. It would help me to understand what is going to be most applicable as I am completing my degree.

Cammy Bean said...

Hi Travis -- That sounds like instructional design to me: finding the best formats to improve a student's learning experience.

As to what you can be doing to further your quest -- there's a lot going on in the ID world in the online space through blogs, etc. -- much sharing of resources. The Instructional Design Live Talk Show (Fridays at noon)
http:\\edtechtalk.com might be a good place to check out.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion!!

I have been self-taught on the development side of online training, rather than the design. I have worked with ID's from both the accidental path and the acedemic one.

In both cases, it seems that some people get to a point where they think "I know it and don't need to know any more." So, I would like to reiterate the comments here about the importance of continuous learning and keeping up to date with latest research and trends.

The acedemic IDs seem to be strong on the theory and weak on the application. The "accidental" IDs tend to jump in and not apply heavily researched methods.

I must say that in my experience some of the most creative in effective development I've ever done and was most challenged by, was from an "accidental" ID but who did the work to incorporate acedemic research.