Questions about Instructional Design Careers

Last month, a reader named Jackie asked me a number of thoughtful questions about transitioning from teaching K-12 public school to instructional design. She graciously agreed to let me publish some of her questions and my answers here, since I thought others might be in similar positions and share these questions. I have altered a few details to make this more applicable to a general audience, although some questions and answers specifically mention the transition from teaching to ID.

Creativity

Question mark made of puzzle pieces

Question mark made of puzzle pieces by Horia Varlan, on Flickr. CC-By

Q: Creativity is important to me, both professional and personally.  So though I know it’s impossible to generalize, are you able to speak to what kind of value there is placed on creativity as a designer, both in higher education, and in working with companies or organizations?  After rich collaboration with SMEs and other stakeholders, how much leeway do IDs have?  Are there jobs I should lean toward to which are more open than others?

A: Some jobs certainly offer more creativity than others. I don’t find developing software simulations to be particularly rewarding, for example, because there often isn’t a ton of creativity. When I work with faculty in higher ed, most of the time they are pretty open to creative approaches. I work with a lot of faculty who have no experience with online learning, so they generally are open to my expertise as far as how to use the technology creatively. There are exceptions; some faculty really just want to record lectures, have discussions, and give tests.

With companies, it varies quite a bit. I’ve found companies and organizations that are really interested in doing innovative things with training. For example, one course I wrote last year includes branching video scenarios, where learners watch a video and then make decisions as a “choose your own adventure.” The choices they make affect how people respond and what videos they see next. It was a lot of creative writing and storytelling to put learners in a real context. In general, more conservative industries like banking and insurance tend to value creativity less, and more innovative industries like technology tend to value creativity more.

Workplace Climate and Culture

Q: On a similar note, workplace climate is important to me.  I know that every employer has its own culture, but I am wondering if you have suggestions for finding ID jobs which embrace open, forward-thinking, animated atmospheres. It is admittedly going to be a challenge to go from the warmth of a K-12 environment to something completely corporate, so I am imagining that my inkling to stick to college and university work would probably best meet this need, initially, but I don’t want to assume.

A: Some corporate cultures are actually quite open and welcoming. I’ve found some higher ed environments to be so political as to be strangling. I think with corporate cultures, the size of the company matters quite a bit. A small company can feel like everyone’s family. With a large company, what matters most is your individual manager. I generally find that if my relationship with my direct manager is good, the rest falls into place for me, so I focus on that. A good manager will protect you in a larger organization. You’ll have to think about how to ask questions about organizational culture when you interview to get a feel for whether it’s a fit for you.

Work/Life Balance

Q: As a public school teacher, with the position that I hold, that has become a 24/7 responsibility, and there is zero work-life balance. Having the ability to take care of my health and prioritize the rest of my life is  a critical for me, so I want to make sure that as I explore ID, I am steering myself toward work which will allow me to dig in deep and grow my employer’s students, but which also honors my health and free time. Are there some fields within ID which are known as better or worse than others for offering that balance?

A: I feel like ID in general has better work/life balance than teaching, so just moving to ID already helps. Hourly or contract positions tend to be fairly limited in how many hours you work since companies generally don’t want to pay overtime. Personally, the most out of balance I’ve been was when I was a salaried manager in an organization that rewarded people with no balance in their lives. Emailing at 3 AM was a badge of honor in that organization. It’s one of the reasons I left that and went back to being an individual contributor as an ID. I have had times where for a few months we’re pushing for a project and therefore I’m putting long hours in, but that’s the exception rather than the norm. You certainly can choose to push yourself and get out of balance, but I find the balance much easier with ID than teaching.

Accountability

Q: To what degree of accountability are designers held regarding whether students learn and perform better?  How are efficacy and performance measured for a designer?

