How to Become an Instructional Designer: 13 Experts Give Their 3 Key Tips

Have you considered becoming an instructional designer? Are you planning to enroll in a certificate or degree program? I think it is helpful for aspiring instructional designers to understand the different instructional design roles before committing to a certificate or degree program. There is a distinction between instructional design and instructional technology.

A professional who focuses on designing instruction looks at organizational training needs, works with subject matter experts and others to organize content, and recommends strategies for conveying content to learners. The instructional designer also develops assessments that align with learning objectives. Instructional designers can create learning resources for digital platforms or face-to-face learning environments.

An instructional technologist or developer usually concentrates on interactive technology used to convey the subject matter. Technologists often study computer science or software development, which prepares them to create interactive eLearning interfaces, games, and other learning tools.

Grafispaten ADDIE Model
Credits: Grafispaten

If you are an inspiring instructional designer with limited knowledge of the process, I suggest you become familiar with ADDIE, a long-standing instructional design model that includes five phases:

  • Analysis
  • Design
  • Development
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

During the analysis phase, the instructional designer leads a team in assessing the audience by exploring learning needs and barriers to learning. In this phase, the instructional designer and team members begin to map out a strategy for addressing learner needs, which is a segue into the design phase. During this phase, the designer works closely with subject matter experts to decide what content to include and create storyboards that serve as visual course outlines. An instructional designer may also develop mockups or prototypes of user interfaces that show how learners will interact with the content online.

During development, the designer or instructional technologist puts the content into user-friendly formats, including workbooks, job aids, and digital platforms. Implementation means providing learning for the target audience. Learners can access digital learning resources via computer, smartphone, or tablet. Finally, the evaluation phase is where the team determines whether learning has occurred. The evaluation may reveal that a course or learning resource did not achieve the desired outcomes. In that case, the team uses evaluation data to determine where they need to make changes.

Team

Are you working in a setting where you create educational materials but would like to improve your skills? Are you ready for a promotion or career change? Then I have great news for you! There has never been a better time to work as an instructional designer. Businesses, government institutions, and non-profit organizations all seek instructional designers capable of leading teams in creating educational resources for employees and customers. Position yourself to take advantage of the many opportunities that await you. Consider the following suggestions from 13 experts in the field for becoming an instructional designer or building upon your current skills.

I asked the experts:

What are the 3 key tips for becoming an instructional designer?

And what they said:

Discover how people learn. Pursue an understanding of models of teaching and learning. – Ray Shroeder →

Join conversations on Twitter, engage in Twitter Chats, build your personal network on LinkedIn. – Nancy Rubin →

As learning design is constantly changing, you depend on others to stay on top of your field. – Ignatia Inge deWaard →

Learning is everywhere and you can apply it to what you are designing in many different ways. – Janelle McLaughlin →

Instructional designers must be able to quickly learn and adopt the newest tools, technologies, and concepts as soon as they surface! – Marina Arshavskiy →

You do not need to know everything but be abreast of learning technologies. – Julian Davis →

To have an understanding of online pedagogy means you’ve needed to teach an online course. – Raymond Rose →

If you don’t use ID principles in learning, you only have the “froth of technology” to make that learning appealing. – Bob Little →

Know the foundational principles of instructional design, but don’t be married to them. – Vicki Kunkel →

Carpenters are taught to measure twice and cut once. – Matt Bergman →

Have strong interpersonal skills to work with subject-matter experts… – Elham Arabi →

Make sure you stay on level. – Mark Spermon →

You can learn instructional design while also learning the skills you need to work on the development side. – Scott Winstead →

“Discover how people learn. Pursue an understanding of models of teaching and learning.”

I have been engaged in instructional design to one degree or another for the past quarter century. I have taught instructional design classes, and I consider effective design and development to be the foundation of success in teaching and learning. There are many paths to this important profession. There are, however, some key elements I have observed are important in the process of becoming a successful instructional designer.

