What does the future Instructional Designer need to know?

Feb 14, 2011

I received an inquiry from a student attending the Master's program for Instructional Design and Technology program at a local university.  The question posed to me as the title of this thread suggests.

I've got some of my own thoughts, but I'm curious what others think.


46 Replies
Zara Ogden

Nothing...or at least think that way...

My love of my role come from the fact that I know nothing about what I creating. I go into a project wanting to learn more and more. Even if a topic falls under my formal area of education i want to know more. I come from a background in finance and now am an ID for a trucking company...SO different but that is what makes it fun. I LOVE TO LEARN!

With respect to soft skill of an ID...

- don't fear change and embrace technology

- imagination and out of box thinking

- ask for help, advice and ideas

- share as much as you take

Hard skills

- current must super star PPT skills (who knows what the future holds)

- understanding of adult learning development

- knowledge of a publishing tool (helpful)

- know the Adobe package (this i need but would advise any newbie to get)

Steve Flowers
  • critical problem analysis and problem solving skills
  • ability to step back from a problem and reframe it multiple ways
  • ability to articulate that problem and validate each detail associated with the problem
  • ability to challenge assumptions (both your own assumptions as well as client assumptions that tend to jump to a solution)
  • ability to conceptualize in multiple forms (not talking about artistic ability)
  • ability to visualize models of performance (making connections between the physical manifestations and cognitive processes)
  • ability to think in multiple dimensions (behaviorist, cognitive constructivist, etc.) and not be locked into a specific pavlovian belief system based on a set of theories that you're able to regurgitate
  • ability to apply theory, not just recall it or "have it on your bookshelf"
  • lateral and deep thinking (maintaining connections to levels and relationships for validation purposes)
  • the ability to show your work and document your decision paths
  • group facilitation strengths (especially at a distance)
  • the ability to think on your feet. You will be constantly challenged with emerging details. Being quick to react to these details is critical to an efficient process
  • the ability to start ideation without first cracking open a tool on the computer
  • awesome listening skills
  • awesome feedback skills
  • ability to verbally form a sentence 
  • ability to ask the right questions
  • awesome ability to accept feedback
  • a hunger and passion for learning both professionally and personally
  • an intent focus on the ISD craft

Personally, I don't care if I never meet an ISD with technical skills (it's totally a bonus and I'd expect someone with the above would be able to figure those things out as required). I'd trade all the technical skills in the world for half the things I've listed above Tuned writing skills are nice but one can't be everything. I'd prefer a cognitive science Einstein mixed with a healthy dose of Gilbert and Rummler over someone that had none of those skills and the skills of a novelist. I expect good writers to write, not also be good ISD (People Engineers). I can hire an excellent journalist for almost half the cost of an ISD. I get the bonus of an ISD that is fully focused on solving problems - best bang for the buck.

Some of these are squishier than others.... That's my 5 minute exercise, off the cuff. That was fun Thanks, Kevin!

Steve Flowers

Upon reflection, I'd add these:

  • The ability to consider solutions other than training as all or part of the solution. Consider the human influence pie (skills and knowledge, motivation and incentives, tools and resources, environment factors)
  • An unhealthy love (lust) for job aids.
  • know what you don't know and be ok with that. ISD tends to instill an autodidact psychology as a condition of success,. This tends to bleed into "hey, I can learn anything so I can DO that" and pretty soon 80% of your time is spent in Photoshop and not focused on anything remotely ISD'ish. 
Kevin Thorn

"An unhealthy love for job aids." I like that one!

You hit a LOT of what I think we take for granted. Young students coming out of school with a Masters in ISD are chocked full of theory and some fundamental practical application, but real world scenarios encompass much of what you listed. In a nutshell, you could even group a large chunk of your list into basic Project Management (of which they don't teach in this particular degree at any length).

I think I need to disagree with you regarding an ISD not having ANY technical skills. With today's environment of development tools and the future direction of the web and mobile, I believe not only do future ID's need to hone their skills on ID for eLearning, but also mLearning, and the integration of social learning into courses.

Me? If I had my druthers, I'd take an IDT Masters student with an undergraduate in Graphics/Visual design. In the end its the presentation of the material and if looks like a 90's era website, you've lost cred. I've worked with some extremely talented ID's that had zero concept of presenting their content visually.

Thanks for playing!

Steve Flowers

Yeah. I suppose technical skills don't hurt. My point is that without the core skills the technical skills don't matter. Attempting to assign an inflated value to to everything removes the possibility of making anything a priority. To me, it doesn't matter if it's pretty if the design isn't solid and functional.

I divide "matters" into three categories:

  • Prime - those things that aren't negotiable
  • Major - those things that are really important but not failure indicators
  • Minor - those things that are nice to have but not at all critical to the outcome

Where an instructional product is considered I'd place visual representation in the major category. Unfortunately, many folks consider this to be a prime consideration and it edges out the core conceptualization and execution of the instructional design elements as equal priorities. I'd contend that a well designed product constructed of popsicle sticks and melted purple crayons will outperform a mediocre design with a shiny interface and neat draggy-droppy gimmicks.

