Aren't Teachers Also Instructional Designers?

Instructional Design in Educational Settings from Kenneth Ronkowitz

A colleague at the college asked me if I would do a presentation to his class about how instructional design might fit into educational settings. It's a class that is made up of students in our teacher prep program, and also students that are studying professional technical communications. It's an odd blend. The communication students are unfamiliar with teaching and the future teachers have no background in topics such as instructional design. My presentation discussed how instructional design differs from designing lessons as a teacher. Although the two fields share some things - and it would be good for each to know something about the other field - they have different skills and goals.

I started with some textbook definitions: "The term instructional design refers to the systematic and reflective process of translating principles of learning and instruction into plans for instructional materials, activities, information resources, and evaluation. An instructional designer is somewhat like an engineer." (Smith, Patricia L., and Tillman J. Ragan. Instructional design. New York, NY: Wiley, 1999.)

Teachers focus on tasks/learning opportunities for students. Educational learning designers design “documents and describes a learning activity in such a way that other teachers can understand it and use it in their own context. Typically a learning design includes descriptions of learning tasks, resources and supports provided by the teacher.” (Donald, Blake, Girault, Datt, & Ramsay, 2009)

I asked AREN’T ALL TEACHERS INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNERS? My short answer is "No." Teachers designing lessons (Learning Design) focus on the individual lesson/session -> week -> unit. They are often not involved in the decision-making process of what the content will be (textbooks, units etc.), although they are the subject matter expert.

In contrast, instructional designers (ID) have a more global focus, often driven by performance goals. They work with subject matter experts (SME) who provide the content. (In some smaller companies, the ID may also be considered the SME.)

If you look at job ads for instructional designers, you will find most positions are in the corporate sector, though colleges employ IDs. There are a few situations where the two worlds cross, such as an ID working for an educational vendor like Pearson.

The instructional designer's responsibilities include having to participate in product ideation, innovation, and iteration; synthesize and apply academic learning theory to product features; create design schematics in conjunction with UI designers; participate in the learner validation, and subsequent iteration, of schematics into design specifications and patterns; contributing to other design, development, research, and evaluation tasks, as needed.

In smaller companies, you may have responsibilities for managing a content management system, graphic design, video or visual design elements. You'll notice that it does not include providing content or being the SME.

The skills that an ID needs to identify to a potential employer and evidence by viewable projects and products include a deep and demonstrated knowledge of learning design principles; experience synthesizing and applying research from the learning sciences to product design in clear, tangible, documented ways; an understanding of various adaptive models and characteristics and their impact on learning; understanding of evidence-based, learner-centered design processes, techniques and tools; experience participating in the design of learner interfaces and learner experiences. 

The skills noted in job ads are often very specific – “Captivate 6+” - but resumes should always be (and in my experience in reading them, often are not) specific. “Experienced in using Agile/Scrum methodologies in dispersed, cross-functional teams” is a more useful description than listing Captivate. (Students don't seem to realize that listing Microsoft Office or even PowerPoint and Excel is pretty much useless to a search committee.) 

In anticipating interview questions, an ID should be ready to answer what tools or methods they would use for creating design schematics and specifications; conducting validation testing with learners, instructors, administrators and experts; conducting formalized acceptance testing, usability testing and pilot testing; increasing participation in a complex technology systems with numerous stakeholders and requirements.

The formal education or equivalent experiences that you find in ID resumes vary widely. A graduate degrees in instructional design is the obvious degree. We also find evidence of candidates that have knowledge of software and UI design practices; experience gathering and applying peer-reviewed scholarly research and user research; instructional design and UCD testing experience; classroom teaching or training experience; experience in the research-based design of adaptive technology, software, or digital learning products (adaptive learning systems e.g., Bayesian Nets, cognitive modeling, machine learning) and applicants with backgrounds in Learning Science, Cognitive Psychology, Computer Science, Educational Technology, Educational Psychology, Human Factors, Artificial Intelligence, or Learning Analytics.

In an ideal world, teachers would have a background in learning theory and instructional design theory, practice and tools. They would also have input into the higher levels of curriculum design. Instructional designers in that ideal world would have more than just a student view on how learning is designed in academia. They would be able to bridge the learning styles established in K-12 with those of undergraduate courses, to graduate to professional learning.

One another side-note I discussed was about online learning: An article I referenced for the class was "Lesson Planning: The Missing Link in e-Learning Course Design." So much of the instructional designer's work these days is for developing online learning and training. "Lesson planning is not a typical topic in instructional design courses and programs, although education courses and programs always include it. Consequently, few IDs without education backgrounds know how to develop lesson plans. Though developing a lesson plan for e-Learning is similar in many ways to developing a lesson plan for instructor-led learning, there are also differences. IDs need to remember that there is no instructor present in self-paced e-Learning, and simple as this sounds, it does take some getting used to. This concept is especially difficult to grasp for experienced stand-up trainers and facilitators who are new to designing instruction."

My slides for the presentation are online and a streaming video capture of the session is also available.



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