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
Chantelle N

So, I'm a young gun with some ISD experience, currently working full time in an ISD role and in a master's program for HRD. I'm looking for a job where I can put those more abstract problem solving skills mentioned so much throughout this thread to use while being creative and really immersing myself in learning the technology. Since I currently work a large corporation, this would be more easily achieved (and more appreciated, to be honest with you) in more of a consulting company.

Since we don't yet have the "looking for work" areas set up...just thought I'd let everyone know

Wayne Vermillion

Chantelle, that's a perceptive and educational view. The good news is that you're enjoying simultaneous professional and academic structure, which should give you a solid foundation for future success in both areas. The better news is that you're not being forced to learn fire-fighting while abandoned in the flames themselves, as happens in consulting roles, and especially as a solo practitioner/one-person fire crew.

Academically, if it weren't for free, online tutorials and coffee-fueled desperation, I would have missed more than one professional opportunity that specifically demanded "Expert in X version of Y technology." (I do have an M.S. in Cognitive Systems, but that provided only the foundation for what I've been doing.)

Professionally, I challenge you to remember this particular post of yours when you're dropped into the fire by a client manager who leaves you with these words: "Since you have an Internet connection, I'll leave you alone for now, and look forward to seeing your work in a couple of days. We're so glad to have you onboard, developing this critical instruction, especially since the last couple of people didn't work out for us. From the executive VP on down, we're all counting on you!"

Remember - agility is the best thing you can bring to the fire, IMO.

Based just on the insight you show in your post, I think you'll do well in your career.

Chantelle N

Thanks Wayne - I truly appreciate your insights. I also agree that I could learn a lot from free online info (I already have!) I just wish there were more hours in the day for me to do that.

I'm glad to have your support and it does make me feel better to know I'm on the right track. I do sometimes still feel like I am sustaining while trying to get ahead, however, since I am the only instructional designer in my group. And, by "group", I mean 3 other people, each doing completely separate things (like IT or reporting).

So, sometimes I feel as if I could use more peers. Perhaps I boxed myself in too much when I said "consulting" role. I think I would like not so much an individual consulting role, but a company where there are many individuals all able to use their creativity and be designers, that way each still has their own style, but they are there to also support each other. 

I feel like that's kind of what this community does...and I guess that post came out of the aspiration for some kind of a job to mirror this same kind of collaborative environment! Plus, at my company, regardless of the team, there's so much politics around IT that you practically have to give them an appendage each time you want new software. We still operate on Office 2003 and any other software has to pass rigorous governance and you have to have a damn good reason for it. Nevermind that without it any course designer can't do half of their job.

But, we'll see what happens I suppose!

Kevin Dowd

Your discussion is very robust and covers many different aspects.  It still leaves me asking one set of questions.

How did YOU develop the skills and capabilities that you have, and how would that experience/education translate into today's enviroment?  Some of you said that you want to hire another "you."  What made you, you?

Kevin Thorn

How did I develop the skills and capabilities I have today? The four P's. Passion, Practice, Persistence, and Patience!

Passion: One is got to have a passion that's deep enough to commit learning and developing every day...late nights and weekends included. The type of passion that looks at everything with a solvable eye, and not a "I've never done that so I don't know how" or "That's too hard...I'll just do it this way to get it done." The type of passion that thrives on inspiration and creativity because let's face it - this industry for the most part requires creativity to some degree.

Practice: Over and over and over and over. The elearning business has many layers as mentioned by everyone in this thread. Getting to a proficient expert in any one area will get you going, but I think it's more about being really really 'good' at all the layers. Job Descriptions in today's marketplace are listing many of these requirements. Companies in today's environment as you asked are scaling back. It's been a trend for awhile, but orgs are looking for the 'Jack of All - Master of None' employee. One person to replace three previous positions. The only way to prepare for those opportunities is to practice those skills. Most notably skills in Instructional Design and scripting out courses, storyboarding and designing courses, understanding the tools and knowing how to use them effectively, and of course keeping everything moving along nicely with good PM skills.