And to some degree it goes beyond not mattering into dilution of craft by expecting too much periphery from the ISD. There are still some distinctions I'd like to draw between those that do three specific areas of problem solving (design):

  • Instructional (the mad learning scientist)
  • Technical (integration details, coding)
  • Representational (visuals / UX, writing -- not all the same person)

Expecting an all in one is a formula for mediocrity, in my opinion. When we expect our ISD / Tech grads to also be good at interface, visuals, technical assembly, etc... we are pushing something out of the top of the sock to get it to fit. We are also fitting a manpower equivalent into a much higher pay bracket. An ISD is payed around 20%+ more than a talented graphics artist and marginally more than a talented integrator / programmer. In most cases these "all in one's" operate at a fraction of the quality and efficiency of their lower paid counterparts. All the while losing inertia in the primary craft focus.

I really don't want ISD's to have to worry about being good at graphic design. Or at programming. I want them to be great (awesome) at ISD. If they can also be good at one of those others without overcharging for those outputs, more power

But really, as an expectation - it's bogus. Some, probably most, folks that complete these programs won't ever be able to perform as a "master of all trades". A minority of people that finish these programs will ever be good at most of the things that are expected of a graduate. It's simply a personnel selection problem. I think an early focus (and a focus period) will really help to sharpen things up and align with realistic expectations.

Now that's not to say that a someone focused in the technical or representational shouldn't have some understanding of the sister craft and vice-versa. I just think all-in-one is an unfair expectation and more expensive for the client in the long run, in most cases. 

There are fringe cases. Weirdoes like Kevin, Tom, and David that can all-in-one consistently. But these are rare. And I still wonder if these gonzo talents wouldn't be better served focusing on one particular area. Perhaps that one particular area is the big picture... At any rate, these are exceptions. And truly more "Producer" than focused ISD. 

I would like to see each of my teams have a focused ISD (working nitty gritty cog-sci details and validation), an interaction designer (UX full-on), a producer (the person that pulls the vision together), and an integrator / assembler (the person that makes it work). 

In my head I see the optimal program establishing a performance consultation prep path through undergraduate studies. This could also cover foundational instructional topics but largely focuses on behavioral engineering and holistic performance problem solving. Ideally this would be followed with a specialty path that projected into more focused cognitive science (intense ISD) OR into a related integration path (eL Producer). There are distinctions in the development path and the focus. Again, it's unfair to ask anyone to do everything beyond a mediocre level (which is what we end up with when we load down a plate with things that don't align with potential).

I think the entry talents and affinity potential aren't really held by every enrollee in an ISD program. Personnel selection matters if we are to expect consistent output. I think it's OK if an ISD has zero concept of presenting their content visually... That's why there's a focused multimedia and visual craft. I think it's OK for a graphic artist to know their craft and be able to execute in a way that's appreciated

Mediocre outputs are mediocre. Lack of focus breeds lack of focus

Steve Flowers

Kevin Thorn said:

"but real world scenarios encompass much of what you listed. In a nutshell, you could even group a large chunk of your list into basic Project Management (of which they don't teach in this particular degree at any length)."

I think these skills need to be explicitly instilled and measured. Exercises are great, but if it's not clear that each of these has prime importance, someone may end up spending 80% of their day dinking about in Powerpoint and totally miss the "point".

As meta-skills these are at the core of the role of ISD. They aren't necessarily project management skills in my estimation (maybe I need to review my list) they are project participation skills and requirements of a good advisor and consultant. I would consider every ISD to be consultant first. A specialist that is brought in because of a focused skillset. Not because they have the text books and are familiar with a body of theories.

Project management is important. But that's a peripheral craft that requires a focus all its own. Shouldering the ISD with this responsibility early in their career further derails focus. I do think it's important but contributes to a lack of focus and other unsightly side effects of ownership and control. Each firm I've worked at placed an ISD in the project control, project management, producer position. And in each of these projects when things spun out of control or lost the bubble on being a real solution, there were zero checks and balances. The instructional designer (also wearing the user experience design, project manager, and writer's hat) ran each project at varying degrees of vacuum. 

The production folks "gnomed away" at their assignments as they were thrown over the wall. My wife worked at four of these agencies as a multimedia designer (light emphasis on designer due to the issues listed above - multimedia robot is more like it:P). At each of these she also observed the same phenomenon. The last place she worked disincentivized task delegation to specialists. "Charge code vultures" ruled the operation. ISD's would do their own work regardless of how poorly it turned out or how much more time it would take them. Long story short, due to the lack of focus, customers went away. Customers went away and guess who was in the pink slip pile?  She's super talented and was thrown on the street due to a chain of bad tendencies. She's now moved onto something really cool (not high paid, but really cool) but she's really disappointed in our industry. That makes me a sad panda. This is one isolated part of the industry, but I think it could be endemic.

