Getting Into Instructional Design

This is post #2 in a series about the instructional design. Read the first post, What does an instructional designer do?, for the introduction.

As I see it, there are two different ways to move from another field into an instructional design career: the direct way and the indirect way.

The direct way is to get your masters degree in instructional design, educational technology, or something similar. I have hired a people who have those degrees, even ones who have little or no actual work experience. Some of those instructional designers were fabulous right out of the gate. If you have no education or training experience, this is probably the way to go.

The other way is the indirect route. Most of the IDs I have hired and worked with (probably about 75%) came from an education or training background. That’s my background too; I taught public school, then switched to corporate software training before finding ID. The majority of IDs I know didn’t originally set out to enter this field; they started teaching or training or writing technical manuals and found instructional design along the way.

If you are currently working in education or training, you are probably already developing a lot of the skills needed for instructional design. The exception would be if you’re not doing any writing or planning yourself, and you are only teaching things other people have developed. I found that most of my lesson planning and curriculum planning skills from when I taught were very relevant when I moved to instructional design. When I did corporate training, the bulk of what I taught was from published books. I was fortunate to have some flexibility to stray from the published lesson plans at times, but I didn’t do a whole lot of writing while in that position.

If you teach or train somewhere where the lesson plans are provided for you, it’s going to be harder to move into instructional design. Anything you can do to create your own materials as supplements or special lessons will be helpful. I created some short job aids and extra handouts while doing corporate training. Even writing one-page handouts helps you gain experience and gives you something to talk about in an interview (and maybe show in a portfolio).

Teachers and trainers who want to change careers to instructional design have two major areas where their skills may need to be developed further:

  • Instructional design
  • Technology

Those skill areas will be later posts in this series.

Update: Other Posts in this Series

  1. What Does an Instructional Designer Do?
  2. Getting Into Instructional Design
  3. Instructional Design Skills
  4. Technology Skills
  5. Professional Organizations and Career Options
  6. Is instructional design the right career?

Update: Read all my posts about Instructional Design Careers here.

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36 thoughts on “Getting Into Instructional Design

  1. Hi Christy,

    I got into Instructional Designing through the second route mentioned in your post; I was a software trainer and the client requirement made me move into this field. I didnt even know at that time that such a profession existed :).

    Anyway, soon I realized that being an ID was what I was meant to be and have completed 7 successful years in the industry.

    I also feel that its a better way to transition from Trainer to ID as you then can use your trainer experience and way of thinking while creating or designing programs.

  2. I agree that there is a definite advantage to having seen that side of the classroom when you’re doing instructional design. It’s easier to envision the training environment when you’ve had that experience. I know that I would personally have a much harder time developing for K-12 teachers if I had never worked as a teacher. It’s just more natural to understand their perspective.

    That said, I have known a few tremendous instructional designers who went the first route. One in particular really helped bring up the level of instructional design in the whole team, partly because her own work provided great examples for others to build on, and partly because she was willing to share and coach others.

    I’m curious, Shweta, what your experience has been with the technology skills. That created some debate here. Where do you fall in that discussion? Do you think instructional designers should learn technology skills and work at all stages of the process, or should we focus on just a narrow stage of the development and let programmers and graphic designers do what they do best? I wonder if the situation in India is more similar to what I’ve experienced or what Cammy Bean has experienced in her career.

  3. Hi Rupa,

    I have seen people move from tech writing into instructional design before, although not as often. It seems to be a different enough approach that not everyone can make that transition successfully. Obviously, you have, which is great. That’s a path which I didn’t include here though, and perhaps I should have.

    I found an interesting article called Identifying the gap between technical writing and instructional design that talks about this difference between tech writing and ID.

    • I am a career USAF telecomm technician, turned tech writer, turned ISD. I think it is a normal progression as you understand the training products; that is IF you are tech writing in a training environment. It makes me a much better SME on all three levels, Not only do I understand what the jargon means and the theory behind it, I understand how to write it so people understand AND I can tell you if the objectives are properly developed. I hope it means job security for me.

  4. Hey Christy, this is first time I have come across instruction design in a blog. I am so glad to see this. :) In my country, people are not so aware about instruction design yet. They tend to confuse it with technical writer or content writer.

    I did journalism, it was even before I received results for my masters, I took up this job without knowing what instruuction design was..Later I got hooked, I like designing training programs, it gives me a hiigh and sense of creativity…We plan to soon bring out a blog on easy to use ID strategies…sumthng taht had ready to information…

  5. Pingback: Stats Review from 2008 « Experiencing E-Learning

  6. Hi, Christy. I am a K-8 teacher and would like to transfer into ID. I’ve read your series on getting into ID and wonder if there are any online programs that cover the content you have listed above, ID and technology? Many thanks.

