Do instructional designers or learning experience designers need to know how to use development tools, or should they focus just on analysis and design? What about people who only do development but no design; are they instructional designers? How much project management falls under the role of instructional designer? What about LMSs—do instructional designers need to know about those too? Psychology, cognitive science, graphic design, usability, and other fields also overlap with instructional design. The Many Hats of an Instructional Designer game describes us as counselors, performers, users, artists, and problem solvers.
Many of us in the instructional design field struggle to explain to others what we do for a living. I usually say, “I’m an instructional designer; I develop online learning.” I think part of our struggle is that we haven’t agreed even among ourselves what exactly an instructional designer does. The range of roles and responsibilities is pretty wide. Lots of us do a little bit of everything. Nearly 16% of respondents in the eLearning Guild’s 2015 salary report identified their job as “do a lot/little of everything.” Clearly many people do work that doesn’t fit neatly into a single job category.
The core skill for instructional designers is creating learning experiences. I would argue that anyone who isn’t creating learning experiences isn’t an instructional designer; they’re working in a related role. That doesn’t necessarily mean only designing formal learning and courses. Creating job aids or supporting informal learning could be a core task for instructional designers too. However, if your role is taking a storyboard created by someone else and building it in a rapid development tool, you’re not really doing instructional design. I would classify that as elearning development or media development instead.
Cammy Bean refers to this as a “T-shaped” skill set in her book The Accidental Instructional Designer (p. 16).
We need broad skills and understanding (the top of the T), with potentially one area of deep expertise (the vertical bar of the T). The horizontal bar enables you to communicate and collaborate with experts across a wide range of disciplines, making you a versatile generalist with a well-rounded point of view. The deep vertical bar makes you a specialist.
I love this idea. It’s a great visual for thinking about how people have different strengths in a field where we all wear a lot of hats. Knowing where you’re strong helps you focus your career. You can work on your weaknesses or gaps in your skills, but you can also emphasize and focus on your strengths. As a freelance ID, I can focus on design and writing, especially writing scenario-based learning. That’s my strength, and it’s where I can differentiate myself from others in the field.
What about you? Does this metaphor resonate for you, or does it not quite fit your role? What do you consider to be the vertical bar in your T?