In his recent post We Need a Degree in Instructional Design, Karl Kapp argues that simply practicing instructional design isn’t enough; anyone who calls themselves an instructional designer should have a degree in it. He’s added a great image from Kathy Sierra that says “I’d make a good brain surgeon, because I HAD brain surgery.”

Karl makes several points that I agree with (this is my summary, not his):

  • There’s too much bad instructional design out there.
  • Instructional designers should be able to apply multiple instructional strategies, according to the needs of the situation.
  • Instructional designers should be able to articulate why they make the decisions they make, backing it up with research.
  • Understanding the theories and the research will help improve instructional design.
  • Everyone can always learn more about learning and instructional design.

Although I agree with all these points, I’m not convinced by the conclusion he draws from these points:

I have to say that in my extremely biased opinion…a degree is not only needed, it should be required!

I don’t see graduate school as the only way for individuals to meet the goal of becoming better instructional designers. Shouldn’t people who design learning for others also be able to design their own learning paths? Is formal education the only option, or is it possible to do an “informal masters” on your own?

This is not to say that there’s no value in a masters degree; I’ve certainly heard from lots of people who have found it to be very beneficial. I have every reason to believe that I personally would learn a great deal in a well-designed program. I’m also not claiming that people who have that formal education can’t and don’t gain from the informal methods too. Karl’s a great example of this. He’s out there learning in public even though he has his terminal degree; he clearly sees learning as a lifelong process.

My disagreement is with these formulas.

  • Masters Degree = Good Instructional Design
  • No Masters Degree = Bad Instructional Design

It isn’t that simple. I’ve seen atrocious design from people with the credentials, and I’ve seen people like Cammy Bean and Cathy Moore who do fabulous work but don’t have the degrees.

Clark Quinn’s explanation falls more in the middle, rather than having an either/or formula. Being a “reflective practitioner” can give motivated people the background and knowledge of that “informal masters” and achieve many of the goals from Karl’s post.

The benefit of the Master’s is the chance to get to know the theories (depending on the program and instructor). The pedagogy for the course should include applying the theories to pragmatic design, not just reciting back the contents (I used to use RFP’s asking for designs or redesigns using the theories). It’s not the only way, but being familiar enough with the underlying principles to be able to adapt the design to match the circumstances is important…

Note that Cammy is a ‘reflective practitioner’ to use Schön’s term, as she reads and reflects on what she does. That’s why she’s effectively done her own ‘masters’ in learning/ISD. So, I’m not comfortable with trusting experience over time to yield competent results, I think it takes someone being an ongoing learner. That’s easier in a well-designed program, though the caveat is that all programs are not necessarily well-designed.

Does college matter?

The above image is from Kathy Sierra’s post Does College Matter? but the quote I want to close with is from her Ten Tips for Trainers.

But with that out of the way, nobody needs a PhD (or in most cases — any degree at all) in education or learning theory to be a good teacher. Just as there are plenty of great software developers and programmers without a CompSci degree. People can be self-taught, and do a fabulous job, for a fraction of the cost of a formal education, but they have to be motivated and they have to appreciate why it’s important.

Let the debate continue!

Update: Read all my posts about Instructional Design Careers here.

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12 thoughts on “Formal or Informal Masters for Instructional Designers?

  1. What would be the best undergraduate degree before I go for my masters in instructional design. I was thinking about professional writing which includes COM 325 – Editing for Media and Publication
    COM 340 – Writing for Public Relations
    COM 341 – Technical Writing
    COM 445 – Writing for New Media

    1. That sounds like a very useful writing degree. One gap in many ID masters programs is that they don’t teach writing skills. You would have an advantage. Other choices may be fine too, but if the writing degree interests you, go for it.

      1. Thank you for your quick response. One aspect that is solidifying my decision to major in ID is the overwhelming support in its community. I really feel that I will not be alone in my career and in the furtherance of my education.

  2. There’s needs to be greater industry input into the curriculum of instructional design programs nationwide. Many are very lacking in my opinion. Let me briefly explain.

    I got a MA in that from Indiana Univ. of PA back in Summer 2001 and even did additional coursework in what I hoped would be a better program at Philadelphia University. The Philadelphia University program was discontinued and the one I graduated from only offers the program at a satellite campus. Most graduate programs in Instructional Design are only adequate for people who already have job experience in training and instructional design, but who want to increase there credentials and pay-scale by obtaining a MA or MS in instructional design. Furthermore, if you are not a web developer, multimedia developer, computer programmer, or a teacher, there are not very many programs that are going to give you any where near the skills you will need to enter the profession of instructional design. Most industry training is done via web applications and multimedia and most instructional design programs only touch the tip of the iceberg of that skill set. I do fear that you may ending up ripped-off and let down by the state in which you receive your degree. The state should not give accreditation to many instructional design programs unless they only agree to admit those who have work experience instructional design or highly-related job or educational experience such as that in IT (Information Technology) or teaching.

    1. I’m sorry that you had such a negative experience. The best programs do work with industry experts. Look at Bloomsburg University in PA, for example; those grad students are doing real projects with real clients. The bad programs like yours are definitely a problem, but the good programs are much better. For all that I don’t think a masters degree is actually required, I do see value in a strong program like Bloomsburg, SDSU, Indiana, etc.

