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The e-learning industry is exploding. It was already growing steadily for years when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, accelerating that growth even further. With more and more people working remotely, it makes sense that organizations need to replace much of their in-person training with e-learning. And since remote work is here to stay, this trend won’t be letting up anytime soon. 

Judging by my overflowing inbox, this has a lot of people rethinking their career paths and asking themselves, Should I become an instructional designer?

Changing careers can be scary. So before you take the leap, you probably have a few questions. In this article, I’ll answer the questions I get asked the most about becoming an instructional designer (ID).

1. What do IDs do?

IDs take content and make it easy for learners to absorb. Depending on the organization and role, this could involve creating e-learning courses, in-person courses, or a mix of both.

So what does that involve, exactly? It varies from one organization to the next. Most of my experience as an instructional designer was in a boutique e-learning firm, so that’s my frame of reference. Here’s a list of my main tasks:

  • Review client content (mainly PowerPoint presentations) and determine what to include based on the learning objectives. 
  • Design storyboards.
  • Develop courses in authoring apps like Storyline 360 and Rise 360. This includes building interactions, writing voiceover scripts, working with multimedia assets, and much more. 
  • Create other training resources like videos, job aids, and handouts.
  • QA test courses to ensure everything works properly and there are no mistakes.
  • Revise courses based on stakeholder feedback.

To get an inside look at a typical day for an ID, check out this article: A Day in the Life of an Instructional Designer

2. What skills do IDs need to have?

One of the things I love about being an ID is the sheer variety of work. However, this means you need a wide range of skills to really excel in the role. Here’s a peek at some of the things IDs need to be able to do:

  • Organize content in a logical way. 
  • Break down complex concepts so they’re easy to understand. 
  • Use the adult learning theory and other ID theories (like Kirkpatrick’s 4 Levels of Evaluation) to turn source content into an engaging and effective learning experience.
  • Collaborate with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and other stakeholders.
  • Write in a way that’s clear and compelling.
  • Create relevant and engaging interactions.
  • Design beautiful slide or page layouts.
  • Use authoring apps to build courses.
  • Manage project timelines.

And that’s just the beginning! Check out these articles to learn more:

3. What tools do IDs need to know how to use?

E-learning and technology go hand in hand. Back in the day, IDs could get away with not being tech-savvy because they could focus on the content and then pass it along to an e-learning developer. But today that’s no longer the case. Authoring apps are so easy to use that most of the time IDs handle everything—from design to development. So as you can imagine, it’s important for IDs to be good with technology.

At a minimum, you’ll need to know how to use:

While not always required, it can be helpful to know how to use:

  • Learning Management Systems (LMSs) to share your courses with learners and track their progress.
  • FTP clients to share courses via a web server when no tracking is needed.
  • Image editing apps for customizing images if needed. For example: Photoshop or Gimp.
  • Audio editing apps to clean up audio files if needed. For example: Audition or Audacity.
  • Video editing apps to splice videos if needed. For example, Adobe Premiere.

Remember: Technology is constantly changing. The apps we rely on today aren’t necessarily the ones we’ll use tomorrow. For this reason, it’s important to be willing and able to learn how to use new apps as they come along. 

4. What’s the typical salary range for an instructional designer?

Just like for any type of job, the salary range for an instructional designer varies widely depending on where you live and how long you’ve been in the industry. As of 2021, IDs based in the US typically make between $68,000 and $86,000, while in France they usually only make between 33,000€ (~$38,000) and 52,000€ (~$61,000). To see what the average ID makes in your area, do a quick search on sites like salary.com or Glassdoor. You can also check out the latest salary report from the Learning Guild.

5. Do you need formal training to become an ID?

In theory, absolutely not! There are so many great resources here in the community as well as elsewhere online. It’s entirely possible to learn what you need to know to design effective e-learning courses without doing formal training.

In practice, however, most employers require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum—even if it’s not specifically related to training or education. Some employers won’t hire you unless you have a master’s degree or graduate certificate in instructional design. However, others are satisfied with an impressive portfolio and don’t care about your degrees or lack thereof.

