Formal or Informal Masters for Instructional Designers?February 25, 2008
In his recent post We Need a Degree in Instructional Design, Karl Kapp argues that simply practicing instructional design isn’t enough; anyone who calls themselves an instructional designer should have a degree in it. He’s added a great image from Kathy Sierra that says “I’d make a good brain surgeon, because I HAD brain surgery.”
Karl makes several points that I agree with (this is my summary, not his):
- There’s too much bad instructional design out there.
- Instructional designers should be able to apply multiple instructional strategies, according to the needs of the situation.
- Instructional designers should be able to articulate why they make the decisions they make, backing it up with research.
- Understanding the theories and the research will help improve instructional design.
- Everyone can always learn more about learning and instructional design.
Although I agree with all these points, I’m not convinced by the conclusion he draws from these points:
I have to say that in my extremely biased opinion…a degree is not only needed, it should be required!
I don’t see graduate school as the only way for individuals to meet the goal of becoming better instructional designers. Shouldn’t people who design learning for others also be able to design their own learning paths? Is formal education the only option, or is it possible to do an “informal masters” on your own?
This is not to say that there’s no value in a masters degree; I’ve certainly heard from lots of people who have found it to be very beneficial. I have every reason to believe that I personally would learn a great deal in a well-designed program. I’m also not claiming that people who have that formal education can’t and don’t gain from the informal methods too. Karl’s a great example of this. He’s out there learning in public even though he has his terminal degree; he clearly sees learning as a lifelong process.
My disagreement is with these formulas.
- Masters Degree = Good Instructional Design
- No Masters Degree = Bad Instructional Design
Clark Quinn’s explanation falls more in the middle, rather than having an either/or formula. Being a “reflective practitioner” can give motivated people the background and knowledge of that “informal masters” and achieve many of the goals from Karl’s post.
The benefit of the Master’s is the chance to get to know the theories (depending on the program and instructor). The pedagogy for the course should include applying the theories to pragmatic design, not just reciting back the contents (I used to use RFP’s asking for designs or redesigns using the theories). It’s not the only way, but being familiar enough with the underlying principles to be able to adapt the design to match the circumstances is important…
Note that Cammy is a ‘reflective practitioner’ to use Schön’s term, as she reads and reflects on what she does. That’s why she’s effectively done her own ‘masters’ in learning/ISD. So, I’m not comfortable with trusting experience over time to yield competent results, I think it takes someone being an ongoing learner. That’s easier in a well-designed program, though the caveat is that all programs are not necessarily well-designed.
But with that out of the way, nobody needs a PhD (or in most cases — any degree at all) in education or learning theory to be a good teacher. Just as there are plenty of great software developers and programmers without a CompSci degree. People can be self-taught, and do a fabulous job, for a fraction of the cost of a formal education, but they have to be motivated and they have to appreciate why it’s important.
Let the debate continue!
Update: Read all my posts about Instructional Design Careers here.