What Does an Instructional Designer Do?
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What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

There’s no doubt about it; instructional design is a lightning-hot field right now. With Covid-19 capsizing higher education and forever changing the online learning landscape, many universities are in need of serious guidance.

Instructional designers (IDs) are uniquely poised to lead the way by designing online curriculums, coaching faculty, and piloting new educational technology. IDs are going to be in high demand over the next few years, making it a great career choice even in today’s unstable world economy.

But what does an ID actually do? What does their typical day look like? The answer: it depends. ID jobs vary widely depending on the employer and the exact position. A senior instructional technologist will have very different responsibilities than a junior content developer.

That said, there are similar challenges that most IDs in higher education tackle, no matter their title. We spoke to two instructional designers: Dr. Luke Hobson, a program manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Nikki James, an independent learning scientist and an industry fellow at The Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. We got an idea of what they do and what you can expect from working as an ID in higher education.

They Develop Courses and Curriculums

Structuring curriculums, designing courses, and creating training materials are an ID’s bread and butter. No matter what their specialty, IDs in higher education spend a great deal of time creating educational materials.

While his responsibilities vary greatly depending on where he is in the semester, Hobson says, “There's always a part of my day where I focus on designing and developing the actual course itself.”

Depending on the structure of your department, different types of IDs may work on different aspects of course creation. James compares the instructional design process to building a house:

Instructional designers are like architects. They design the learning experience based on learning outcomes and objectives, assessments, and evaluation criteria. The instructional technologists are the engineers who figure out what tools are needed to build the course. Finally, the content developers use tools like Articulate and Canvas to actually build out the learning experience.


Designing a course doesn’t mean you need a mastery of the academic subject in question. IDs frequently work with subject matter experts to flesh out their learning materials. Hobson says,

I work on a program called Additive Manufacturing. I cannot teach anything about 3D printing; I have no idea. It’s my job to work with those who do, to collect and organize all this information, and then to put it together into a course.


They Manage Projects

IDs’ responsibilities often extend past course creation into project management. They must balance the needs of various stakeholders to make sure that everyone is satisfied and that all aspects of the course are running smoothly.

Higher-level IDs are often the connecting thread between the many departments involved in course production. “I have to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on,” says Hobson,“ that includes making sure engineering is happy, that accounting says I’m on budget, that everything is lined up with IT and customer support in case there are any issues, and that the multimedia team is ready to go.”

This administrative work continues even after the course is launched. “I make the course from start to finish,” says Hobson, “then once it’s launched, I am involved with the marketing, course revisions, budget allocations for TAs, and I even deliver presentations and demos to potential customers or students.”

To be effective at managing their projects, aspiring IDs need to cultivate strong time management and organizational and communication skills, in addition to traditional learning theory and application.


They Evaluate eLearning Materials

IDs are constantly testing out new learning tools, evaluating their effectiveness, and fine-tuning their approach based on analytics and feedback.

One of their responsibilities is to evaluate and make purchasing decisions or recommendations about new educational technology. To do this, IDs typically run pilot programs. These programs need to be meticulously designed to measure the impact of the technology on learning objectives. IDs will design the programs, set goals, and collect feedback before making a recommendation on whether or not the school should invest in the tech.

They also evaluate learning tools and courses by compiling and implementing student feedback. Hobson says,

My favorite part of the job is being able to speak with the learners after they've taken the course and just ask them about what went well. 'What did you like? How did things go?


Some IDs go even deeper into evaluating learning analytics to improve the program’s efficiency. “There’s a niche for IDs in IT as well,” says James, “using data and analytics to make sure that the day-to-day is running smoothly, and that programs are achieving the best numbers in terms of enrollment and finances.”


They Train Faculty

Even educators must take time to learn about advances in their field, and it often falls on IDs to run faculty training initiatives. In addition to written resources and training materials, they create courses on pedagogy to expose faculty to new learning theories and practices. As more schools adopt online learning models for some or all of their classes, IDs also play a major role in helping professors adjust to teaching online by providing technical training.

Sometimes IDs take on the role of consultants or 'instructional coaches' to help faculty members fine-tune their approach to teaching. Moving the physical classroom to an online one involves a lot more than just uploading class materials. James says,

They can’t just go ‘well, I lecture in my classroom, so I will lecture over Zoom.’ I help them understand what else they can do to keep students engaged using the technology that’s available.


They Deal with Unforeseen Challenges and Opportunities

ID jobs are constantly evolving to meet the changing demands of students and the university. This means that curveballs often arrive in the form of problems to solve or experimental projects.

For many, this variety is a major perk of the job. “Every day brings different things,” says Hobson. “For instance, I was just asked to deliver a presentation about our leadership program to another organization. It’s not typical for instructional designers to take on a sales role, but it’s fun to step away from the laptop and talk about my programs.”

Surprise opportunities also give IDs the chance to innovate as they wrestle with novel problems. “Right now," say James, "I’m working on developing virtual experiential experiences, high impact practices like capstone projects and virtual internships. My focus right now is how to integrate the design of the program with the technology so that we can utilize learning analytics in the teaching and learning process.


Want to Learn More About What Instructional Designers Do?

There are countless ways to become an instructional designer and many potential niches and sub-specialties for IDs to make their home. The best way to find a good fit is to explore the field through informational interviews, internships, or social media connections. Hobson says,

If you say ‘I want to be an instructional designer,’ it can mean so many different things. Try to talk to some more experienced IDs to figure out where your passion lies and pinpoint what you want to do.


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