CDSM never stop learning

So, you want to be an Instructional Designer?

Our Senior Instructional Designer, Rhys Williams, gives us an insight into how someone becomes an instructional designer, and explains what the varied role entails…

There’s a scene in the television sitcom Friends where Rachel and Monica are desperately trying to remember what Chandler – one of their best pals  – does for a living. It’s the final question in a high-stakes trivia game and if the girls can’t remember, they lose their apartment. Pressured into coming up with an answer, Rachel shouts out: “He’s a transpons…transponster!” Of course, she’s wrong – there’s no such thing as a transponster – and Chandler (an IT procurement manager) and Joey win the game and the bigger apartment.

You’re probably wondering – what does this have to do with instructional design? Well, I’ll tell you.  Outside of the e-learning industry, it seems that very few people know what an instructional designer is. Although my own group of friends (we don’t have our own television show, you’ll be saddened to hear) could all tell you, if asked, that I work in e-learning, or that my employers are CDSM Interactive Solutions, I’d bet that very few would be able to offer up ‘instructional designer’ as my job title. Some might even end up saying that I’m a transponster.  

Drawing design using pencils and ipad - Instructional Designer

It’s not their fault. Even though its origins stretch as far back as the 1940s, ‘instructional design’ isn’t a phrase you hear too often when you work outside the world of e-learning. Apparently, it’s not even that well known by those who work in it. The Internet is awash with blog posts about accidental instructional designers – writers, teachers and/or trainers by trade who suddenly realise that their work turning traditional teaching or training resources into digital learning material has a name and that name is ‘instructional design’. It’s a nice story (albeit one that’s quickly getting old), but it’s not my experience.

Back in 2011, CDSM advertised that they wanted a new instructional designer and I successfully applied, acknowledging that I had many of the essential skills listed in the job description:

  • A strong background in creative and technical writing
  • An existing knowledge of contemporary design
  • Experience in proofreading and editing (with excellent attention to detail)
  • A practical knowledge of the correct use of spelling, grammar, syntax, etc.
  • Good communication and organisational skills
  • A willingness to learn

As with any role, there are always certain skills that you’ll need to learn ‘on-the-job’, and so in the years that have followed I’ve had to add an extensive knowledge of contemporary technology and learning theory to my skill set – additions that have come from a mix of mentoring, reading and assimilation. But what exactly, you might be asking, am I using these skills for?

What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

Lady smiling at the computer - Instructional Design 2

Ultimately, an instructional designer’s main objective is to create engaging and effective learning experiences. You could call this our ‘bread and butter’. However, the role is actually a lot more varied than you might imagine. Despite some of the online horror stories about instructional design jobs, CDSM don’t chain me to my desk until I’ve turned a customer’s 495-page training manual into an hour-long e-learning module. For example, in the past few months I have:

  • Held meetings with customers to discuss requirements and scope
  • Worked closely with our developers and other designers to come up with new digital solutions
  • Written and directed a series of situation-based e-learning videos at an off-site location
  • Met with a teacher on secondment to Welsh Government to discuss the creation of new learning materials for Welsh schools
  • Attended a series of seminars on accessibility
  • Researched and co-written a six-part blog series on e-learning design

My regular desk-based work is just as diverse. One week I might be working on assessment questions for a blue-chip company’s international compliance course, and the next I’m creating new PISA resources for schools across Wales. It certainly keeps me on my toes!

What Do Instructional Designers Need to Know?

For an instructional designer, theory is everything. It’s easy for poor instruction to hide behind good design initially but, just like the Emperor and his new clothes, eventually everything’s going to become embarrassingly clear. It makes sense, if you think about it, because how can you create good e-learning if you don’t first understand how we learn?

Before taking up the role at CDSM, I had no formal training in teaching practice, but thanks to a programme of mentoring, training and on-the-job experience, I was soon able to begin creating engaging digital learning solutions.

Two men talking over what's on a computer - Instructional Design 3

Extensive reference materials and an informed reading list (containing books and articles on topics such as Skinner’s rats, Bloom’s taxonomy and Vygotsky’s disagreement with Piaget) were essential aspects of my training at CDSM, allowing me to become well-versed in learning theory. However, an instructional designer has to always be open to new ideas and research. Six months after I had first read about Bloom’s taxonomy, Shelly Wright of the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) published an article on ‘flipping it’. This is the type of fresh impetus that it’s important to keep a look out for, as it can change the way you approach solutions for certain types of learners.

It’s also important to know the possibilities and limitations of your technology, as what you create in storyboard format has to translate well to the screen. I’m lucky at CDSM because I’m able to work with a team of excellent developers and designers, all of whom are sympathetic and responsive to issues such as accessibility, usability and readability. This makes the e-learning we produce a truly collaborative effort, with the written, visual and technological aspects working in harmony so the learner can efficiently and effectively acquire the knowledge and/or skills they need.

So, if you still want to be an instructional designer, brushing up on your learning theory is an essential first step (you could even use our series on e-learning design as a starting point). Then once you begin working with a company, you can familiarise yourself with their technology – as well as the requirements and scope of their customers – and you’ll be away.

And it might also be an idea to prepare a response to the question “What’s that, then?”, for when you tell your friends your new job title.

To keep updated with new blogs from CDSM, subscribe to our e-zine.

Subscribe

3 Comments

  • Modesta Kalisch
    September 12, 2015 - 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Instructional design can lead to a truly rewarding career. A lot of people do not understand how we can earn a living by doing what we are passionate about. I agree that learning theories are important and often the backbone to the eLearning course. Cognitive theory suggests that learning should be presented in small chunks which allows the learner the ability to fully acquire the information.

  • Danyele McCreary
    September 14, 2015 - 2:34 am | Permalink

    You really make this field very intriguing to say the least. I have always wanted to do something that has many different layers to it. I have seen many positions where the duties were pretty much the same and being challenged is all I look forward to in any job I have ever held. I even took a look at the learning theories in the series and couldn’t stop reading. This is something I am looking forward to getting into and I think you all are the right people to assist in guiding me along my route. Looking forward to learning from everyone involved.

  • October 6, 2015 - 8:56 am | Permalink

    Awesome
    post. It maybe useful for your readers to know what are the opinions of instructional designers about the relevance of learning styles in the design of online courses:

    http://www.commlabindia.com/re

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    * Copy This Password *

    * Type Or Paste Password Here *

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>