  • Engage in learning about learning. Discover how people learn. Pursue an understanding of models of teaching and learning. Get familiar with the tools and technologies that are currently used to deliver, reinforce and assess learning.
  • Intern or extern with an academic or corporate course designer. Sit alongside an instructional designer as she or he works with a subject matter expert (perhaps a faculty member) to determine and articulate learning outcomes; define a body of knowledge; identify effective approaches to simulations; select available resources (such as open educational resources); and assessments that are both learning experiences and tests of knowledge.
  • Cultivate an ability to actively listen. This skill will serve you in most all professions, but it is particularly essential for the instructional designer who is charged with creating a product and process that will convey knowledge and skills from one person to many others. Actively listening to the expert as well as the learner leads to deep understanding of their needs and preferences that are necessary for the success of learning.

Ray ShroederRay Schroeder

Nationally respected and connected leader in higher education online learning. UPCEA Senior Fellow. More info on Ray’s website.

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If you want to know more about how much do Instructional Designers make click here.

“Join conversations on Twitter, engage in Twitter Chats, build your personal network on LinkedIn.”

My 3 tips are:

  • I “fell” into instructional design early on in my career because I had a background in training and there was a need for someone to do faculty training. From there, I learned instructional design and media editing “on the job”.
  • Take courses. If you are considering a degree, seek out a good program that includes instructional design, media and technology. There are a number of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) you can also enroll in focusing on Instructional Design and eLearning.
  • Be a part of the community. Join conversations on Twitter, engage in Twitter Chats (there are many each week,) build your personal network on LinkedIn.

Rubin NancyDr. Nancy Rubin

The founder of Nancy Rubin Blog.  Participant at many conferences, published in educational journals, and the Associate Managing Editor for the Journal of Literacy and Technology.

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“As learning design is constantly changing, you depend on others to stay on top of your field.”

My three key tips:

  • Keep exploring EdTech innovation – the EdTech factor. Educational technology is changing rapidly: integrated AI solutions to automatically match people to courses (e.g. SkillCharge), the use of mixed technologies to create real-time learning (e.g. combining SocMed to create learning ecologies),
  • Work Out Loud – the human factor: no person is an island (John Donne), and you can always rely on the kindness of strangers (Tennessee Williams). As learning design is constantly changing, you depend on others to stay on top of your field (new EdTech launches, new pedagogies, debunking learning myths…). By working out loud you share your own insights, while inspiring others to share theirs and that way moving towards a stronger instructional foundation. A great person to follow on Working Out Loud is Jane Bozarth.
  • Test new learning approaches – the Pedagogical factor. Using innovative pedagogies helps us prepare our learners for the future: integrating new skills, solving emerging challenges, tackling new content options. The approaches I like at the moment are: Challenge Based Learning (the challenge shapes the educational guidance), data cases to support learning in data rich environments, In short, envision the future and help build it through visionary learning design.

Inge de WaardIgnatia Inge deWaard

The founder of IgnatiaWebs Blog. Present Senior Learning Strategist for InnoEnergy, longtime researcher, instructional designer and (e)Learning coordinator.

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“Learning is everywhere and you can apply it to what you are designing in many different ways.”

All really good teachers are quality instructional designers. And nothing has pushed that design into a virtual realm like COVID-19. Why many might be new to digital instructional design, I have found three things to be key to developing that skill.

  • Connect with other instructional designers. I can’t stress enough the importance of having a strong professional learning network. My group of peers is composed of educators from all over the world. My favorite place to connect with people is LinkedIn. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter, too, but LinkedIn has proven to be the place I connect the deepest with people. It doesn’t really matter where or how you form those relationships, the point is to form them. Those become your go-to people for all kinds of questions. They can also be sounding boards and cheerleaders. The support system is necessary.
  • Drive your own learning. Stagnant learners are boring teachers. The great part is that we literally have learning at our fingertips 24/7. Decide that you will do something to fuel your brain every day. It could be a five-minute blog post read over coffee, listening to a podcast on your commute, picking up a new book, or even joining in a Twitter chat. Learning is everywhere and you can apply it to what you are designing in many different ways.
  • Start with the student in mind. This is probably obvious but warrants a reminder. Instructional designers, whether in front of a traditional classroom or in front of a computer screen should always practice good pedagogy. If our focus is on the student and what is best to meet all learning needs, then the instructional design stays relevant and engaging.

