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Instructional Design (ID): Skills You Must Have to be Great at eLearning

If you’re new to elearning, you’ve probably encountered the term Instructional Design (or ID) and you’re probably wondering what that is. Don’t worry. Even seasoned Instructional Designers get asked more times than they can remember, “So, what do you really do?” Understandably, Instructional Design is an alien concept to (almost all) your friends and family but it is a core skill that is held in high regard in the elearning industry and forms the basis for any learning or training program. It’s little wonder then that Instructional Designers are seen as one of the key stakeholders in the learning, development and training process. 

Knowledge about ID is critical to your success in the elearning industry and is a great place to start the journey. So, let’s dig in and understand the fundamentals of Instructional Design.

What is Instructional Design?

Instructional Design is the practice of evaluating, designing, creating and converting educational materials to an online curriculum.

Origin of Instructional Design

We can trace instructional design concepts and theories way back to World War II, when soldiers had to be quickly yet extensively trained in several complex tasks. Military instructors used B.F. Skinner’s studies in behavioural science to break down tasks into individual learning goals and achieve better outcomes.

What do Instructional Designers do?

Instructional Designers (or IDs) take into consideration cognitive psychology, instructional theory and best practices while designing courses. IDs dip into their understanding of the various instructional models and design and develop the storyboard for online learning courses as well as the learning material needed for online training.

IDs use their skills to transform information into clear, easy-to-understand, and contextual content to create effective learning experiences. So whether it is for kids in school, an online college course, or corporate training, IDs understand the knowledge and skills gap in the target audience and accordingly create learning material and activities that help close this gap. Unlike the common perception that ID is merely copy-pasting content in the form of PPTs or videos, it is actually a combination of art and science. Rightly touted as the architects of learning experiences, IDs do present content in a well-designed manner, but their presentation (art) is rooted in the scientific fields of educational psychology, cognition, and problem-solving.

Role and Competencies of an ID

Considering that the process of developing effective learning experiences is a complex and iterative one, Instructional Design is anything but simple! But, what makes it challenging and interesting is that during the process, an ID is required to wear many different hats to design custom elearning solutions for K12 and Corporate learners.

In order to design a stellar learning experience, an ID must play multiple roles including that of an Innovator, a Visualizer, a Researcher, a Writer, an Editor, an Analyst, an Artist, a Graphics Designer, a Project Manager, a Teacher, a Tech Expert, a Computer Programmer, and even an Educational Psychologist. Though, it is not uncommon for the Graphic Design and Video Production to be undertaken by dedicated design and tech teams.

The International Board of Standards for Training, Performance, and Instruction (IBSTPI) has recognized the core competencies of a qualified ID and has listed performance statements that describe their application. Let’s dive into the major competencies identified by the IBSTPI:

  • Planning and Analysis: Meticulously performing a needs analysis lays the foundation for designing material that can cater to specific learning needs. In a bid to do so, the IDs first set out to identify the knowledge or skills gap as well as analyse the characteristics of their target audience (learning level), the learning environment, and the use of existing and emerging technologies. Apart from that, IDs also seek to understand learners’ goals and expectations from the course and utilise a slew of techniques to determine instructional content. Based on the data gleaned from this thorough assessment, they finalise the most appropriate design solutions.
  • Design and Development: At this stage, the role of an ID is to select, revise, or create a brand-new design and development model that is relevant for the project. Whether the learners are children in school, youngsters in college, or adults at the workplace, they come from all walks of life, making it crucial for IDs to ensure that the learning content reflects a deep understanding of the diversity. To keep attrition rates low and learner engagement rate high, IDs break down the content into smaller chunks and then organise and structure it into a fluid and logical sequence. Once the sequence is ready, they then decide whether to use an instructional approach based on storytelling, videos, gamification, or interactive quizzes, etc.
  • Work with SMEs: IDs are not required to have in-depth knowledge of the subject they’re working on, which gives them the flexibility to work in just about any industry. But this also means that IDs have to closely collaborate with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to create and curate content that is accurate, relevant, and contextual. IDs are tasked with eliciting the support of SMEs to add substance to outlines and storyboards, help create a course description, agree on the content sequencing, evaluate course objectives, develop a summative assessment to appraise learners, and determine the right resources for the learners.
  • Implementation and Management: Once the course or training material is ready to be rolled out, it is the responsibility of IDs to evaluate and revise them based on data and then ensure effective implementation. However, the role of an ID does not end post-implementation, for now, they must don the hat of a Project Manager. This involves applying business skills to manage the training project and collaborate with all the stakeholders to make sure all entities work as a cohesive team.

Must-Have Skills of an ID

If one thing is clear about the role of IDs, it is that professionals who want to design successful learning experiences must have a versatile set of skills. IDs not only need to master learning design and technology but also possess strong:

  • Creative and Visualisation Skills: IDs are called upon to come up with creative ways to transform the driest subjects and most comprehensive training materials into exciting learning experiences that engage the attention of the learner.
  • Strong Fundamental Base: IDs must have a strong knowledge base when it comes to various prescribed models such as ADDIE, Bloom’s, Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, and Merrill’s Principles of Instruction (MPI). IDs can then use their discretion to cherry-pick the best elements from each and create a flexible model that suits the project.
  • Writing and Editorial Skills: IDs must have the ability to craft simple, clear, and concise content that is also grammatically correct. Editing, comprehension, and proofreading skills are a must too.
  • Critical Thinking and Logical Reasoning Skills: These skills are essential when IDs are chunking and sequencing the content, mapping content to the most appropriate model, migrating content, reorganising the content for better flow, crafting content to the learners’ acumen, etc.
  • Multimedia Designing Skills: IDs use multimedia extensively to make learning materials more interactive and engaging, so having basic web, graphics, and multimedia design skills can come in handy.
  • Technology: Staying abreast of the latest in the field of technology is a must, especially since they may use delivery systems like Moodle and Blackboard, or the digital materials may call for artificial intelligence and/or virtual reality.
  • Project Management Skills: IDs foster relationships among the stakeholders as well as manage individuals or teams who contribute to the design process, making it crucial to hone their PM skills, including their leadership and negotiation skills.
  • Soft Skills: It is also critical for IDs to cultivate active listening skills, communication skills, people skills, and presentation skills.

In an attempt to embrace the new normal created by COVID-19, organisations and academic institutions alike are making a massive and rapid shift towards online learning. The situation demands qualified IDs with a versatile skill set and the calibre to seamlessly switch between their fluid roles and responsibilities.

However, the massive dearth of skilled IDs continues to be a challenge. As it is a niche field, qualified professionals are as expensive as they are difficult to find. As a result, organizations and educational firms believe that they’re better off hiring and training junior content writers. But being penny-wise during the hiring process leads to project inefficiencies and below-average content that lacks the sound design element and finesse a skilled ID would apply. So, although there is a requirement for more IDs at a global level, we first need to break this vicious, cost-driven cycle. Moreover, it is essential for MOOCs and other courses to go beyond just teaching rigid ID frameworks – they also need to prioritize real-world applications.

L&D executives are waking up to the fact that without good IDs, they cannot design courses or learning material that lead to the desired outcomes. So, although they have been underestimated and often overlooked outside as well as within the elearning industry so far, IDs are gradually being recognised as indispensable resources.

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