  7. There are plenty of instructional design programs out there, and some of them do cover the technology side of things too. You could do either a certificate or masters degree in instructional design. As the comments on that post suggest, a program where you create a portfolio of real products is more likely to be beneficial. Those same programs are also more likely to help you learn more of the technology, since you’re probably going to use the technology to create what you put in your portfolio. Check out the comments on this post about online ID programs for a good starting point.

  8. I am an instructional design graduate student at Walden University. I appreciate the very relevant content that you have on your blog site.

    I also appreciate your advice regarding gaining entry into the field of instructional design. I have not yet entered this field. However, I am currently pursuing the direct route that you described in this article.

    Presently, I do not have any teaching or classroom training experience. What I do have is technical writing and one-on-one training experience. My technical writing experience consists of writing job aids and solutions documents in the field of information technology support. My one-on-one training experience consists of teaching users how to use software and/or operating systems.

    So far I am very pleased with the instructional design education that I am receiving from Walden University. I have compared Walden’s instructional design graduate program with comparable programs at other universities. I have found Walden’s course content to be very relevant and the tuition affordable. Another great aspect of Walden’s program is the lack of group projects. There is a lot of interaction with fellow students and the professors. However, projects are completed on an individual basis. This prevents students from “social loafing” while one or two other students do all of the work. In my opinion, the only thing that group projects accomplish is demonstrating that one can only count on themselves. I realize that this might come accross as a pessimistic view. Unfortunately, I was burned by group projects several times while pursuing my undergraduate degree. I would recommend Walden’s program to anyone with the desire to enter the instructional design field.

    One observation that I have made while pursuing the instructional design graduate degree is the amount of psychology in learning theories. I would imagine that someone with an undergraduate degree in psychology and a graduate degree in instructional design would be perfectly positioned to excel in this field.

    • Psychology would definitely be a good background; I’m kind of surprised I haven’t seen more of that in instructional designers.

      One of the tools I use in small group projects for the courses I develop is wikis. Since the history of a wiki shows which individuals contributed what, it’s much easier to see when someone waits until the last second and lets the rest of the group complete a project.

      Collaboration is part of instructional design work; I can’t do my job if I don’t collaborate well with SMEs. A program that doesn’t provide opportunities to learn to collaborate may not actually prepare you as well for a job as you think.

  9. Hi there – I came across your blog a bit by accident while looking at e-learning. My background is in market research & organisational beahviour. I do a couple of things that seem similar to e-learning: I’m a facilitator, I develop training for organisations in some subjects, and I use/design online communities for research purposes. I’m also an experienced usability researcher.

    I’m curious about whether there is an opportunity to work within e-learning as someone who designs the conversations/ the workshop structure (in other words, focuses on involvement/engagement as well as content). I’m probably not making a lot of sense here! Or…brainstorming within my reply…developing/testing e-learning programmes?

    Even if you can’t answer that, would love any recs on books/blogs I should definitely be reading. I’ll go back to surfing your site!

    Anyway

    • Hi Alison,

      You might look for jobs in “online community management” or “online community moderation.” It’s still fairly rare to find that as a paid position, but it’s starting to be recognized as a need. Check out Harold Jarche’s post on community managers. I also recommend the book Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities if you’re interested in this area. All three of those authors have blogs, so check those out too.

      In the higher ed realm, online learning seems to be more focused around conversations than it usually is in the corporate realm. I spent a lot of time in my previous job developing discussion prompts and designing environments that would encourage conversation and collaboration. I’m not sure you’d find a job that just focused on that, but you might find one that does a lot of it.

      I wish there were more people who recognized the value of QA & usability testing for e-learning. It’s incredibly helpful, even just doing small-scale usability testing. Having a dozen people compare two LMS options gave us immensely valuable information. I see the need–the question is really whether you can convince an employer that you can help them solve problems with your skills. I did QA once as a contractor, where I reviewed work developed by IDs in India. But I think you’re more likely to need to define your own role than find one already existing. If you’re willing to sell your skills as a consultant, you might be able to be successful.

  10. Hi Christy and community,

    I am considering a switch into ID, experience including business school teaching and software product management. The jobs in my area (DC/Silver Spring/etc.) tend to require formal qualification in ID.

    A few questions on such qualification:

    1. given that many of the courses are online, and ID is to a large extent about online learning, how important is it to take classes at a local institution?

    2. how much more impressed are ID employers with masters degrees than with certificates? with a qualification from Prestige U versus one from Podunk U?

    I can answer these questions with “it depends,” but would be interested in more detailed responses.

