Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills

Do instructional designers or learning experience designers need to know how to use development tools, or should they focus just on analysis and design? What about people who only do development but no design; are they instructional designers? How much project management falls under the role of instructional designer? What about LMSs—do instructional designers need to know about those too? Psychology, cognitive science, graphic design, usability, and other fields also overlap with instructional design. The Many Hats of an Instructional Designer game describes us as counselors, performers, users, artists, and problem solvers.

Many of us in the instructional design field struggle to explain to others what we do for a living. I usually say, “I’m an instructional designer; I develop online learning.” I think part of our struggle is that we haven’t agreed even among ourselves what exactly an instructional designer does. The range of roles and responsibilities is pretty wide. Lots of us do a little bit of everything. Nearly 16% of respondents in the eLearning Guild’s 2015 salary report identified their job as “do a lot/little of everything.” Clearly many people do work that doesn’t fit neatly into a single job category.

The core skill for instructional designers is creating learning experiences. I would argue that anyone who isn’t creating learning experiences isn’t an instructional designer; they’re working in a related role. That doesn’t necessarily mean only designing formal learning and courses. Creating job aids or supporting informal learning could be a core task for instructional designers too. However, if your role is taking a storyboard created by someone else and building it in a rapid development tool, you’re not really doing instructional design. I would classify that as elearning development or media development instead.

T-Shaped: ID Skills. On the horizontal bar of a T, broad skills. On the vertical bar of a T, deep skills.

Cammy Bean refers to this as a “T-shaped” skill set in her book The Accidental Instructional Designer (p. 16).

We need broad skills and understanding (the top of the T), with potentially one area of deep expertise (the vertical bar of the T). The horizontal bar enables you to communicate and collaborate with experts across a wide range of disciplines, making you a versatile generalist with a well-rounded point of view. The deep vertical bar makes you a specialist.

I love this idea. It’s a great visual for thinking about how people have different strengths in a field where we all wear a lot of hats. Knowing where you’re strong helps you focus your career. You can work on your weaknesses or gaps in your skills, but you can also emphasize and focus on your strengths. As a freelance ID, I can focus on design and writing, especially writing scenario-based learning. That’s my strength, and it’s where I can differentiate myself from others in the field.

What about you? Does this metaphor resonate for you, or does it not quite fit your role? What do you consider to be the vertical bar in your T?

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3 thoughts on “Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills

  1. Pingback: Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills | Experiencing E-Learning – Learning – How We Teach, Guide, and Learn in the Digital Age

  2. If you have the luxury of working with an elearning team, which some of us don’t, I think it is important to understand the bigger picture of design, development and delivery. In our shop, I am the only person who does instructional design, development and delivery via LMS. Thankfully, I had formal/graduate training and experience in adult education and have always been fascinated with technology as a personal interest. The two have meshed well, but my time is spread pretty thin. I am also the system admin for our LMS simply because of my technical skills and the lack of such skills in the rest of our training team. That really hampers what we can do and really puts a time crunch on me to keep all bases covered.

    • The one person team is very common. I think that’s why the broad expertise in this model works. You do a little of everything. Chances are, you still have one area where you’re stronger. That area of deep expertise might be not as far ahead of your other skills, and your broad skills are probably all a little deeper. The model can adapt for that.

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