Persistence: What made me, me is an extra 20-30 hours a week, late night wee hours in the morning, lots of reading and research, practicing until you want to throw the computer in the river, and the underlying driving force that if I stamp my name on a course I want there to be value and something I can be proud of. We all have funky days where we question ourselves, "Why am I doing this to myself" and want to do something else. I often take breaks; unplug; decompress, and walk away for a few days to regroup. It's not how fast you can get to where you want to be, rather a persistent and steady pace. Only you know how fast that pace can be in your life.

Patience: Patience with oneself. This is probably the hardest for me. I want to learn it all NOW! When I dive into something new and want to get up to speed quick, I find that I underestimated the level of what I truly need to learn to be effective. Forcing oneself to slow down and be methodical is not easy...at least for me. Patience also means you may be strong in one area but weak in another. Recognizing the weak areas which may be ID, or graphics, or PM, or coding, or whatever area you think has value in the career pursuit you're after is the hard part. Then it's about being patient with yourself to get through it.

Does that answer your question, Heidi?

Steve Flowers

Old thread resuscitation! I like those

I agree with Kevin that these 4 P's are all necessary - though I'm still on the fence about the idiosyncratic results offered by the development of a Jack of All - Master of None, regardless of the employer's expectations

I'll add these:

- Task Focus: There's nothing like regularly trading sleep for working through very specific tasks and problems to hone a skill set and sticking with this specific task focus until you've broken through another mastery progression barrier. 2AM used to be my productive limit. I'll still run against all night "do-fests", just not so often

One of the interview question series I'll ask creative engineering types (technical, visual, ISD) is whether or not they spend any time outside of work sharpening their craft. If the answer is no, it's usually a non-starter for me unless they carry immense natural talent or it's their first job out of school.

- Peers: Finding talented peers to interact with is far easier now than it was a decade ago. I think when coupled with a task focus, skill development can really be accelerated with a social feature and directive feedback. Here's a neat example of a fellow that applied the four P's Kevin mentioned above along with leveraging task focus (he didn't try to do everything at once) and peers:


Page through from his first posts to his latest posts. Early on, his talent was [nice]undeveloped[/nice]. You can really see his development as time goes on. He documented major steps in a nine year journey and now he teaches art. He had the passion and matched it with a "no-stop attitude".

In my opinion, a lack of focus and touch and go fiddling is fun but it's really the road to mediocre mastery of any field. Picking a direction and maxing out that skill tree is important. I've met far too many well educated regurgitators of  ed-tech dogmas that can throw around buzz-phrases all day long but haven't a clue how to apply the education or use these really valuable gifts successfully. Yet these same folks have breadth in tool dabbling and can Photoshop like a second year intern. It's a waste of nascent talent and / or a poor career choice. On the flip side, I've met some really talented folks (educated and not) that are well-rounded across the spectrum and can kick-ass consistently. I suppose a threshold of mediocrity comes with the territory in any craft, but I expect better from a field with such a heavy science component.

Kevin Thorn

Yeah Steve, my 2AM nights are becoming farther and fewer between, too!

Task Focus is certainly a major part. In the context here about becoming a great ID - that in itself is the task. The task of becoming a great ID. All the layers and sub-layers of accomplishing that *task* will differ from one to another based on their workflow style. 

Anyone with pure raw talent that says they do anything to hone their craft outside of work hours is pulling your leg. I say this because those with talent do what they do because of the passion. The passion knows no clock. Whether they make $100k/yr or out of a job, nothing will keep them between their love of what they do. Back to Heidi's question, "What makes you, you?" 

Talent alone will only get you so far. But at some point they will have to become task focused along with the four P's. Just like the guy on conceptart.org. He has/had raw talent but until he focused on a task (sketch every day) and *practiced* he would not have gotten where he is. Really enjoyed that! Thanks for sharing.