A: I wish I could tell you that there’s a really strong expectation for proving our worth, but it isn’t the case. The reality is that in both higher ed and corporate learning, the most common evaluation is “smile sheets.” If the surveys are good and the feedback from instructors is good, we’re viewed as doing our job well. Managers who are familiar with ID will also review courses and provide feedback.

There is, however, increasing pressure in the corporate world to show ROI. If you start from a business problem, you should be able to show the results of training—increased sales, fewer errors, etc.  Some organizations do evaluate at all four of Kirkpatrick’s levels, and the Success Case Method is another good strategy for evaluating training effectiveness. Those tools are generally underutilized though.

New Trends

Q: With ID growing as a field, are there new nuances or developments you anticipate coming down the pike that are good for me to preemptively know so I am not spinning my wheels, or going in the best direction the fastest?

A: I wouldn’t learn Flash right now. The learning curve is too steep, and within a few years I think most work will be in HTML5. Most Flash e-learning now is done with rapid tools anyway. Usually if the Flash work requires a programmer, there’s a separate team for that.

Mobile learning is certainly a good trend to keep an eye on. I haven’t been asked to do any mobile learning other than very peripheral support, but I think within 5 years I will be doing some. I think mobile learning works best as performance support rather than courses on a tiny screen. Chad Udell’s Learning Everywhere is a good book on this topic, and there’s lots of blogs you can read for free. Check out my review of Udell’s book for more information.

Gamification is a hot trend right now; I’m not sure if it’s going to last. A lot of what passes for “gamification” is really superficial and not very effective, so this trend might fizzle out. That’s a shame, because there’s actually a lot of good that can be done with well-designed games, but I worry that the low-quality work will give the whole field a bad reputation.

Portfolio

Q: I will obviously need to create a portfolio, and I know that it will need to begin with volunteer opportunities.  What is the depth and/or scope of a typical person’s portfolio?  How does one, as an entry level ID, maximize potential for a portfolio that will leverage the best job?

A: If you have 3-4 examples as an entry-level ID, I think that’s fine as a place to start. Show off some of those creative activities you’ve developed. I’d focus on training for adults, such as professional development for other teachers, if possible, unless you’re targeting something like K-12 Inc or another online K-12 provider.

A variety of examples is beneficial, especially when you only have a few. You don’t have to show a full course, just a screenshot or two and an explanation of what problem was solved with your training and how you did it. If you want a job in e-learning, at least one of your examples should be of that type of learning.

Your graduate program should help you build a portfolio, including giving you an opportunity to create realistic examples. If they don’t, you’re wasting your time and money and should pick a different school.

Learning Technology

Q: I learn technology easily, but I have no experience creating with Captivate, Camtasia, Articulate, Flash or any of the authoring tools I have read are most valued in new hires.  What should I be focusing on to learn soonest?  Are online tutorials and websites, in addition to experimentation, the best way to learn these programs, or is it worth paying a heap for courses?

A: You know yourself and your learning style. I’ve mostly learned everything on my own, with the exception of Flash (I had to take a course for that). I’d focus on Captivate and Articulate Storyline first. Captivate has a bigger market share now, but Storyline is growing in demand. Both are fairly easy to learn, and there’s lots of free tutorials and community support. Planning a sample project for your portfolio and building it to get some practice is probably the best route unless you know you personally learn best with formal training.

Salary: Corporate vs. Higher Ed

Q: From what I have seen online, it appears that companies pay more than higher education.  Would you say this is true?

A: You’re right that companies generally pay more than higher ed. University ID jobs are probably more at the $50-60K level than the $60-80K range. Small companies generally pay a little less than big companies, but the culture at a small to mid-sized company might be a better fit for some people. I’ve never had any problem switching between corporate and higher ed culture, and most of the time I do both. I know other people find that one or the other environment works best for them, but I feel like both areas have advantages and drawbacks. I think I’m a better ID because I can work in both and take the best of both when I’m designing.

The eLearning Guild’s salary calculator is a great place to compare baseline numbers across industries.