Janelle McLaughlinJanelle McLaughlin

The founder of Innovative Education Solutions. Education Consultant. Leadership Coach. Google Certified Trainer. Dell Certified Leader. Microsoft Innovative Educator.

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“Instructional designers must be able to quickly learn and adopt the newest tools, technologies, and concepts as soon as they surface!”

3 key tips for instructional designers:

  • Like all modern-day professions, Instructional Designers must possess a core set of competencies to break into the field. They must have great communication skills, but staying current and having a probing mindset are also keys to becoming a successful instructional designer. Instructional designers must be able to quickly learn and adopt the newest tools, technologies, and concepts as soon as they surface! They should also possess the innate ability to understand new and complex concepts while being open to researching and learning about them.
  • Portfolios are a crucial part in becoming an instructional designer. A great resume is a good starting point for prospective employment seekers. However, as we all know, a picture paints a thousand words! Keep your best samples or create new pieces just to showcase what you can do! Time invested in developing and then continually updating your instructional design portfolio is well worth spending.
  • You don’t necessarily need a formal degree to become an instructional designer, but you do need to possess a robust instructional design skill set as well as extensive practical exposure to authoring tools, instructional design, visual design, and project management skills.

Marina ArshavskiyMarina Arshavskiy

Founder of YourElearningWorld. Award-winning instructional design and eLearning expert, the author of the bestselling essential guide: Instructional Design for eLearning.

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“You do not need to know everything but be abreast of learning technologies.”

Sometimes, and in my case, you fall into becoming an Instructional Designer. You find that somebody will want something, and they look at you and say, ‘You’ve taught before, I need a course developed!’. Sound familiar?

  • For me, I was delivering Web Development Diploma to Adult Learners at a College over 10 years ago. I quickly learnt that not everyone learns the same as me, and this was a challenge. So this is the first tip, understand Adult Learning Principles and your audience. This will have a massive impact on how and what you develop.
  • It was here that I released that I could do more with my Web development background in Digital Learning. As I progressed through my career in Digital Learning, I could see that companies were starting to ask more of Instructional Designers. Whilst we in the industry may see there is a clear delineation between an Instructional Designer and an eLearning (Digital Learning) Developer, most employees will not see this. So, for my next tip, if you are going to be an Instructional Designer, learn HTML5 and some fundamental Web technologies. You do not need to know everything but be abreast of learning technologies.
  • Finally, never stop being curious. This is how we learn. Attend conferences, follow blogs (even start your own), subscribe to feeds and podcasts and get onto LinkedIn. There is a massive network of Instructional Designers and eLearning Developers so get involved.

Julian DavisJulian Davis

Technical Training Officer at Tritium – Digital Learning Solutions Architect.

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“To have an understanding of online pedagogy means you’ve needed to teach an online course.”

I don’t think I’ve ever been an instructional designer but I’ve been very critical of them and I live with someone with the title of senior instructional designer, so I do have some perspective on the topic.

  • I think the starting point for an instructional designer, is designing what? I have been very critical of instructional design programs that focus on making instruction pretty. I have issues with online instructional designers who have no idea about online pedagogy. And, to have an understanding of online pedagogy means you’ve needed to teach an online course – but only after having taken a high quality online course.
  • There’s one more point. I think that’s two so far. Instructional designers need to understand what it means to make products that are fully accessible to people with disabilities. If you’re an instructional designer and have no idea what that means your preparation was inadequate. If you know what it means, but don’t know how, it’s way past time to learn.
  • But please, please, don’t pass go without knowing about what it takes for high quality instructional pedagogy and what it takes to make your product fully accessible.