Back to my thoughts on undergraduate prep, I think the ISD field could benefit from consultants that harken from a shorter education cycle, get some experience, and return to extend that education with further specialization. As it stands the plateau is four years in and it's a walled garden at best. MS/MA is too late to start, in my opinion and it doesn't establish tiered labor expectations (a performance consultant should grow into a 70k+ / year job, not start there). This affects incentive for growth and field credibility.

I vote for more spacing, more field experience prior to track tuning with a graduate degree, and definitely more professional task focus within the field of ID (primarily focused on the science of learning and performance problem solving).

I'm heading back to school in the fall. I have until then to piss people off and warn them I'm coming I think things are really, really broken. I'd really like to be a part of applying the craft to address some of these problems.

Steve Flowers

It may seem like I'm anti-ISD. Or that I don't perform in the role of ISD regularly. Neither is true I am soooo pro ISD. I think it's critical to the success of a change endeavor that an ISD is heavily involved.

For the record, I'm a creative / technical guy at the core that has taken an intense interest in ISD. I've done plenty of ISD over the years, going back to 1996 or so. Some of it was really, really terrible (measured by my memory induced gag reflex). Some of it was really, really great (measured in awards and success statistics).

I started off as a military electronics technician. Problem solving focus was at the core of everything we did. Systems diagnosis of complex systems and circuits that led into integrated computer systems. Integrated computer systems led to an unhealthy interest in games (actually a childhood paper route that earned paper money that was easily changed into quarters to spend at the local bowling alley led to an unhealthy interest in games). Living in the SF Bay area charged this computer obsession into a hobby play testing games for the local game developers (Broderbund/Red Orb and a few others). This was truly an unhealthy obsession, but it fed my next hobby. Developing multimedia applications with Flash. Which led to developing software simulations in Flash. Which led to developing Web applications. Each thing led onto something else. 

Coincidentally I picked up an instructors assignment at the CG Training Center in Petaluma. This chained into an instructional solution re-engineering effort (out of boredom) that chained into the involvement in some early TBT / CBT products. This chained into some contract work on the side working for a former boss. Which chained into getting a government job working for another former associate. Which chained into me leaving to work for a contracting firm and then another independent firm (which was an exception to all the stuff I've indicated above). Which chained into me returning to government... Everybody has a story. That's mine at cloud level

I still have that unhealthy game obsession (World of Warcraft players may pick up on subtle hints of my "cultural study" of the game world) but my ISD focus has gotten narrower as I've observed unhealthy side-effects of a lack of focus.

I advocate for starting off with one focused element and moving onto another. So I can't disagree with Kevin's druthers above But I think it's key to focus on one thing at a time. I know my pathway has suffered every time my eyes have gotten larger than my stomach. I see this same effect on others that are loaded down with unrealistic expectations and I feel for them. At least mine was self-inflicted Now the balance of expectations has shifted so far that the field is in an extremely unhealthy state.

I get that many folks don't have a choice. That's a symptom of the problem. This is something I'm really passionate about (you think?) - thanks for opening the question.

Holly Eva

@Steve: Thanks for the list, after looking at that it pretty much reaffirmed that I'm in the right industry! LOL

To Kevin's point, I agree, if you have no way of communicating how a design should look (visually, verbally, or otherwise) then you're probably not getting very far in this environment where people demand presentations of how things should work. I also believe that I feel somewhat insecure about my technical skills, but that maybe because I've been working in an unfamiliar environment with an LMS that seems relatively limited (compared to what I'm used to, which was all open source or Blackboard) along with learning Captivate 3 because it's what my company has for tools (possibly not for much longer though).

Anyhow, I had misread this thread initially, and thought it was talking about the technical pieces that ISD's need to know when they come out into the world. To that end, I must add that they should at least be familiar with some form of each of the big 3 OS: Linux, Windows, and OSX. They should have some understanding of which tools will work in what environments and be able to figure out how to make things work when they don't go exactly as planned.

Kevin Thorn

Focusing on your third paragraph above (when you quoted me), this is exactly the real world.

Steve Flowers said:

 Project management is important. But that's a peripheral craft that requires a focus all its own. Shouldering the ISD with this responsibility early in their career further derails focus.

This is exactly what's going on in the real world. A peripheral craft yes, but a skill that I believe needs to be addressed at the academic level in the context of eLearning design & development. Our own company re-titled "Instructional Designers" to "Training Project Managers." Each role is responsible for the entire project from cradle to grave. Meaning, from initial scope and needs analysis to successfully publishing to the LMS...and all things in between.

 Some programs are doing great things by re-evaluating their curriculum based on the movement of the market. I applaud them. The University of Memphis (local) IDT Masters program has students form project teams and throughout the term they are partnered with real companies in and around the city of Memphis. The current partnerships involve about a dozen companies (including ours) that submit real projects we need done, but are not necessarily on the priority list. The student teams bid on those projects and those that get chosen become real projects for their term, and real projects we can publish. 

I've been involved the last three years and it's the same two issues: 1) Lack of PM skills, and 2) Lack of visual design/graphic skills. Some have technical backgrounds and do minor coding, but tools like Articulate and such are foreign to them.

