Do instructional designers and 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. In instructional design, we have both broad and deep skills.
Job titles and expanding expectations
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 create online learning.”
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. Job descriptions have also been expanding to encompass more skills, especially more technology skills, as noted in “Digital Skills Dominate Job Ads for Instructional Designers.“
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.
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.
Strengths and weaknesses
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. I find this much more helpful than just talking about “generalists” or “specialists,” when it’s more nuanced than that.
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 consultant, I 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. However, I have enough development skills to create courses from start to finish.
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 bars in your T or comb?
Originally published 7/29/2016. Updated 6/22/2020.