    Thanks for the great blog, and thanks in advance for any thoughts,
    Andrew

    • Even though job listings always say they want a formal qualification in ID, that isn’t always the case. After all, most people working in the field don’t have that degree. On the other hand, with the economy being what it is, maybe a degree or certificate can help you stand out from the crowd.

      Based on other conversations I’ve had, I wouldn’t bother with any degree or certificate program that doesn’t help you build a portfolio of realistic examples. The portfolio is at least as important as the degree; to some employers, more so.

      Here’s my answers to your questions:
      1. I think it’s a bonus for developing e-learning if you’ve had experience learning online yourself. A local institution may give you local connections to employers though.

      2a. A graduate certificate (one that takes a year or so to complete) is valuable to an employer; a 3-day certificate from ASTD or a similar organization much less so. In the corporate world, I’m not sure that there’s much difference between a certificate and a degree. In higher ed, people care more (and sometimes it affects accreditation, so they should care).

      2b. Certain universities have questionable reputations. We’re a long way from not having any prejudice against online-only degrees from places like University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and AIU. The benefit of Prestige U is probably more about the network you build while you’re there. Those connections may help you in your career. On the other hand, if your local Podunk U has great connections to businesses in your area and will give you practical experience and a stunning portfolio, that’s probably worth more than the big-name degree. As with the certificate vs. degree question, I think people in business care somewhat less than those in higher ed. However, the very top-tier schools may give you some small amount of additional credibility.

      • Thanks, Christy.
        I have decided to go with U of MD Baltimore County, and to take a local but online course. As you indicate, connections to local employers us an argument for going local.
        I was also swayed toward this particular program because the prof for the basic ISD course, Chuck Hodell, wrote what sounds to be a pretty good intro text: ISD from the ground up.
        Thanks again, and I’m sure I’ll be posting more comments/questions at this excellent blog.
        Andrew

  11. Hi Christy,

    I found your blog through a Twitter link and I am very glad I did. I am currently an urban planner but I am strongly considering a career change into instructional design/eLearning. After doing quite a bit of research into the field, it is very intriguing to me. I have a masters in urban planning and a bachelors in public administration. I realize that to make the change, I will have to get a relevant degree. I am looking into masters programs and I notice there are seemingly two types of programs: those with heavy focus on multimedia and eLearning design and those that are more HR or training/development-based that do not have as much focus on technology. A few questions I hope you can answer:

    1. Is a career change from an unrelated field (especially not teaching or training) into an ID field realistic? Will I run into barriers because of this?

    2. Do you feel there will be increased demand in the coming years for instructional designers?

    3. Based on your knowledge of the field, would you recommend a masters program that focuses more on eLearning and multimedia or a program that is more in tune with human resource development/performance improvement. Do you think that one of those tracks will have more opportunities than the other?

    4. One concern I have about moving forward with a career change to ID is that I have heard that a lot of ID work is contracted out now. Are organizations still hiring full-time ID people or is it shifting to all consulting/contract work? I guess I am asking if there is a good degree of stability.

    Your thoughts on these questions will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  12. Hi Christy,
    I have just graduated with a Bachelor’s in ID. I plan on starting my Master’s in ID this coming spring. I have been a trainer in the military and loved my job. I was able to write lesson plans and learned to teach in ways that everyone will learn. I am looking forward to start the master’s program so I can enhance my knowledge of this field. I originally wanted to get into HR, ID came a calling to me. Love you blog and the great info that you provide.

  13. Hi, Christy:

    I have been homeschooling for years writing and implementing my own curriculum; this is considered teaching as a regular ed classroom teacher…Will this be enough experience for me to transfer in to the field of ID?

    Thanks

  14. Also, I forgot to add that when I was in corporate america, I was training employees in the hotel industry as a GSMgr for years.

    thanks,

    • I’m sure you can leverage that experience into an ID career. My guess is that the gaps in your skills will be in technology and online learning, so work on creating a portfolio that shows that you can do more than just teach face-to-face.

  15. I have total 6 yrs of exp, 4.5 yrs in Teaching and 1.5 yrs in content writing. I am looking for a job in instrutional writing in Kolkata (India). Can anybody pls help me, if u know any instructional writing jobs in Kolkata.

  16. Hi Christy,

    I am Raaj from India. I started my career as a research apprentice after post graduating in Physics. I continued the apprenticeship for one year. For the next four years, i planned, designed and taught Applied Physics to undergraduates in a very reputed and autonomous college of my city.

    Later i moved to corporate and from past two years, i am working as a content writer (presently a team lead). Recently, i decided to take my career further and integrate the proven skills of research, course development, teaching, mentoring and writing in me. I thought of making an entry into the field of instructional design.