To the Jack of All is to say what the corporate workforce is looking for in today's environment. That's what companies are demanding and the experience I've witnessed in the past couple years, we've turned away very qualified and educated candidates. Why? Because they lacked one specific skill regardless of the fact they possessed several others that we were in need of. 

Kevin Dowd

I find it interesting that in answering my question none of you cited any formal education that you’ve had.  The conversational thread in February discussed how formal education alone has failed to prepare my generation with the skills, capabilities, and agility that we need to excel in the field, however, so I suppose I should not be surprised.  That being said, there clearly is some value to masters programs aside from merely a stamp on a resume.  The conclusion I am coming to is that it is a matter of identifying the program that will correctly align with the skills and weakness of the individual.

Here are my questions:

1.       Would the “correct program” focus on more courses in the student’s weak area, or in her areas of strength.  The former would allow her to strengthen any weak links / anything that would be bringing her down, but would merely make her an average / OK ISD.  The latter would allow her to excel in one or two of the three areas as she would learn to further develop those strengths, but if she remains weak in the third there would be a glass ceiling cap on how far she would go.

2.       What point in the career should one obtain a masters degree?  I believe someone said five years.  However, my concern is that there is a point that one can reach where learning formally how to do things would keep from hitting brick walls.

One thing is clear from the thread and that is that formal education is far from the end all be all.  However, if I’m going to invest the time and money in obtaining a masters degree while working, I want to make sure that I make the right choices.

Thanks for your advice oh wise ones,


Wayne Vermillion

Heidi Winkel said:

...formal education alone has failed to prepare my generation with the skills, capabilities, and agility that we need to excel in the field

...it is a matter of identifying the program that will correctly align with the skills and weakness of the individual.

...What point in the career should one obtain a masters degree?  I believe someone said five years.  However, my concern is that there is a point that one can reach where learning formally how to do things would keep from hitting brick walls.


I may be in the minority, but I don't believe one should choose a master's program for the purpose of addressing weaknesses while glossing over existing skills. I believe that sort of specificity is best solved with specific courses, whether academic or commercial, such as for a particular software suite. In my master's program, wordily titled "Computer Education and Cognitive Systems," I was frequently dismayed and the class discussions were sometimes bogged down by K-12 teachers who were unholistically ticking off three graduate hours at a time, in return for small-scale pay bonuses; they seemed to think as small as that $50.00 bonus. Most of us were there for the scope+vision program as a whole. (Nothing against K-12 teachers, but too many in that program at that time were in the wrong place.) As an example, I firmly believe that rather than pursuing a full master's program to address a weakness in, say, storyboarding, an adult practitioner should first investigate the wealth of cheap-if-not-free courses available, and only then investigate the local community college, and only then invest ~$2,000 in a course from a commercial vendor.

Bear this in mind: "When I got my bachelor's degree, I thought I knew everything. When I got my master's degree, I realized I knew nothing. When I got my Ph.D., I realized it doesn't matter." Riffing on that, I had not fully understood before enrollment that my master's program actually offered several tracks, from AI to K-12 curriculum design to corporate instructional design to educational technologist, each with pros and cons. After the first six hours or so, and in consultation with the very good advisors, I chose to specialize in corporate instructional design. BTW, the K-12 emphasis was there as an inter-departmental political token to the College of Education, who lost several good professors to my relatively new program. The lesson here is to understand not only the options available, and actually evaluate those options and those professors, but understand also the programmatic emphasis of the university.

Regarding timing, five years is as good as any and better than most, I believe. As for me, I had two years in corporate skills training and two years in online training design and development. Fifteen years is probably too late. Speaking of senior professionals in the context of specific skills and topics: I've presented to many professional associations over the years (ASTD, STC, etc.), frequently with lifelong, mono-focus practitioners in the audiences - coaching only, sales training only, etc. These people are the neediest, because they've missed so much over the years while not educating themselves. For instance, in a 2011 preso to a local association about Articulate, I mentioned that Articulate Online is a cloud solution, but the cloud concept was completely alien to a few in the class.

