What is the Instructional Designer Breed?

This question was posed to me last night by someone I had met at a social group.  She was a recruiter and was responsible for sourcing instructional designers for a company and this was the first time she had been exposed to the “instructional designer”.  What amused me about this question was its difficulty in answering it.  Before I had the opportunity to answer the question, she also added, “my client who is an instructional designer himself, is very…(she thought about the word she wanted to use)….Brunswick”.

Now for those who know Melbourne, will know that she has summed up a part of town that is creative, hip, trendy and conceptual.  Instantly, I knew the type of instructional designer she was talking about and I call them the ‘new breed’ but I must add that I say this as a polite term.

After working over 20 years in the learning and development field in public and private sectors, I am one of the lucky people who have seen and been part of the evolution of learning and development.  Many years ago when I started in the industry, organisations had departments of instructional designers and developers and facilitators who ran a multitude of facilitator-led courses. It was exciting times as we created courses that were engaging and fun for our learners and we would sit around at our desks and give each other pats on the backs when we read out the ‘smile’ or evaluation sheets from learners who thought that the activities ‘hit the mark’ and that the facilitator presented the material in a manner that was easy to understand.

Then when learning management systems came into the picture, there was a tremor that rippled through the training departments. All of a sudden, organisational restructures of the training teams were the norm as a plethora of online courses that were simply page turners overtook the training teams.  The ones who were excited with the technology and all it offered, wanted to learn the skills that would enable them to develop these ‘page turners’ and churn them out at an alarming pace.  These people were the first breed of online instructional designers who their company employed but after a while, the learners became dissatisfied with the quality, managers weren’t entirely convinced that the training was hitting the mark and having any return on value and so the external online learning companies came to the rescue.

The industry in Melbourne grew as these small companies made up of multi-media web developers and graphic designers came in and offered creative solutions (that had times had dubious instructional qualities) but offered engaging, colourful and exciting courseware.  The instructional designers who worked in these companies may not have had any professional qualifications in online design but the majority had simply ‘fallen into the industry by accident’ and had the skills to be able to chunk content provided to them by their clients into engaging learning pieces.  All they needed to do was to storyboard the idea and then work with the multi-media web developers to come up with the interactions in the online course – so these instructional designers, I call the ‘new breed’.

But corporates weren’t entirely happy about this approach either.  Sure, they can have the best engaging and exciting course but it cost them a lot of money and if the course had to be maintained and updated, then the costs would increase.  Something had to give.

Around the same time, rapid authorware was coming onto the market and corporates grappled onto this. All of a sudden, licenses for software such as ToolBook (remember that?), Captivate and Lectora was the hot topic.  The instructional designers specialised in facilitator-led courses looked on with disdain as this surely was the ‘nail in their coffin’ – that their role was not replaced by a software program that did all their thinking for them.  They weren’t too sure what to take offence with first – the software program that replaced their role or the fact that the software program still didn’t assist in writing effective course objectives.  Corporations then started creating internal online development teams specialised in rapid development of online courses and created unknowingly a disparity between instructional designer breeds.

When I was working in one online learning development company recently, one of the ‘new breed’ instructional designers looked at me quizzicly when I asked her about Captivate.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Captivate. You know – the rapid authorware tool that we can use to develop a sim for this course?”

She looked at blankly and shrugged her shoulders.  I asked the other instructional designers about it and they too had never heard about of it.  That’s when I realised that there are instructional designers who are creative and conceptual and put their ideas on storyboard and let the other technical gurus create the course; and then there are other instructional designers who use the tool or the software to build their course.  Both of these instructional designers may or may not have formal qualifications (in most cases, not) around adult learning principles.

Then there are the ‘old breed’ instructional designers who have continued to find work (thanks to blended learning) in developing facilitator-led courses that are still around for many companies and unlikely to die off anytime soon.

So what is the instructional designer breed?

Ultimately, there is no one breed of instructional designer and it would be wrong to assume that there is one.  Maybe instructional design is one of the dying professions; maybe instructional design will morph into something else completely now that social media is taking a more active role in organisations.  Maybe in the future, all workers in a company will be ‘instructional designers’ in their own right as they will be responsible for their own learning and their own networks and would design an environment that is flexible to their needs and their wants for that particular point in time in their career.  It’s an interesting time to be in this industry – I just hope I’m the breed that doesn’t die out.

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About Activate Learning Solutions

Helen Blunden is the founder of Activate Learning Solutions and Third Place. She has over 20 years of experience within learning and development across private, public and not-for-profit organisations. With a specialty in performance consulting and networked learning, Helen believes that workplace learning is integral to business success. She has a passion for enabling people to learn beyond the classroom and believes in the power of networks and communities to drive collaboration and meaning within the organisation. From facilitator-led instruction, online and blended, Helen deploys social and informal learning such as enterprise social networking, collaboration tools and emerging technologies that have been proven successful and embedded workplace change.
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