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Learning Instructional Design: in school and on-the-job

January 17, 2010

I have been asked several times to serve as a guest speaker in graduate level instructional design/technology courses. (All but one of these events occurred online via synchronous classroom!) The topic I am assigned is usually something like:  “Working as an Instructional Designer” or “Managing Online Course Development”.  The two questions I field most frequently are listed below along with my responses.

What are the important things about instructional design that you learned in school?

  • Coursework helped me to learn and understand different approaches to designing courses and modules. In school you become familiar with the standard processes and models and practice taking an idea for a learning event through the steps and stages.
  • Through the completion of individual and group course projects I learned the basics of how to do the work. Putting the pieces to together in the best possible sequence takes practice. I like many other students often dreaded the group work, but that’s the way it usually works with an employer. You rarely work a project start to finish on your own. It’s a team effort.
  • Planning a project was also part of many course activities. Being able to organize the work and resources at the outset makes the rest go ever so much more smoothly…although the plan will change – more on that below.
  • Through my coursework I gathered a pretty substantial set of resources. Different instructors have different favorites as well and that helps you grow your own library or tool box. These resources include textbooks, key journal articles, professional organizations, and countless checklists and templates.

What did you have to learn on the job?

  • Management skills are a critical piece of the puzzle, in my opinion, and although I was required to take a course in project management, this is a skill that truly comes from practice. You get better with each project at considering all of the variables and making decisions. It’s about people, resources, and time. These skills include learning to communicate and collaborate with all levels of management and team members. Check this link for more on the ideal skill set for an Instructional Designer.
  • The plan changes. Learning how to deal with this in terms of people, resources, and time also comes from experiencing projects take an unexpected turn. Some variables are hard to predict and leave you in reaction mode. Strategies for getting everything and everyone back on track can be read, but experiencing and trying them out adds them to your tool box.
  • On the job you also learn the real-world consequences of a plan and timeline. It’s one thing for you to miss the mark with your classmates when designing a wine selection tutorial for a fictitious grocery store chain (remember that one, guys?) It’s another thing to miss the mark with an academic calendar or corporate budget.
  • Keeping current with trends and research in technology is a constant effort. The schoolwork and interaction with classmates started the conversations. It’s the continued work, reading, investigating, and experimenting at work that help you stay as current as possible. The pace at which the options and possibilities for online learning are changing is fast and furious.

The skill set of the Instructional Designer is wide and varied and can largely depend on where you are working and what type of course you are designing (K-12, higher education, military, corporate). Get as much experience as you can while you are in school!

Both schoolwork and practical experience should work together to prepare you for the work to come. Try to tie in current or past employment in terms of topic area when working with an instructor to outline a course project. Take on internships, volunteer work, and part-time jobs when you can to not only open up opportunities to practice what you are learning in your courses but also to gain the experience your future employers will be looking for.

photo credit: MAMJODH, Flickr

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