Before going back to the original question, let's put this in a broader perspective. For the 10+ years I've been involved with this industry, it still hasn't been clearly defined what exactly is an ID in relation to eLearning. As we go forward, does that now include mLearning or will that be an entirely new discipline? We have already learned that simply copy/paste a participant's workbook doesn't make it eLearning, and not learning that lesson, we're just now beginning to understand simply taking existing eLearning and converting it to a mobile device doesn't make it mLearning.

Back to the original question, I firmly believe the ID of the future (along with theories of learning) will need more than just the average media skills. More and more we hear about companies like Holly's where the teams are getting smaller with less resources and limited tools. I get that and understand the environment will always dictate, but those who are passionate about this industry will evolve with changing technologies and methods.

Finally, Holly makes a good point. Knowing the various platforms can only be a plus. That doesn't mean be a super whiz kid troubleshooter, but understand and know how the various web browsers behave on the different O/S platforms as well as how your LMS interacts (given that the LMS as we know it today will still be around a decade from now). We have two environments: 1) Firefox on Linux, and 2) IE8 and Firefox on Windows. The exact same eLearning looks different across those two and in some cases behaves differently. 

Good discussion. I feel like we need to be sitting around a pool with beer and chips.

James Brown

I'll be direct and to the point.  IMHO Students who wish to be ID should have started taking graphic design, flash animation, and web design, art, photography  and into to computer programming courses in high school. During their undergraduate years they should take more advanced graphic design, photography, art, and more advanced web design / security, and networking courses. They should also take some course in learning theories and multi-media applications along with their ID courses in the junior and senior years. After 5 years in the workplace, students should then enroll in a Masters of ID program to further develop their skills and get a better understanding of learning theories. Why the wait. To get you accustomed to the work place enviornment. There are a lot of profs in college who's only work experience has been in the academic enviornment and these instructors do not command the same respect of instructors who have been in the trenches.  I also believe that ID students need to take networking and web security classes simply because eventually everything is going to be published to the web and when you are coding web pages you need to be aware of potential pitfalls.  Probably one of the best things a ID student could do is intern as a software support tech. The reason I would suggest this is to give them insight to the real world of troubleshooting software and it will be a good measure to see if they can think on their feet or if they cannot and maybe it will answer the question, "Do I really have what it takes, or should I be doing something else."

James Brown

I wanted to say that I find troubleshooting skills and making the best with what you have are also two very important skills. New ID's also need to learn that when they are stumped, to take some time off and go do something else. Some of my best inspirations have developed after walking away and coming back to a project at a later time.

Steve Flowers

Dunno. I still contend that only a rare soul will be able to successfully, professionally, and efficiently carry all the water that we seem to want them to.

- ISD (Cognitive science, performance consulting, real work problem solving and interpretation)

- Graphic design (Visual judgment, tools, visual components of Web development, etc..)

- Technical skills (Web development, coding, integration)

- Project management skills

The more we add the least likely we make it that we'll identify someone that is able to fulfill each of these roles with professional services. When I talk professional services I mean top quality professional outputs. I go back to my original argument, it's more expensive to produce at lower quality with an all-in-one. Much more expensive. A semi-qualified / semi-skilled hybrid will appear cheaper than a focused pure until we calculate what we've lost and base our math around task focus. When extrapolated, these costs can be extreme when compared to comparative quality / cost from a specialist.

It's also unreasonable and a waste of the core of what I see as the role of an instructional designer (emphasis on instructional and designer). This is a faulty expectation on the part of businesses that want to shrink their TD departments. What they'll find is those departments may eventually shrink themselves into non-existence (save the efforts of some rare talents and heroic individuals - emphasis on rare).

I could be wrong. But I have an expectation that professional services will be worth the value I'm paying for them. That means a specialist in their field. I don't consider a wide field dabbling to be a specialization. I'm speaking as a government customer with awareness of the rates we're paying for this labor. Just seems really outa whack to me. The math isn't working for me at this point.

All this while we have so much trouble getting ISD's to show their work. To explain how and why they made the decisions they made in content, structure, and activity selection. Me putting 2 & 2 together leads me to believe that a disproportional focus on peripheral crafts dilutes (what I see as) the central craft. ISD is so important to the success of a solution. I don't want it to be neglected. As a customer I REALLY don't want any of my professional services to take a hit when I'm paying full price for those services. And when an ISD is working to assemble production graphics they aren't doing ISD related work. 

Maybe what we're talking about is a developer, producer, or process manager. I think of ID in more pure terms and I expect some level of fidelity in the evaluation of delivery increments. I simply can't see a commitment to this fidelity, nor the ability to fully develop in the learning science field with the distractions of these peripheral expectations. If we're talking about a developer / producer. That's different. Someone else is doing the intensive design and validation work. I'm OK with that. There's a role for developer / producer. But this role is no substitute for ISD.

We run into some of the same things internally. I'd prefer a stronger focus on pre-design analysis and validation. If I were running a corporate outfit I'd be more apt to hire 3 ISDs on a 5 person development team and outsource specialized production services as I would to hire 5 ISD's and expect (unreasonably) that they would be capable of fulfilling all roles. This is the unreasonable expectation I'm referring to.