And last, regarding the post-surname initials, I think it's posturingly silly to include "M.A." or "M.S." in routine signatures such as for emails. Ph.D., yes; formal listing on programs, yes; but otherwise, no. There are too many former "school marms" and their male equivalents who stretch into corporate training and post that Master's brag, which just makes it more ironic when they prove to have no experience in, say, project management or melding multiple software versions or ... Of course, I'm proud of my credentials (project in lieu of thesis, BTW), but I only display those initials on resumes and for presentations, to meet qualifications or establish credibility.

Your mileage will vary, of course.

Steve Flowers

My formal education is all over the map. I've dabbled in education and my academic experience ranges from "yawn" to "wow" across many disciplines that include IT systems analysis / Web application development to Human Performance Technology and training. I think academic focus depends A LOT on where you want to jump into the pool. 

If you're hunting in Kevin's territory, you'll want to round your education and skill acquisition but have a strong focus in ISD foundations and Project Management. If you want to work in larger shops you might want to swing your ISD focus more intently on the types of outputs the shop produces. It's such a broad and fragmented field it's tough to tell where one should focus their education pursuits.

In my view, the education is really important as a foundation and enhancement. I think our education system is failing ISD's for quite a few reasons. The first is that it's a plateau that can be obtained without an underlying scaffold that relates to the field. ISD Masters programs aren't necessarily a Mastery extension of an undergraduate program. 

That said, I think if an ISD doesn't have a firm handle on these elements, it's going to be really tough for them to be successful:

  • Human Performance Technology (Knowing enough to stand up when training isn't the right answer)
  • Consulting Skills (Communication and interpretation are a uber-critical skillsets in this field)
  • Cognitive Sciences (When training is the answer, knowing how people think and learn is critical)
  • Psychology and Human Factors (How people interface with the world around them and what makes them tick)
  • Technology (Having a grasp of what technology is good for, how it works, and what the limitations are)

Some of these components are more stabile than others. Technology changes all the time. You'll gain some timeless skills in many programs to make yourself "future-friendly". I've taken courses at SDSU and have many friends that have relayed their pleasure with programs all over the country from Penn State to FSU to Indiana University to Boise State and ODU. Most of these schools are great and will provide the task-focus and peer interaction you'll need to shore up your capability.

I've shifted my course focus from curriculum and course description to "who is teaching". I want to acquire the interaction experience with the person and by extension the others that are interacting with this person. I think every experience is valuable, but some are more valuable than others. I'm trying to seek those "more valuable experiences" out at this point in my life / career.

I also try to keep in mind that the formal programs, while great, are only a small piece of the puzzle. Devotion to craft, voracious reading habits, and trial-and-error on your own (and some healthy peer interaction with an open mind) are the only things that will help you stay on top and keep ahead of a constantly changing craft. Tools can be learned without a formal education. Some folks need that push and support that you can get in the classroom. I'd keep in mind that academic courses that support tool operation skills are for beginners. And if you don't carry practice on your own outside of the classroom you'll always be a beginner.

Wayne Vermillion

Good bullets, Steve. To bear out the need for balance, I believe that the first two items - HPT and consulting skills - are mostly and all experientially gained, respectively. An occasional seminar, perhaps no more than a brown-bag lunch type of event, is welcome, but I would beware anyone claiming to teach all there is to know about those topics. The third item, cognitive science, is best learned academically, but then must be balanced with real-life experience and continuing education. For instance, it's only now, 15-20 years after initial promulgation and wholesale adoption by the learning community, that we realize that retention statistics are phony. ("Studies show that we retain 10% of what we hear..." etc., was never studied or quantified.)

Speaking of balance, I've realized for many years now that I love this field because it engages both sides of my mind, the analytical and the creative.

Kevin Thorn

Wayne and Steve both have tremendous insight and advice!

What I love about this conversation topic (debate) is that it will never be solved simply because it's your path. The good news is there are SO many paths in this industry that you can simply have a pick of the litter so to speak.