Getting Contract Work

Q: How difficult is it to get short term contract positions to make extra money?

A: I had lots of trouble getting my very first ID job. It took me a year and 200 applications. However, once I’ve got that first job, I’ve never had much trouble looking for work when I wanted it. I’ve only done extra side projects on top of my full-time job twice in my career. In both cases, they were people who contacted me because of my blog, and not something I was seeking out.

Now that I’m doing freelance, I basically am not doing any marketing other than my blog and being active in groups on LinkedIn. I don’t spend time seeking out clients because I’ve got so many projects that I’m turning work away. I know that isn’t everyone’s experience, but I’m generally finding it harder to keep from getting overbooked and avoid getting my life out of balance than to not find more work when I want it.

Transition from Teaching, Job Searching

Q: Can you shed any light on what you learned the most in your transition from teaching?  What do you know now that you wish you knew then?  What would you do differently?  What is the most important thing that grew you?

A: One practical matter: when you apply for jobs out of state, make sure you say clearly in your cover letter that you’re willing to relocate at your own expense. I didn’t do that, and I know that’s part of why it took me 200 applications before I got my first ID job. People assumed I was looking for a remote position instead of being willing to move.

A lot of what I would do differently is specific to how I did that initial job search—customizing my cover letters more to each company, gearing my resume towards that audience more, etc. I would have created a portfolio earlier than I did: I didn’t actually create one until 2009.

Maybe going back I might have done a master’s degree or certificate early in my career. At this point, it’s debatable whether I’d earn enough more to compensate for what I’d spend in tuition. Only once or twice has my lack of a master’s been a hindrance to me, even working in higher ed. My experience is more important to employers now than the degree. I think I would have learned in a degree program though.

I’ve learned a lot of technology and how to use it to help people learn. I’ve also learned a lot more of actual research on how people learn and how to design learning than I actually saw as a teacher.

What has helped me grow the most has been my blog and interacting with other IDs. Twitter might be more your style; #lrnchat and similar chats are really energizing and good ways to connect with others in the field.  I think using social media and contributing to the conversation (not just lurking) is really valuable.

Your Questions

Do you have other questions about instructional design careers? Ask away in the comments. Do you disagree with any of my answers? I’d love to hear your perspective.

You may also be interested in my other posts about instructional design careers.

16 thoughts on “Questions about Instructional Design Careers

  1. Thank you! As a future IDer, this was amazingly helpful! I’m in a degree program to get the experience needed to eventually move into either Higher ed (where I have experience in different departments) or Corporations.

    Kathy

  2. Thank you for this post. It is incredibly helpful and motivating. Do you have any ideas for brainstorming portfolio pieces for someone wanting to get started in ID? I would like to create something in Articulate or Storyline as you mentioned in the interview, but have been stumped for awhile now on just getting started with an idea to base the training on! Any tips or ideas? Thanks so much.

    • It depends on what you know. Volunteering with a non-profit can solve this problem, since that’s a real situation with a real problem to solve. If you’re on your own though, you need to be your own SME.

      What do you know? I find a lot of teachers have done some professional development training for other teachers. Anything on teaching, helping people learn, designing effective activities, etc. can work, especially if you can make it apply to general audiences and not just K-12. Technology training is good too–tips on how to use PowerPoint creatively, for example.

      What about time management? I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t juggling 12 things at once. General tips on organization and time management can easily apply to other environments.

      Could you talk about conflict resolution? If you’re a teacher, you’ve likely dealt with angry parents and tense staff meetings. Do you have tips on dealing with those sorts of situations that could apply in the business world? If not, could you do a bit of research?

      Have you worked in any other fields in your life? I know lots of people who worked in retail or food service or call centers early in their career. I only worked two summers in a call center in college, but I bet I could still come up with some generic customer service scenarios for training now.

      Does that help spark some ideas? If not, tell me a bit more about your background and we’ll come up with something that’s a better fit.