At an entry level, straight out of school, I would have zero expectations of an ISD to be a project manager. Should they be familiar with approaches, processes, and standard practices for documenting, tracking, and assessing milestone deliverables? Yep. Absolutely. I just don't think it's fair or efficient to that person or others on the team to drop someone into that position if they aren't intimately familiar with the successful execution of those approaches, processes, practices, and rubrics for assessment. And if they are running projects, they are doing more PM and less ISD. Just as if they are doing graphic design they are doing less ISD. etc., etc., etc...

Maybe a credentialed track for "hybrid skilled instructional media producer" would ease my discomfort with this peripheral distraction from the core of the craft. But that would have to come with professional standards and I would worry about existing hybrids in the field meeting those standards / expectations. Even so I would still expect to see a focused ISD track that didn't split with the technical implementation and creative side-crafts.

I wish I could make this compute (for me) but it's not jiving with me. I can be swayed. These views are based on my observations and occasional disappointments in process and practice. It's happened often enough that I can't blame the individuals at the core of this disappointment. I have to blame the system.

Kevin Thorn

Lively discussion and one I am pleasantly pleased to see get some much attention.

All of our views are coming from different aspects of the industry. That in itself is part of the problem. Corporate workforce operates much differently than the government sectors, health care industry, and/or education. Perhaps, what our illustrious academic ISD programs should be tailored to a specialty? Someone who chooses to be a doctor at some point during their journey must choose a discipline: Podiatry, Oncology, Pediatrics, Orthopedics, etc.

To your point Steven, there are very few (if any) people who will acquire all the skills outlined at the beginning of your previous post. Each of those in itself are career fields. I agree that to expect an ISD with a fresh master's degree to know all of that let alone how to apply those skills in real projects.

Let's reflect for a moment and I'll come back to that...

A decade ago, the industry as we know it today was not even a blip on the horizon. There has been CBT type training much longer than that, but it was to costly and unapproachable for main stream eLearning like it is today. I chose a degree in IT as I had no idea this would evolve to where it is today. That said, a decade from now will produce new careers in new industries with a demand on new skills we don't even know of yet. I would argue if one has been involved in online training for more than a decade are somewhat the pioneers. Those of us who have the passion and really "care" about good instruction should be reasonably responsible for the direction and its future.

Going back farther, there was no way I could sit in my H.S. counselors office and plan a educational path to a well-rounded multi-disciplined ISD. i.e. "First I'll get a double major in Graphics/Visual design and Computer Programming, then I'll get a Masters in IDT while I learn every software tool on the side and intern in various industries to get PM experience." In a sense, that's what we're asking them to be.

Back to your point. Adjusting your team by weighing costs on who to hire vs. who to outsource is valid. But that strategy doesn't always work in some environments. It's all some smaller companies can do to have one or two in the training department, and only afford one development tool. Most of the time, those who are in these teams come from different backgrounds and were "appointed" the training position to 'make' eLearning. How can we help "those" teams? (which is safe to say probably the majority).

@James - I'm a visual guy and coding geek first, and I agree with suggesting those disciplines early on in H.S. But that brings me back to my early argument in that how many 18 yr old kids see the 'eLearning industry' as a career choice? Not to mention the school systems today in the U.S. can barely hold on to basic Art and Music let alone Graphics/Visual design and Web programming classes. However, I think you're on to something....

There are a few eLearning 'certificates' available today, but nothing at the level of accredited C.E.U.'s. Today, you can have any undergraduate degree and apply for a Masters in IDT. That may be part of the problem. What if budding ID's were required to take pre-requisite courses (certificates) in various disciplines prior to getting accepted to a masters program, like the outline in Steve's post? And a portfolio of various projects submitted for review for acceptance? The certificates themselves would be just as valuable as stand-alone, but it would drive the value (and the recognition) by the time the actual ID degree is attained. At least when I review a resume I would know this person has extensive training, practical application, and a full understanding of adult learning theories. Today, the degree is academic at best.

Now that I read back, I'd be hard pressed to get into a program like that as I would have a lot of work to do get accepted But each of us with our educational backgrounds, experience in the industry, practical application of real projects, and probably more personal time than either of us want to admit in perfecting our craft, all sum up to just that...I want another 'me' working for me.

I don't know what the next 2-3 years look like let alone the next 10, but I know if I rest on my laurels I won't be able to help the next generation. Maybe I'll start the "NuggetHead Institution of Instructional Design." ;)

Steve Flowers


I'll agree I think the problem is cored around the lack of stratification. Without role stratification we can't have consistent measurement or expectations.

Without consistent measurement or expectations, credentials have diminished value. A degree needs to really mean something to skills and capabilities. The investment in time and $$ is significant. In some cases I'm not seeing this connection.

I think introducing some of the core elements earlier on in the process and potentially also introducing these courses as a core for other programs (business, HR) may help to quell some of the field level misalignment in expectations. Imagine if every business major in an undergrad program had strong exposure to Gilbert's BEM and other really great models for performance problem identification. Would we see the same blind feedbag push for online courses as the solution to every problem? This could make it easier for our performance consultants to be performance consultants vice management driven robots.

