“What do you mean, there’s no textbook? What are we going to teach from?”
It was January of my first year teaching K-12 music and band. The questions came from the choir teacher, Cathy (not her real name). Cathy had been hired mid-year to replace the previous choir teacher, who resigned over winter break. Cathy was in a state of disbelief. We taught parallel sections of a music appreciation course, but we needed to write the content ourselves. She simply couldn’t fathom it: how could the two of us create not just worksheets and tests, but reading assignments and projects too? How could we create an entire curriculum?
I admit it; I’d been pretty nervous about it myself at the beginning of the school year. I loved the opportunity to stretch the band students with some music theory and history, but wasn’t quite sure how I’d manage with no textbooks, no curriculum materials, and no budget. This was a pilot course, so I had nothing from the previous teacher to build on either. The choir teacher also had a section of music appreciation, so at least I had someone to collaborate with. However, we needed to write everything from scratch.
Before the school year started, Betty (the first choir teacher–also not her real name) purchased some materials for a unit on rock history. It was too basic for high school students, but it gave us a six-week head start on pulling together more appropriate content for the rest of the year. For first semester, we alternated creating materials for units. I pulled out my jazz history notes from college and wrote an overview, timeline, and bios; Betty built a unit around musicals from her expertise. It consumed a lot of time, especially since we were researching and writing basically everything the students read. After all, we were effectively writing our own mini-textbook. But it was also a lot of fun.
Second semester came around. Betty was gone, and Cathy started teaching. For two weeks, she asked me nearly every day where the textbooks were. I suspect she imagined I was hiding them from her, playing some elaborate prank. Eventually, Cathy decided she wasn’t willing to put in the time to create content herself, even with my help. She purchased a collection of worksheets and taught from those in precise linear order for the rest of the year, never straying from the planned sequence.
I continued creating content on my own for my section of music appreciation. For one of my favorite projects from that course, students planned a virtual orchestra “concert,” including selecting music, determining the order, and writing program notes. The authentic assessment engaged the students more than any other project that year.
That work writing a mini-textbook helped me realize how much I enjoy creating curriculum. It’s similar to the work I do now as an instructional designer. I’m no longer the content expert as I was then; that’s what we have SMEs for. Writing for face-to-face teaching isn’t the same as writing for online, and writing content to teach yourself isn’t the same as writing content for someone else to teach or for self-paced e-learning.
Being forced to create all those learning resources from scratch was part of my journey to becoming an instructional designer, even though I’d never even heard of ID at the time. I’m still researching, writing, and creating, just like I was then, trying to craft great learning experiences. That is the essence of what I do as an instructional designer. And I still think it’s fun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As part of David Kelly’s Learning Styles Awareness Day, I’m revisiting the idea of learning styles. I admit that when I was taught learning styles in my education program, I didn’t question it. It made intuitive sense, and I’d never heard a real criticism of the theory. When I started digging into the research though, I realized that the research support for learning styles is pretty flimsy.
If I think back to the way learning styles were taught to me though, it was never applied the way that the theory is “officially” supposed to work. The most common idea is that people have some sort of style, and if you match that style they will learn better. That’s what Will Thalheimer’s still-unanswered research challenge asks for: something where individuals receive training matched to their style. If you’re a visual learner, you would only receive learning via visual methods; if you’re an auditory learner, you’d listen to everything you learn, etc.
That was never how it was applied in the classroom though. For K-12 classroom applications, learning styles were really about providing multiple methods of learning for everyone in the class. In a physical classroom, you didn’t have the option of individualizing everything, so you tended to look for ways to hit the visual and auditory at the same time or for multiple activities to reinforce the same content.
As a music teacher, that might mean something like teaching rhythms through multiple channels. I’d start by having students listen to me chant and clap a rhythm (auditory), then have them echo that rhythm back (auditory and kinesthetic). After several minutes of echoing rhythms with a specific type of pattern, I’d draw a rhythm on the chalkboard (yes, actual chalk) and connect how it looks to how it sounds (visual and auditory). Then we’d practice reading some rhythms with similar patterns, with them looking, chanting, and clapping all together.
If I was teaching music today, I’d do that same kind of lesson, just not because of learning styles. That’s all based on the Kodály method, which does have research support (at least as far as I know; I haven’t dug into it since I rarely teach music anymore). But the idea of approaching concepts from multiple angles with different methods and media still makes sense. It isn’t because I’m matching to a particular style; it’s because I’m helping everyone learn through multiple channels. This might be what Tom Stafford from Mind Hacks is getting at when he says “Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation.” I really wish he provided a citation for the idea that thinking about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching though; I’d like to know whether that’s just his opinion or something with data to support it.
So what does this mean for me as an instructional designer today, rather than a K-12 music and band teacher? As an instructional designer, I basically ignore learning styles. I do think about presenting information with both visuals and audio, but that’s more based on cognitive load theory than learning styles. I’m also working to do better at visual presentation with graphics and not just words, because that is supported by research. As Judy Unrein noted “…humans are such overwhelmingly visual creatures that if we simply catered better to that one sense, we could improve the vast majority of our designs.”