Ray RoseRaymond Rose

The founder of e-Learning Evangelist Blog. President and Co-founder at Rose & Smith Associates.

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“If you don’t use ID principles in learning, you only have the “froth of technology” to make that learning appealing.”

Today’s world demands instant – preferably minutely measurable – results in all areas of performance, preferably for minimal cost and effort. Under these criteria, instructional design (ID) is in danger of becoming irrelevant because the process of learning involves too many variables to conform to them. Yet ID – based on principles offering a benchmarking/ checking mechanism to keep any project on track – provides a discipline for those engaged in it and a framework offering the basis for a long-lasting learning solution. ID is invaluable for businesses that want to invest in their workforce – rather than merely exploit their temporary talents. To be a successful instructional designer you must know and apply the:

  •  Eight key questions relating to any learning material:
  1. What’s the purpose of the learning?
  2. What’s indicated the need for it?
  3. Who’s the audience?
  4. What do they need to come away with as a result of completing the learning?
  5. So, what exactly do we need to address in the learning?
  6. What’s the best way to get those elements of course content across to the audience? (the selection of appropriate learning technologies)
  7. How can we help make sure the learning “sticks” (what can we do before, during and after the learning to ensure it’s kept alive)?
  8. How will we evaluate the effectiveness of the training, both while it’s being developed (or drafted) and after it’s been finalized and delivered to the audience?
  • Many learning theories and models in the same way that a tradesman treats his tools. Not only should you select the right tool for the job but, at times, you need to remember that more than one tool is needed to complete a job successfully – and some tools become irrelevant as others supersede them.
  • Key features needed for learners to engage with the learning materials: control, relevance, emotion, action and “multi-sensory environment” (using a combination of video, audio, graphics, animation and so on) – otherwise known by the acronym “CREAM”. Giving learners control of their learning enables them to make the learning experience relevant – enabling them to answer the question “what’s in it for me?” at every level of the learning. Even with the best ID in the world, the resulting learning materials will be useless if their content is not 100 percent accurate – but, similarly, subject matter expertise alone will never produce effective learning materials. If you don’t use ID principles in learning, you only have the “froth of technology” to make that learning appealing.

Bob LittleBob Little

Resume Writer, Public Speaker, Life Coach, and Executive Coach. He produces any form of virtual and printed material. More info on Bob’s Website

 

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“Know the foundational principles of instructional design, but don’t be married to them.”

My three key tips for becoming an instructional designer (assuming you have a background in either media, training, or education) are:

  • Read. A lot. Absorb everything you can about the current state of instructional design. Know what not only the current trends are, but the future trends. This is an industry where you have to be willing and able to pivot on a dime as technology and consumer demands and preferences change. Know the key players. Know the foundational principles of instructional design, but don’t be married to them. (Many organizations are know switching from ADDIE and SAM to design thinking in an agile environment.)
  • Focus on a niche – either industry-wise or creatively. For example, you could focus on ID in the pharmaceutical space, or the sales space, or in tech. Your “style’ of instructional design (creative style) should also be as unique as your fingerprint. You can either be a bare-bones, simple eLearning designer/developer, or you could be an ID who does high-tech versions of elearning that use VR, AR, and AI. Or, maybe you want to position yourself as someone who does more whimsical graphics. Maybe you prefer a clean, no-nonsense, highly corporate look. It doesn’t matter; there’s a market for all types of elearning designers and developers – from the bare-bones “corporate” styles to the highly creative and interactive programs.
  • Create a portfolio that reflects the current ID, tech, and user interface trends – but that also represents your preferred industry and creative brand. Take your time with this. Your portfolio is your single most important selling point for your instructional design services and is what will (if done properly) set you apart from the hordes of instructional designers in the market. Good luck! ID is a fantastic industry, and there is room for everyone.

Vicki KunkelVicki Kunkel

Founder of DigitalWits. Former TV news reporter/anchor, healthcare marketing director, commercially published book author, and award-winning learning app and gamification designer.