There's room for tuning. But I really think a spaced program with strong general foundations that start early will have a positive impact. I would bet that more than 10% of ISD graduates find that this field isn't what they expected, or that it doesn't align with their natural talents or interests. What if we could provide a better ramp into those programs? Ramps that opened up the possibility of summer internships. Ramps that encouraged career exploration before a plateaued commitment. And ramps that provided a core set of real skills that can grow in a specific and focused direction.

Cool changes in my view. I'm starting school again in the fall. My goal is to influence the field preparation paths a little bit. I'm tired of complaining about it. Time to do something

People ask me where I went to school... I want to respond in a way other than STFU (Steve T. Flowers University) :P

Sandra Supal-Morea


Just as an FYI, people like myself who actually have anaccredited Graphic Design Degree from a reputable college take your commentabout making things “Pretty” as a slap in the face to sheer amount of effortthat goes into our “technical expertise”. With a Master’s Degree in Education,specifically Instructional Technology on top of my Graphic Design degree, I canhonestly say that it’s about the whole message design – the combination ofimagery and a clear and to the point and succinct written message aimedsquarely at the audience.

Graphic Design isn’t just about making things pretty, it’sabout understanding how people look at and use tools to do their jobs, verysimilar to human factors. Communications theories such as Cognitive Load,Multimedia theories, etc. fall into the realm of understanding people.

When you have come full circle as I have, having done theappropriate leg work in evolving the “craft” of good design, be it instructional or graphic, you tend to lookat others with other diversified backgrounds as “successes” in their own right. I think the key is that you can’t beeverything to everyone, but you can continue to always keep learning while yougive people the benefit of the doubt that they certainly must have worked hardto complete those degrees that you know nothing about.

Steve Flowers

I'll agree with you, Sandra. It is about the whole package. That was my whole point. As priorities go, it doesn't matter how polished things are it is if the core design is faulty, or if the design decision making that goes into those elements isn't defensible against a problem set. That was my point My point was that the visual problem solver is going too know these things. They are going to be thinking in terms of problems and how to solve them. It is hard work and worthy of a focused discipline. My point was that we are asking too much of too many people in a core discipline that has little focus on ISD and ignoring the problem solving prowess of those that have a disciplinary focus.  That focus *could* help to improve field credibility and perception of outputs. Many of the places I've been things are broken. It's primarily about alignment of expectations.

To reiterate, I wouldn't take it as a slap in the face. I'm a graphics / multimedia guy at the core. I really appreciate the talents of a multimedia specialist (I've been one and still perform those tasks, my wife is one). I hope you would agree that if a core solution design isn't good no amount of polish can salvage the solution... That is my point about the popsicle sticks and purple crayons. A good ISD will make whatever resources they have dance well. A good ISD will use whatever resources they have to get the job done. While polish helps, a good solution *might* be just fine without it. For instances requiring additional communication oomph or problem solving, bring in a specialist. For instances requiring additional technical problem solving, bring in a specialist.

I've seen too many situations where this specific discipline's expertise isn't leveraged to solve problems other than those created or identified by the someone else in the process. An ISD with a PPT book and a course or two in Photoshop, or even a side focus course in tools and technology may not have the level of problem solving focus of someone that has taken the time to develop along a focused path. This isn't always true, but in my experience, it is usually true.

I've also been at this long enough to understand that the visual polish isn't everything (while it can really add serious credibility). Design is problem solving. Communication design is problem solving. It's not something to be taken as a collateral duty. Without focus on specific problems, solutions suffer. If the point wasn't clear above, I want a visuals / interactions specialist (one with the talents and education background) to focus on those elements. Not someone who has 90% of their talent focus in ISD and has taken a class in Photoshop. It's too much to ask of one person in most cases. I'd love to see more disciplinary focus on all elements of a solution. The core of the solution, driven from a known problem, and addressed as a performance solution makes the ISD super critical as the root problem solver. Ideally this root problem solver would present well defined problems and challenges for the specialists on their team to solve.

A good visual problem solver (graphic arts / multimedia / UX) should command respect for their focus and capability on a team, not take over the wall instructions from an ISD that doesn't fully understand those nuances. It takes all kinds. Expecting all in one isn't fair to anyone. And having one single discipline rule the outputs of other problem solving disciplines isn't fair or efficient. That's all

When I see lists of things ISD's need to know that include tools and peripheral process fluency it bugs me. We tend to take the core things for granted. Those things I listed above.

Despite indications otherwise I do have plenty of college credit under my belt, just haven't taken the time to polish off the degree I wouldn't say I know nothing about it. But I don't care too much either about those who might look down their noses my way, since they generally change their tune once we get to work together. Time served and tuition payed is an excellent start. But it's just a start.