My path was out of circumstance and not one I had intended on following...until I got here and then realized the career potential. I'm a creative type and the design and development of elearning for the corporate workforce attracted me the most. All of which I didn't pursue until after my undergrad in Information Technology Management.

For the past 4-5 years now I've often thought about going back to get my Masters, but like Heidi, I wanted a specific program that focuses on what I'm pursuing. Quite frankly, not many do. A few likely candidates are San Diego State and/or Boise State as they both offer full on-line programs now.

I would totally agree with Steve on his last three points. I think there's a gap between an ISD who 'designs' instruction and one who understands what it takes to get that instruction into an elearning course.

Once it's determined that training is a solution and then that training will include elearning, that's where I come in. Effective elearning as we all know should be engaging, relevant, meaningful, and impactful at a minimum. How to achieve that is often the easy part writing and designing an effective storyboard, but delivering and presenting it in an on-line environment can be the challenging part.

Heidi - it really depends on what 'you' want to pursue. The bullets that Steve points out are a very well-rounded collection of skills that would allow you to just about draw your own path. Although, if you're comfortable with the corporate management, directorship, or even a CLO position then there's not much room for skill development in areas of design and actual development.

Perhaps I'm the rebel type that breaks the mold. I'd love more than anything to attend a great school, learn more, and earn a Masters and perhaps even a PhD. Yet, when I earned my undergrad it didn't help me get any further in my org than I am now and Masters won't either. In "my" career  path a Masters will only be of value to me in terms of career progression is if I choose to move to a new org. Aside from personal growth earning one, I have a hard time giving up the next 2+ years to earn one when I know I can use that time to perfect my craft on my own and take 'myself' to school - reading, research, practicing, experimenting, etc. I'm even thinking on writing a book!

From just a guy in the trenches, the only advice I can sincerely offer is stay plugged into networks like this. Having a place to not only ask questions freely, but to have the likes of Wayne and Steve who so generously contribute to the conversation is invaluable!

Now, if we could just take all of us and put in a class together just think of the possibilities!

Wayne Vermillion

Here's a development model based on ADDIE, and I'll mount my steed to proclaim that a competent instructional designer should be proficient in all phases of ADDIE over the course of a career. First there's the ADDIE component, then what I see as the foundation skills, then the most effective method of acquiring those skills.


Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes (KSAs)

Acquired how?


     1. Establish confident credibility, 2. interviewing skills in particular and comm skills in general, 3. business analytics and statistics, 4. industry/organizational familiarity, 5. Synthesis

     1. Personal development and personality, 2. academic+practice, 3. academic mainly, 4. prof'l experience mainly, 5. academic mainly


     1. Combine vision + focus, 2. budgeting and time management, 3. technology knowledge depth + breadth, 4. Writing, 5. Project planning

     1. Personal development, 2. academic mainly + experience, 3. specialized training + wide research on your own, 4. academic mainly + industry/organizational-specific experience, 5. specialized training (PMP) + experience


     1. Synthesis, 2. Application, 3. Work ethic

     1. academic mainly, 2. specialized training - software skills, etc., 3. personal development


     1. Subject knowledge (whether delivering IBT, rolling out eLearning, whatever), 2. Professional flexibility (nothing goes perfectly),  3. Project management

     1. experience and self-learning, 2. experience and personal attitude, 3. specialized training + experience


     1. Statistics, 2. Report writing

     1. academic mainly, 2. some academic, mainly specialized training + experience.

Eric Nalian

I am fairly new to the ID world, I have been in my current (and only) ID role for about 3.5 years, and if there was one thing that I wished I got more of out of my education, it would have been to spend more time learning about the analysis part of course creation process.

Even with knowledge of many learning theories, access to any graphic I could create (or get help creating), and other media (Engage interactions, flash videos, audio, etc...), if the content that is being developed is over the learners heads or to simple the intended learning will not take place.

Wayne Vermillion

Eric Nalian said:

...if there was one thing that I wished I got more of out of my education, it would have been to spend more time learning about the analysis part of course creation process...

