Over the years, I’ve been asked by many different people what an instructional designer does. I love instructional design because it is a field where I’m constantly learning. Instructional design uses so many different skills—writing, graphics, UX, collaboration, project management, plus of course the art and science of how people learn.
This is the first in a series of posts on instructional design careers.
What does an instructional designer do? Design and develop learning experiences
I’m emphasizing “experiences” here deliberately, even though that isn’t always how others would describe the job. I think one of the crucial things instructional designers can (and should!) do is make sure that students have opportunities to actively practice what they are learning.
If all you’re doing is dumping content into PowerPoint slides or text to read, you don’t need an instructional designer. The Subject Matter Expert or whoever knows the content can just write it, and the students will be passive recipients of that content.
What the instructional designer adds to the process is the experiences of learning and practicing. IDs know how people learn and can implement strategies to help them learn better.
If you’re looking for engaging learning activities or ways to make practice closer to real life skills, that’s when you need an ID. When you want people to change their behavior as a result of training (rather than just becoming aware of a new policy), an instructional designer can make a real difference.
How do we do that?
- Work with Subject Matter Experts and others to identify what students need to learn
- Develop objectives and align content, activities, and assessments to those objectives
- Revise and rewrite content to shape it for learning needs
- Structure content and activities for student learning, based on research and other factors
- Develop assessments (note that this does not only mean tests)
- Create media to support learning (visual aids, infographics, interactive exercises, animation, job aids)
- Transform instructional materials created for one format to another format (usually this is adapting materials from face-to-face to elearning)
That’s not a comprehensive description by any stretch of the imagination. These are examples of typical tasks that instructional designers may do in either higher education or workplace training environments.
Variety in the field
Instructional design has a lot of variety. That’s one of the challenges with defining it; the responsibilities of instructional designers may hardly overlap between organizations. An ID in a university may primarily help faculty figure out how to best put their courses online and how to use the technology to connect with students. IDs in large corporations may focus on task analysis, design, and storyboarding, passing all elearning development work to others on their team. An ID in a small organization may do a little bit of everything: delivering and supporting webinars, building elearning, creating performance support, and more.
What instructional design is not
Instructional design isn’t just technical development. If your job is just taking storyboards and building them in a tool like Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate, you’re a developer, not an instructional designer. Those positions should be called “elearning developers” or “multimedia developers” to differentiate them from instructional designers. Development can be part of an ID’s job, but not 100% of it.
Other posts in this careers series
This post was originally published on May 26, 2007. For over 10 years, it was my most popular post. It’s still one of my top evergreen posts. Even after all these years, people are looking for the answer to this question. I last updated this ID career series in 2019. I will be updating the rest of the posts in the coming months, but a surprising amount of the information is still relevant.
- What Does an Instructional Designer Do? (Current post)
- Getting Into Instructional Design
- Resources for Learning Instructional Design Skills
- Technology Skills for Instructional Designers
- Professional Organizations for Instructional Designers
- Is instructional design the right career?
Read all my posts about Instructional Design Careers, including posts on freelancing and transitioning from teaching to instructional design.
Read the Spanish translation of this post: ¿Qué hace un diseñador instruccional?
Originally published 5/26/2007. Updated 1/31/2019, 2/23/2023.
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