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“Carpenters are taught to measure twice and cut once.”

The COVID epidemic has exposed the need for instructional designers, who can create and provide leadership on effective and accessible online design. Here are a few important things to consider before you take the journey.

  • First, in the words of author and speaker Todd Rose, it is important to understand that “learner variability is the rule – not the exception.” In other words, all learners are different in how they engage in learning, demonstrate their understanding, and access learning materials.
  • Secondly, condition yourself to proactively identify high-probability learning barriers so that ALL participants can learn. For example, how can you make videos accessible to populations that may have hearing impairments or language barriers?
  • Finally, it is imperative that you develop solid listening skills because many errors and miscommunications can be prevented by good listening skills. Carpenters are taught to measure twice and cut once. In a similar way, instructional designers should listen twice before making important decisions.

Matt Bergman

Matt Bergman

The founder of Learn.Lead.Grow Blog. Learning Technologies Specialist at The Milton Hershey School. More info on Matt’s Website

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“Have strong interpersonal skills to work with subject-matter experts…”

In my viewpoint below are the key tips (though I wouldn’t suggest anyone becoming an instructional designer by merely transitioning with no formal/informal education in this field.)

  • Have extensive knowledge on learning / cognitive science, i.e., how our brain and senses work to learn new things.
  • Have in-depth knowledge of human learning and strategies that enhance learning.
  • Have strong interpersonal skills to work with subject-matter experts as collaborating with and convincing them are key to the success of learning design.

Arabi ElhamElham Arabi

Learning designer and Learning Consultant.

 

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“Make sure you stay on level.”

My three tips:

  • Building a portfolio is very important to show future clients or employers what you can do in instructional design. Don’t make the mistake to only focus on what you can do in an authoring tool and create ‘shiny’ e-learning. Show how you should solve real ‘problems in your portfolio examples. If you need inspiration for sample projects to use the website Go Design Something.
  • Train yourself to listen to the question behind the question. As an instructional designer, you will get questions like we need e-learning on subject x. Try to find out what the real reason is the want an e-learning course. What does a client really want? What problem needs to be solved? Listen carefully and ask the right questions. Don’t deliver what a client asks for but what solves their problem.
  • Never stop learning. Make sure you stay on level. But also learn new things that have something to do with instructional design so you can always look at new questions from clients with a fresh perspective.

Mark SpermonMark Spermon

Articulate Storyline developer, e-learning and online courses specialist

 

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“You can learn instructional design while also learning the skills you need to work on the development side.”

My three tips on how to become an instructional designer:

  • Engage in Self-Directed Learning
    There are numerous books, websites, and eLearning courses that can help you learn the craft of instructional design. I recommend online instructional design courses that focus on the areas where you want to build your skills. Take as many classes as you can.
  • Enroll in a Certificate Program
    There are certificate programs where you can earn 12-15 hours of academic credit. Other programs offer continuing education credit. I suggest that you take a close look at both types and determine which avenue fits your career goals. If you aim to be a designer who can also develop digital resources, look for a certificate program that teaches you to use course authoring tools, develop websites, and other digital learning platforms.
  • Go for a master’s degree in Instructional Design or Instructional Technology
    If you have the time and financial resources, a master’s degree may be your path to becoming an instructional designer. You can learn instructional design while also learning the skills you need to work on the development side. Many employers who advertise for instructional designers expect candidates to design learning, develop software, use the latest authoring tools, design graphics, teach instructors to work with learning management systems, and ensure that learning resources are ADA compliant. A master’s program can help you obtain these skills.

Scott WinsteadScott Winstead

The founder of MyElearningWorld. 15 years’ experience in e-Learning. Instructional designer and blended learning expert.

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Useful Resources

Conclusion

Regardless of the path you take toward an instructional design career, you will be interested in the instructional design courses. Check out my list of the best instructional design courses here. You will find a diverse selection that will help you gain the skills you need to become a professional instructional designer.

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