Judy’s idea of focusing on interaction preferences is an interesting one. People do have different preferences, and those preferences can change based on the context (and the type of content, I would add). Giving learners some control over how they interact with the training does seem beneficial. If we don’t lock down the navigation, they can choose which parts they really need. In spite of the research, I personally find audio in e-learning to be generally obnoxious, so if I can turn it off and read the captions instead, I almost always will do that instead. I can read much faster that you can read to me, thank you very much, so I’m annoyed if you don’t give me the option of reading.
What about you? Is there anything in learning styles that you find useful in your own practice, or is it something you’ve abandoned in favor of other ideas?
I received a question from a current classroom teacher who is hoping to make the career move to instructional design. Specifically, she wanted to know how to prepare for an interview for an instructional design position.
Any sage wisdom? I’m brushing up on ID jargon, but want to be as prepared as possible. What questions might they ask? Anything I should avoid discussing? Anything I should make sure to discuss? You’re guidance would be greatly appreciated.
When I was part of a team interviewing teachers who wanted to switch, we always asked a couple of questions:
Have you developed any curriculum or lesson plans collaboratively, or have you always developed by yourself?
This wasn’t a deal-breaker for us, but being able to talk about how you worked with others to develop lessons is a big plus. IDs hardly ever work alone; you always have a SME and often several other team members. If they don’t ask about this and you do have experience developing collaboratively, bring it up yourself. Committee work is OK, but not nearly as good as collaborative curriculum work. Developing lessons for someone else to teach is good too. It isn’t the same when you’re developing just for yourself and no one else has to know how to teach what you designed.
How would you deal with not being in front of the classroom and interacting directly with students?
Talking about how much you love working with students is a great thing if you’re interviewing for a teaching job. When you’re interviewing for an ID job where you’ll be behind the scenes and may never talk to a student, it isn’t so helpful. I’ve seen candidates rejected because they talked too much about how important seeing the light go on in students was to them; we didn’t think they’d be happy.
What is your process for developing curriculum/lesson plans?
If you get this question or a variation of it, focus on the process of development and not your content area. Unless your content expertise is specifically part of this job, that isn’t what they want to hear about. If I’m interviewing someone, I want to know how you figure out what you’re going to teach and how you teach it. Do you start with your objectives or end with them? Do you write your assessments first or last? Do you start from high level goals and break down from there, or do you start with the daily lessons and build connections?
How would your skills transfer from teaching to instructional design?
Your skills do transfer, which they probably know or they wouldn’t have set up an interview. You need to explicitly connect the dots for them though–explain how developing lesson plans and curriculum is similar to developing higher ed courses or whatever you’re interviewing for.
How would you make the transition to this environment?
Talk about any work with adults that you have done. If you coached other teachers on how to use Excel, that counts here. I’ve been asked something similar to this just about every time I’ve switched from academia to corporate and back. If you’re interviewing for something in higher ed, talk about your experience in that environment; ditto for corporate or nonprofit jobs. If the job involves online education, be prepared to talk about any experience you have taking or teaching courses online. Hopefully you can also get a feel from the job description as to how much technology you need to talk about.
How do you assess learning?
In the previous job where I interviewed many people, we always asked candidates to tell us how they would assess a specific outcome online, given the caveat of no tests or traditional academic papers. We were very focused on authentic, real-world assessment. Teachers who could come up with a scenario-based assessment on the fly were likely to move forward to the next step in the process. I don’t think that’s as common an interview question as it should be (it’s a better test than “what is your greatest weakness” after all), but it does show the value of knowing your audience. People who had done their research and knew from our website that we were looking for practical assessment did much better than those who talked about how much they love writing multiple choice questions. And yes, we had a candidate who went on and on about how much she loved writing and validating multiple choice questions.
Other interview questions
The problem with answering a question like this is that everyone’s experiences will be different. I can provide insight on what I’ve seen personally, but that’s a pretty small snapshot. What about the rest of you?
If you’re a teacher or former teacher who has interviewed for instructional design jobs, what interview questions have you run across?
If you’re on the other side of the desk interviewing instructional designers, do you have specific questions that you tend to ask teachers? Do you ask anything like the questions above? What are you looking for when you ask those questions?
This morning I learned about two free online conferences, one focused on educational technology in K-12 schools, one more focused on corporate learning.
The first is the FETC Virtual Conference and Expo on October 22. I haven’t attended this conference before, but it looks interesting and the price is right. This is geared mostly for K-12 teachers and leaders.
The second is LearnTrends 2009, November 17-19, with the theme of “Convergence in Workplace Learning.” Join the Ning group and register on the conference event page. I attended the mini-conference in June live blogged my notes if you’re interested in seeing what types of conversations we had.