I've also been careful not to judge those without the degree, or the classes for that matter, if they have the ability to consistently solve the problems set before them with excellence. I've encountered quite a few craftsmen (both in ISD and Communications disciplines) without a degree that can pull it together far better than some of those who have. That degree is only as valuable as what you do with it. Education will certainly enrich, accelerate, and unlock affinities. But education can't fix skill mismatch and is no guarantee of professional capability. There's more to it than that, right?

Kevin Thorn

Okay, as I read the tone of this conversation I'll segue back the concerns of what the future ISD needs to know. Most of the debate thus far has focused on all the gaps and lack of certain focused disciplines that we can all stay up late into the night telling stories.

Sandra (Hi, and welcome!) makes a very valid point: It's about the whole message design. Having the right balance and combination of both visual communication (graphics using the CARP method) and communication theories is the very "balance" most ISD's are challenged with mastering. I know I haven't.

And Steve, problem solving is what we do. The core. ISD is really about addressing a problem and solving it with instruction...most often it is eLearning. I would also like to highlight your comment that a "degree is only as valuable as what you do with it." But I would as that you consider the bigger problem in the majority of our industry...many people in our industry either 1) don't have Masters in ISD, 2) their undergrad degree is in a discipline other than instructional design, 3) no degree at all and are in this industry out of career choice circumstances, or 4) Can not afford or are not interested in furthering their education. The latter being from an earlier post about the perception of the value of an ISD degree today.

Let's try a different approach. Degrees aside whether one has an ISD degree or not, or whether they're in this industry today or not, what do we need to "add" to be prepared for the future?

Learning happens all the time as Tom pointed out yesterday in his blog. Also, in its simplest form, he breaks down good ID into three core components:

  • Understand how people learn
  • Construct learning activities based on how people learn
  • Measure the effectiveness of the learning activities

Each of these can be pointed back to various comments in this conversation. For 'understanding how people learn', Sandra pointed out cognitive load in communication theories. We didn't really touch on measuring effectiveness in this conversation as most of this has centered around 'construct learning activities...'

"Construct" being the operative word.

Do we need to learn new design models for the emerging learning trends - mobile, digital social, etc.? ("digital social" as opposed to just "social" because we have always socially learned. Same for informal learning - I suspect the brave soul informally learned when he/she discovered fire. Albeit, those two can be applied here when technology is associated to learning). Or do we continue to simply perfect the craft as we know it today, and those who survive will evolve as time progresses?

Is it an argument that the future ISD must be more proficient in current disciplines like graphics design? Visual communication? Problem solving theories for adult learning?

I understand and can appreciate your experience, Steve. Mostly because you do the math on whether to bring on another warm body or outsource to a specialist with specific core skills. That works for you in your environment, but I will have to decline boarding that boat. In my experience and the circle of conversations I have, the majority of the workforce teams don't have either of those luxuries - hire more bodies and/or outsource. What they have is what they have.

How do we prepare "those" teams to be ready for the future?

Wayne Vermillion

Interesting and well-considered viewpoints. I particularly agree with the grounding in visual communications/graphics artistry, in which I've had little formal training (albeit at the graduate level), sometimes to the detriment of compelling presentations when I'm working as a one-man shop.

My contention about ID preparation is that new ID's too frequently don't understand basic business, which then adds learning time for a particular technology or business. In turn, that militates against the saleable concept of technology- or industry-agnostic instructional designer. Finally, that hurts ME in selling my services across industry or technology lines. I've believed throughout my career that a good training professional should be able to grasp and analyze quickly, then implement masterfully, nearly any sort of knowledge. The exceptions should be credential-intensive, field-specific, or highly researched bodies of knowledge, such as (respectively) health care, the military, or advanced physics.

My solution is to require ID program courses, at least at the overview level, in economics, accounting, marketing, and industrial engineering; and perhaps an optional subset for softer skills such as organizational development. Even after they survived the employment interview with a bare minimum of research about the prospective employer, I've seen - and replaced, in two cases - IDs who simply didn't understand the business of the business, couldn't balance competing/overlapping influences from marketing, engineering, sales, finance, etc.

If more IDs were more well-grounded in business basics, then more IDs could approximate my idealized, perfect ID: in the project kick-off meeting, the ID doesn't have to be the best educated, nor the most experienced, nor the most skills-adept person in the room, but should be the most professionally and intellectually agile.

Steve Flowers

Wayne's idea resonates with me. I do think this is a gap. A comprehensive understanding of business methods and operation skills in a business environment can lift some pretty heavy barriers. I think many undergrad programs (mine did) require several business courses. But these weren't tuned around the business environment we often encounter as consultants and project leads / participants.

By the same token, I also think that business, economics, marketing folks could use some basic exposure to our field as well. To folks outside, everything is a training problem. By our statistics and those of many others, only 20% of the problems we identify as training problems actually end up being solvable with training. In addition to slight tuning of the ID path, I think this might be the biggest win. ISD's end up fighting a losing battle even if they know it's the wrong path (and in the end it's often not in the best interest as an independant ISD to push a consultation angle.) If business folks understood more of the holistic human performance elements, I think everyone would be better off. Maybe a hill too steep. But behavior engineering has been around since the 60's. It's not a new thing. It's about time we share the wealth.