      You said: “The state should not give accreditation to many instructional design programs unless they only agree to admit those who have work experience instructional design or highly-related job or educational experience such as that in IT (Information Technology) or teaching.”

      First, most universities are regionally accredited (and you do want regional rather than national accreditation, for reasons too complicated to explain here). States don’t accredit universities. Accreditation doesn’t quite work the way you say here; universities are generally given permission to offer programs within a broad range of topics (e.g., IT, education, criminal justice). Within that range, they have a fair amount of leeway. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but as long as universities show continuous improvement with the institutional effectiveness efforts, the accrediting bodies aren’t going to look at each individual degree program with the kind of detail you’re expecting. Major accreditation reviews happen about every 10 years, so even if they were reviewed and inline with industry, a lot could change during that time.

      I disagree with the idea that people shouldn’t be allowed into programs until they have experience. I think the masters program should give people that experience. I’ll use the example of Bloomsburg again, but other universities that have authentic projects and help students build portfolios are good too. It’s a catch-22 for many people; you can’t get the job unless you have a experience, and you can’t get experience until you have a job. The masters degree should be that bridge for people who don’t have related experience.

  3. Karl, I think in many respects I’d be more comfortable with a certification as measure of rigor and standards than a degree. If a certification could be created that used authentic assessment (probably a portfolio evaluation), do you think that would achieve many of the same goals you talked about? IT certifications give people the same credentials whether they have a degree or not, and whether they took formal training or studied on their own.

    I agree with the goal of improving the profession of ID, but not with the path you suggest to get there. Can you explain more why you believe the certification model in the IT field won’t work for ID? I enjoy our discussions too, and I’m trying to understand your perspective.

  4. Christy, I agree that some instructional design programs are lacking as are programs in many fields and I also agree that a degree is not promise of good performance (unfortunately). We get the students for a little over a year, we teach them as much as we can but some get it and some don’t. We try to screen out the ones who don’t as much as possible but still some who graduate are on the line. I still think, however, that talking about individual designers or redoing one designers work is different than answering the question of whether or not the field should require a degree. I really think that the field needs to show that what we do is rigorous enough and scientific enough to be called a profession. If not, then we really don’t have a field or a single body of knowledge, we just have a bunch of techniques we apply from time-to-time.

    Thanks for continuing this discussion and all your great comments…they are always insightful, interesting and relevent. I do enjoy our discussions.


  5. Theoretically, a degree in instructional design really should show a higher level of expertise. In practice, I think I see some correlation, but I’m not sure that it’s strong enough to try to require it. Cathy, I think you may be right that some people aren’t really getting the learning experiences they should be from their programs. I’m sure some programs are better than others, but a degree isn’t a guarantee.

    Indiana University has a course called Effective Writing for Instructional Technology, so I guess one program has a writing course.

    Sam, I’d forgotten that scene, but you’re right. I have less of an issue with universities requiring degrees for their faculty though; accreditation is a whole other discussion. I’m not sure that instructional designers always fall under the same accreditation rules as faculty, but universities have the mindset of looking for degrees. Of course, there are ways to do higher ed without a masters degree; I’m a good example of that. The for-profit education world is perhaps more interested in your results than your credentials.

  6. I am reminded of the scene in Good Will Hunting where they go to the the Harvard bar. Ben Aflek tries to impress some girls and a grad student comes up and starts making him look foolish. Matt Damon steps in and basically calls him on his scheme. The best part of that scene is where he tells they guy he wasted 150,000 dollars on an education he could have got at the public library for 1.50 in late fees. The grad students come back was – yeah well at least I will have a degree…

    I really don’t think a piece of paper will ever be able to determine if someone knows there stuff. But it is the only way really to get a job in Higher Education. What to do…

  7. I think there’s a lot of value in an ID degree. I also agree that having the degree doesn’t guarantee that you’ll create something that works.

    I’ve been hired several times to redo what degreed designers have done. I’m not claiming that my (ID-degree-free) work was any better. But the fact that a person has an ID degree doesn’t guarantee that they will produce something that learners will use and learn from.

    The usual reason the work was being redone was that it was too “boring” (usually wordy, passive, and abstract).

    I’ve noticed two patterns in this work that suggest some possible weaknesses in some of the degrees being granted. The designer apparently didn’t learn how to write for a business audience, and they apparently didn’t learn how to create activities that encourage knowledge transfer. Their assessments are simple knowledge checks.

    I’m certainly not saying that an ID degree is worthless, just that it’s not a guarantee–just as a degree in any other field is also no guarantee.

    On my grumpier days, I think some people are getting shortchanged by their degree institutions. They should at least learn how to write for different types of learners, and they especially should learn how syntax and word choice affect learners’ understanding and motivation.

    In my quick & unscientific look into the requirements of several respected degree programs, I saw no required work in writing or readability. There’s a ton of research into language and cognition, but apparently little of it has made it into the instructional design world, a fact which mystifies me.

    1. That’s my point exactly. ID degrees are usually at the graduate level only, and most will not teach what you have addressed in your comment. They will teach the theory and skimp badly on the application, you’ll be lucky to see examples of good application. You basically, learn the ADDIE and the theories and apply them by way of your own interpretation without seeing and experiencing any examples. Also, the programs do not adequately address the proper verb tense to use and how to be effective at it. One shouldn’t even graduate without an internship unless they have work experience in ID.

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