    I am able to relate to the material taught to me in the certificate course which i enrolled in this month. I read your series of articles on Instructional Design earlier as part of my initial research in this field and found the content to be very useful. They boosted my confidence and helped me to be sure that i made the right choice. Especially your mentioning of the fact that most of the IDs you came across, were teachers in past including yourself.

    Great Job……. Keep sharing your valuable information in this field.

    Regards,
    – Raaj.

  17. Hi- just wondering: I’d like to specialize in working on instructional design for K-12. When I looked at the Guild site you mentioned (of course I signed up!) it seemed that all of the jobs were for adult learners.

    I’m wondering if the K-12 field is considered a sub-specialty, or if it’s just a matter of finding a job that involves ID for kids/educators.

    I was thinking of something similar to what Compass Learning does- designing materials for online use.

    Thanks!

    • School districts don’t tend to hire instructional designers, so it’s harder to find jobs in the K-12 area. However, K-12 online learning is growing rapidly, so I expect there will be more jobs in the future. Look at companies like K12 Inc or the virtual schools for specific states to see what jobs are available.

  18. hi there …i’m just a new comer …just wondering that you can help me find out the Answer for questions about :

    1. what do you know about instructional design?Explain briefly!
    2. why do the students of the teacher training program have to learn the instructional design?
    3. Instructional design in learning can be viewed as a process, a discipline of study, a science, reality, and a series of well-defined skills. Explain them briefly!
    4. what is the role of Instructional Design for a teacher?
    5. Based on the regulation of minister of Education No.41/2007, one of the National Education Standard is Process standard. What does a teacher have to do and prepare to implement it? (you may explain in Indonesian)
    6. What is the difference between syllabus and lesson planning? ( you may explain in Indonesian)
    7. there are some components in making Lesson Planning and Syllabus. Write tehm!
    #correction: write them
    8. syllabus and lesson Plan include planning of teaching and learning process. Explain, who can develop syllabus?
    9. what are the roles of teacher in teaching and learning process? (you may use Indonesian)
    10. What do you know about language element and Language Skill? Explain briefly

    please help me …I really appreciated for being able to help me …
    fondly Iwan Agusnawan the student

    • Hi Iwan,

      I don’t actually do people’s homework assignments for them; that’s part of my policy for answering questions. In this assignment in particular, several questions ask what you know about the topic. If you don’t know anything about instructional design, for example, your answer to question 1 will be very short.

      I wish you luck in your course though.

      • well Christy thank you so very much that helps me a lot …at least now I know that ID is more then just complex but is so hard to understood …so now i pushed my self for getting along with your language first …ok by christy thank you again so very much for having time answer my question …wish you all the best as always …

  19. Hi Christy,

    Thanks for this post, it’s great to read about this area as I am very interested in moving into this field.

    Just wondering if you can share your opinion about some certificate programs you may have heard positive reviews about? I’ve completed an M.Ed already but am looking to a certificate to learn some of the more hands on aspects (web design, software asscoiated with ID).

    The one I was interested in was with the University of California Irvine, looks like a great mixture of elearning and ID. I’ve also heard the Bloomburg program is a great one.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks so much

    • The Bloomsburg program is more well known, and I know that will give you hands on experience with realistic projects. I don’t know anything about UC Irvine’s program, so it may be fine. However, of the two you mentioned, I’d recommend Bloomsburg.

  20. very interesting learn alot, I am completing masters in education technology and would love to get some experience in this field because I really love and enjoy instructional design

  21. Hello Christy,

    I am definitely considered a newbie to the field of Instructional Design. My background is in early childhood education but the field of Instructional Design has definitely peeked my interest. I am constantly wondering how I will break into this field with virtually zero experience in this field. You have calmed many of my fears because you said you have hired many people with little to no experience and they to have come from many different backgrounds. I am currently enrolled at Walden University and I am pursuing a Certificate in Instruction Design so that I may gain a more profound insight into the field of Instructional Design. You said that many people come into this field either the Direct way or Indirect way. I would have to say I would fall into both of those categories. I have a Masters Degree in Education but a background in Training and Education. I’m hoping that the combination of both of these routes will allow me to successfully break into this field and become a successful and effective Instructional Designer. I’ve gained great insight from reading your blogs.

    Thank-You,

    Crystal Farrar

    • The job market has changed since I was doing the bulk of that hiring in 2004-2006 (and since 2007 when I wrote this post). I think there are a lot of “accidental instructional designers” (as Cammy Bean puts it) who have found their way into the field. It is hard to get that very first job and break into the field. It sounds like you have a good background though, and you’re obviously taking steps to learn more. If you can get a couple of real world (or at least realistic) projects under your belt and create a portfolio, you should be able to stand out from other candidates.

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