  3. As someone who has made the transitions from K-12 to Instructional Design. I fully agree with the answers here. I also find that we have more opportunities for advancement as we tend to be more in touch with effective pedagogies due to our experiences.

    • Especially when I’m designing instructor-led training, I find it very helpful to have that background of knowing what it’s like in a classroom. It’s easier when I can envision that learning environment and know what learners and trainers need. At this stage of my career, I’m better at finding out about audiences from SMEs so I can develop for environments and content I don’t know at all (like bulldozer safety in a coal mining operation, something I knew literally nothing about prior to creating a course last year). Former teachers tend to be pretty quick to pick up new content too, which is another reason why it’s a good fit.

  4. Jackie’s in K-12 now? If she really wants to be an instructional designer I’d recommend she do an informational interview with someone at K12.com or Pearson Schools Group. They’re all the time looking for experience K-12 instructors to do instructional design and development.

    She should also consider what target population of learners to support. Instructional design in the corporate sector is different from serving learners in academia or in government.

    • Corporate and academia are different, but it is a lot of the same skills in both environments. Knowing how people learn, how to put content into context, how to provide practice opportunities, and how to create authentic assessments is relevant no matter who your audience is.

  5. Hello! I came across your post from eLearning Learning Weekly. I currently work as a Training Coordinator in a technology training unit for a large university, however I am interested in transitioning into instructional design. I’m going to be given the opportunity to work on some eLearning projects in our unit, so I will definitely take your suggestion of starting a portfolio. One thing that concerns me is the creativity aspect. I am not a very creative person. I’m very methodical and detail oriented. Do you think this could be a hindrance to succeeding in this career field? Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    • I admit that a lack of creativity, especially creative problem solving, is a hindrance. I have actually not hired a candidate in the past largely because of a lack of creativity.

      If you don’t enjoy creative writing, stay away from scenario-based training. In general, you will probably be happier developing technical training than soft skills training. Software simulations are an area where plenty of employers are simply looking for methodical and linear without anything to engage learners or help them remember or transfer knowledge.

      Compliance training is often boring, linear content too, because most companies don’t care about whether people actually learn the material–they just care that they can check a box that says the person has been trained. That way, if an employee does something illegal or unethical, they can cover themselves; it’s just about liability. It shouldn’t be; companies would benefit more from creating training that reduced the illegal and unethical activity in the first place. The reality is that if you’re specifically looking for ways to avoid being creative though, plenty of companies will waste money on boring compliance training.

      I’m especially concerned if you can’t come up with creative solutions to problems. A lot of the work I do is converting face-to-face training to e-learning. Figuring out how to replicate a classroom experience online sometimes requires some creative use of technology. When you say you’re “not a very creative person,” do you mean you can’t come up with creative solutions or workarounds? If so, I wonder why you’re interested in instructional design as a career change.

      What’s driving your interest in changing careers? What draws you to instructional design rather than something like project management or technical writing?

  6. Thanks for the follow up. You’ve brought up some good points. I know I can come up with solutions to problems. I have to do this in my current position. When I said I’m not very creative, what I meant is that I feel like it seems to take me longer to come up with a solution since I tend to be very detailed oriented and analyze things. Being given the opportunity in my unit to work on a few projects is going to be an indicator if this is something I will continue to pursue for the future.

  7. Thank you for sharing this important information on the ID field. At one time in my career, I wrote several courses, however, they were not e-learning courses, but I so enjoyed writing and developing courses. I currently teach as an adjunct faculty, but I really miss designing course materials. However, with all the new technology, I’m thinking I’d need to either get another degree in ID or at the very least a certificate. I was reading through your blog to get a sense of what that entails. Your writing has given me lots of food for thought. Thanks again!
    -GG

    • You might not need a certificate if you can learn some of the technology on your own. It depends on how comfortable you are teaching yourself. Both Captivate and Articulate have good online communities, and there are lots of online tutorials available.

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