I'd feel much better about the credentialling pathways if they were specifically tuned to roles vice leading to the same graduate label. It's really hard to measure and standardize if all programs offer a different focus yet end up with an equivalent credential / label / role description.

This disparity in the lexicon is what Kevin is hinting at. What I need in my part of the industry isn't necessarily what Kevin needs at his level. Totally get that. I think a contributor to success of education tracks will be a tuning to expectations. Some businesses do have different needs. Would this require some kind of comprehensive industry analysis? And who would do that analysis?

I still believe that the core of an ISD program needs to focus on the ISD skills (problem identification, solution ideation, learning science, evaluation of increments). Maybe it's like a 60 / 30 / 10 for ISD: Digital Training Solutions Producer (60% ISD focus, 30% production skills, 10% project management / practicum)? An ISD: Program Manager might be 60 / 40 PM... An ISD: Media Producer might be 60 / 40 production skills... An ISD: Technical Engineering might be 60 / 40 tech infrastructure and programming... I think you can see where I'm going with this. I don't think you can compromise with an all in one and expect good results. There's only so much time in the classroom and that doesn't even account for affinities and interests (some folks are not going to have as much interest in one field focus as another, would really be nice to receive an education tailored to interests and needs).

I would add some kind of skill gap and skill affinity assessment. Everyone may have the same potential to gain skill proficiency, but to some that gap will be VERY wide. A talent for visual arts will certainly accelerate this trajectory. As will a talent for systematic problem solving for a focused ISD. Better personnel selection for these programs may help prevent the 6 year student that graduates from a program focus, has 5 years experience and is still terrible at their core responsibilities (creative or technical). This isn't uncommon in my experience, hence my lack of confidence in current programs.

The outcome could be some kind of marker or indicator that this person focused in a specific area...  (implying a leaning towards digital solutions but a core that supports practically any type of performance solution output)

- Solutions Producer (broad focus - though potentially not as strong in other specialties)

- Media Designer (media specialty)

- Integration Engineer (tech specialty)

- Project Manager (project management specialty)

I would also look at offering some of the courses previously at the graduate level for an undergraduate major. I'm thinking part of the problem is that folks are entering the arena of passion too far down the road. Some professional exposure and evaluation of performance solutioneering and training development aren't too complex for lower level coursework. This would enable a projected path to continue that education and build on experience obtained in association with that undergraduate work. AND would open up some additional focus study spots at the graduate level for more intense focus of an identified sub specialty. That sub specialty could develop into a sharper post-graduate focus and academic progression becomes a more connected curve that begins at a very early age.

This could have the side benefit of encouraging "uncredentialed capables" to chase the path of education. Seems like a win all around to me. The lack of consistency in preparation paths degrades the reliability of those prep paths in my opinion. Skills will always vary, but we can do a better job helping people figure out where their specialization affinities lie. I think to make the greatest optimizations to our field we'll need to do a better job at helping people down this path.

Wayne Vermillion

Here's a certification grid with different title options and curriculum structure from Langevin, who boast they're the largest TTT certificate organization in the world. In the distant past, before ASTD and ISPI created their own cert programs, and even before the CompTIA+ trainer certification, Langevin ruled the training certification world. Now I perceive they're riding their rep, faded though it is, because their five-day, ILT-based, ID cert program costs $3700+. Still, the grid provides some flesh for Steve's occupational title skeleton.

Will Findlay

My wise Instructional Tech Professor from years back, Andy S. Gibbons, would answer this question something like this:

In the future, instructional designers will need to become more skilled at carefully selecting and sequencing relevant problems.

By presenting good problems for a learner to solve, in an order that logically builds on what was learned before, you help them create their own accurate mental models. Too often the only  "problem" we give people to solve is just to listen or read a bunch of prose. We need to find ways to get people guessing, comparing, contrasting, formulating, strategizing, challenging, and rehearsing while they are learning from the very beginning of the learning experience.

Relevant reading:

Model-Centered Instruction (Wikipedia)

Model-Centered Instruction (Google)

Think about a good video game for example. Does it drone on for 30 minutes at the beginning about how to play? Nope. (Or if it has that option, most people just skip it) A good game usually does have a tutorial, but during the tutorial you are actually playing the game. It "scaffolds" the tutorial levels by offering tips as you go, and by sometimes only focusing on one skill area. It is giving you problems to solve from the get-go.

Steve Flowers

Thanks for the article reference, Reuben. That's exactly what I've experienced. I can totally dig an ISD having a hunger to expand their familiarity with all of the input, output, and parallel processes. This curiousity is an excellent quality for an ISD to posess. The quote from your article that brings it all together:

"Learning about Web technology from a "programmer’s" perspective is certainly something I would encourage. Asking the instructional designer to do the programming is something else. Crossing the line obscures the value of instructional design, and examples of this can be seen in the literature, and in conference topics throughout the learning industry."

I would add: What we know about attention and expertise would lead me to another logical conclusion --Dilution of attention prevents the optimal execution and, ultimately, the development of the primary skillset and task focus.

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