There are many definitions of instructional design; a simple google search will reveal abundant variations. A quick scan across the learning and development literature indicates that there isn’t a single agreed understanding of the specificities of the role. Some define it purely as a technical specialism others take a more rounded approach viewing it as a highly complex field whose professionals have a wide-ranging set of competencies.
I, like many others, take the view that instructional design is the practice of creating learning experiences that enable students/learners to develop their knowledge and skills. Learning journey’s may be driven by personal, professional and/or organisational need but the essence of instructional design is about change; helping people to change the way they think, behave, perform and learn.
To make this happen instructional designers need an extensive skillset:
- Learning: A deep understanding of learning is a must for instructional designers. We need to understand learning theory, learning objectives, curriculum design, assessment practice and performance theory. These are just a small sample of the questions that guide my practice and which I hold in mind when working with clients:
Who are your learners and how do they learn?
What are their learning needs? What are your organisational needs?
How will we know if your students have learnt or not?
What are the underpinning learning theories that will guide our project?
What is your pedagogy or andragogy?
- Technology: There is an overwhelming number of tools and apps that might be used within learning programmes. As an instructional designer, you don’t need to know them all intimately but you do need to be able to map learning needs and pedagogical/andragogical approach to the affordances of these tools. A working knowledge of Learning Management Systems, HTML, SCORM and authoring tools is very useful but the pedagogy/andragogy should always drive our choice of technology – not the other way around. A good understanding of technical terms is essential; if only to know when we need to bring in the technical cavalry.
- Creativity: Making exciting and impactful learning requires creative flair. It needs engaging writing and storytelling, excellent user experience design, graphic design, game design, video and audio production and much more. Where the creative aspect of instructional design is absent, dry learning object repositories thrive.
- Learning Analytics: Over the last ten years there has been a surge of interest in the field of learning analytics partly enabled by the proliferation of big data sets and sophisticated data analytics tools. Learning analytics enables us to measure and collect data about our learners and their learning with the aim of improving outcomes. The ability to extract data from learning tools sometimes requires programming expertise (e.g. API and CLI). As instructional designers, we need to be able to ask the right questions of this data, in the right way, in support of the continuous improvement of the learning we design. A good understanding of the potential of analytics and the ethics of its use is essential.
- Business: Consultancy skills including an understanding of business needs and strategic goals are crucial. Other important skills include ROI and measurement, project management and client relationship management.
Instructional designers need to have oversight of all these areas even when they gravitate to some of them more than others – we all have our strengths and favourites. Not every project we work on will require us to use all our skills at once but sometimes the breadth of knowledge and the deep expertise required is far beyond what we can accomplish by ourselves and a team-based approach is optimal.
Instructional design is a multi-layered and evolving field with an extraordinarily rich and creative pool of talent; and that’s what makes us an interesting and exciting bunch of people to work with.