If you’re totally new to training and education, enrolling in a master’s program is a great way to gain the knowledge and skills you’ll need to be an effective ID.

If you have a background in training or education but have never done e-learning, you might not need to complete a full-on master’s program. Instead, you might consider a certificate program to round out your knowledge and skills.

If you don’t have a degree and don’t plan on pursuing one but want to become an instructional designer, focus on building your portfolio and getting to know other e-learning pros. We’ll talk more about how and where to do that later on in this article.

For more insight into whether you should pursue formal education, check out this helpful report from the Learning Guild.

6. How do you find the right ID degree or certificate program?

When it comes to selecting an ID degree or certificate program it comes down to what program is the best fit for you. Here are some things to consider as you narrow your options:

  • Identify your requirements. Search for jobs that interest you and see what kinds of training and skills they’re looking for. From there, think about your prior experience and knowledge. Together, these two criteria can help you identify your skill gap and choose a program that’ll help you fill it. 

For example, if you’re pretty tech-savvy you might want a program that focuses more on instructional design concepts and less on technology. Whereas if you already know how to teach but don’t know as much about designing and developing online learning, you might want a program that’s heavier on tech. 

It’s also important to consider how much time and money you’d like to invest in this venture. In sum, before you start looking, be sure you know what you’re looking for.

  • Look at the curriculum. See how it compares to your requirements. Ensure it includes some practical exercises in addition to theoretical concepts. 
  • Look into the professors. If the program is through a university, find out what other students think about the professors on sites like ratemyprofessors.com. You can also google the professors to see their backgrounds and take a peek at their publications. This can give you a better idea of whether they’ll be the right fit for you. For example, if you’re looking to get into the corporate world, it might make more sense to find a program with professors who have experience and connections in that sector. 
  • Ask around. Talking to people who have already completed the programs you’re considering will give you a better sense of what they’re like. And speaking with hiring managers might help you identify programs that have a good reputation.

Want to hear from people who have done a master’s or graduate certificate in instructional design? Check out this discussion

7. What advice would you give to someone just starting out as an ID?

  • Be curious. Seek out resources online that will help you learn more about instructional design. There’s tons of information out there! This is a good place to start: Practical Instructional Design Tips.
  • Get to know other IDs. Start a discussion in the Building Better Courses Forum, attend industry events, participate in Articulate user groups, or join other professional groups (like ATD if you’re in the US) when it’s safe to do so. Talking to other e-learning pros will help you grow your skills more quickly.
  • Test out authoring apps. Most authoring apps—like Articulate 360—offer a free trial. Take advantage of that opportunity to teach yourself how to use the different apps. And while you’re at it, make some samples to include in your portfolio. Not sure what to make? Check out the weekly E-Learning Challenges for inspiration. 

8. What’s the key to succeeding as a freelance ID?

There’s no easy answer to this question, so instead I’ll point you to this series of articles where you’ll find a wealth of advice: Tips on Succeeding as a Freelance E-Learning Developer.

9. What’s a typical career path for an ID?

Once again, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Your career path as an ID will depend a lot on the type of organization you work for, your skills, and your ambitions. 

For example, if you work in a consulting firm, you might start out as an ID and then eventually work your way up to a project manager role. Or maybe you’ll start out as an ID in the training department of a large multinational organization and then decide to venture out on your own. Or maybe you love being an ID, but you’d like to switch industries for a change of subject matter.

When you’re an ID, there are many different career paths you can follow. It’s up to you to decide what works best for you!

10. What do you think the future of e-learning holds?

Technology is a huge part of our everyday lives. And it’s only going further in that direction as time goes on. So it only makes sense that the same trend applies to learning. 

As technology evolves, the way we create e-learning and the course format will certainly change. But e-learning isn’t going anywhere!

More Resources

Hopefully this article answers most of the burning questions on your mind around becoming an instructional designer. But if there are any questions I haven’t answered, please pop them in the comments section below!

And if you’re looking for more information on e-learning careers, check out these super-helpful resources: 

Have more questions? Reach out by leaving a comment below. And remember to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

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Patrice Lynn