If there were one thing for which I wish I had more time, it would indeed be analysis. Correspondingly, in a true ADDIE cycle, evaluation should feed analysis for the next effort. I laugh when I see employment ads soliciting knowledge of Kirkpatrick Level 4, because I've never worked anywhere that consistently uses Kirkpatrick Level 4 evaluation. Knowing the art of the possible, when to stick a fork in it and call it analyzed or evaluated, requires some nimble balance.

For instance, I replaced an instructional designer at Dell Computers who had stunk up the very term of instructional design in a months-long process of so-called analysis. As the program manager put it to me on my first day, glaring daringly at me, "We're in paralysis by analysis." As my team lead put it to me on my first day, "Don't introduce yourself as an instructional designer." If the client - internal or external - doesn't want me to be an instructional designer, then by golly I'm a training guy, and if the client doesn't want me to perform analysis by that name, then by golly "I'm here to figure out how I can help you."

So in further definition of a good instructional designer, the ID doesn't have to be the smartest person in the room, or the most technically adept, or the most experienced, but I believe the ID should be the most professionally and intellectually agile person in the room. Quick as a cat, dependable as a dog - I might put that on a t-shirt.

Steve Flowers

...the ID doesn't have to be the smartest person in the room, or the most technically adept, or the most experienced, but I believe the ID should be the most professionally and intellectually agile person in the room. Quick as a cat, dependable as a dog...

Great quote. We need to do a better job highlighting the services and support offered by the ID that aren't "skippable" if you want reliable results.

Joe Fournier

Totally agree with Wayne's point that the ID is better off not seeming to be the smartest person in the room. In my constant pursuit of knowledge, I encounter a lot of industry-specific and academic terminology and have occassionally created some psychological barriers with clients through the mis-step of using terms like "psychological barriers" or "cognition". I've found it much more helpful to show up as "one of us" instead of "one of them."

David Glow

Shamelessly plagiarizing from the Internet Time Alliance member, Harold Jarche: "Work is learning, learning work". The quote sums up why I will learn much more addressing challenging real-world problems in my field than removing myself from the industry to "get schooled". 

Like Kevin, I'd like to state that this is my path, my experience. It isn't meant as a dismissal of advanced degrees. It's more of a "where I currently stand". Currently, I have excellent work projects (subsidized project-based learning!). They force me to develop my skills to address real-world challenges. I also have the immense benefit of engaging with great communities with members who challenge my thinking and open my mind to new perspectives and possibilities.

I don't anticipate any program would present me with the same level of real-world application and challenge with demand for results (real world evaluation). It was different when I went for my MEd (long ago). I was light on experience, and my work environment wasn't challenging and developing my skills. Thus, the program was right to help me expand my skills (and in those days, less options to collaborate, fewer OER for development, etc...)

Like Nike, my current path is "Just Do It", not "Just Study It" (and let's be honest, most of the stuff being done today isn't being taught because it is so new, and so rapidly adapting- the book is being written in real-time and re-written daily)

...and don't get me started on how many bad learning myths are still present in academic programs (learning styles being my personal favorite- remember good Dr. Will has $1,000 bounty for proof!)

Perhaps my bias stems from having been trained or studied things in detail, thinking I knew a lot, then doing a glorious faceplant when I try to apply the skills.(Tech training anyone?)

Everyone together now: ___________________ is the best teacher.

If you don't get it from your current work, or can't find a way to create it (freelance, etc...), a program may be right for you. In most cases, it is readily available for you to take on.

You can bite off a lot to chew. The one survival skill that keeps me from hanging myself with all the rope I am given is business acumen-my ability to learn and focus on what is really of value to the business. This ensures I drive my designs and deliverables to focus on critical value drivers (not ID theory, not content, not tools- business value). If I stay in that value band, it's generally a safe zone. The "how" I generate the value- what shape the deliverable takes- is secondary to the fact I do generate the value. (Thus, they tolerate the bumps in the road as I continually learn the next thing to deliver the value).

This discussion is closed. You can start a new discussion or contact Articulate Support.