How to Become an Instructional Designer

Teacher helping students with project on l...
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Instructional design is a relatively new industry, employing people in organizations, schools, and for-profit companies. Read on to find out what instructional design is, what kind of background designers need, and how to get a job designing educational experiences.

What is an Instructional Designer?

In a nutshell, instructional designers create educational programs for schools and companies. Many organizations have found that the internet provides a huge opportunity for providing virtual instruction, but that designing effective online educational programs isn't easy.

A subject matter expert, like a history teacher, may be excellent at leading a class in-person. But, he may not have the technical know-how or an understanding of how to present information in a way that would make an effective online course. That's where instructional designers come in.

What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

There's a lot of variety in the day-to-day work of an instructional designer. They regularly meet with clients or subject matter experts to determine how to best present information to students. They may also edit content for clarity, write instructions for assignments, and design or create learning interactives. Additionally, they may be involved (or even run) the creative side of the equation, producing videos, making podcasts, and working with photography. Designers can expect to spend their days creating storyboards, reviewing content, and asking a lot of questions.

What Education & Training Does an Instructional Designer Need?

There is no standard requirement for instructional designers, and many companies and schools hire designers with extremely different backgrounds. Generally, organizations are looking for employees with at least a bachelor's degree (often a master's degree), strong editing skills, and the ability to work well with people.

Project management experience is also highly desirable.

In recent years, Instructional Design master's degrees have become increasingly popular as are certificate programs for those that already hold a master's degree in a different subject. Instructional Design PhD programs are also available. However, the general consensus is that a PhD generally makes candidates over-qualified for most instructional design jobs and is more suitable for those that would like to be an administrator or director of an instructional design team.

Many employers are more concerned with candidate's technical abilities. A resume that lists competency in programs like Adobe Flash, Captivate, Storyline, Dreamweaver, Camtasia, and similar programs is highly desirable. Designers should also have the ability to put themselves into someone else's shoes. Someone that can suspend their own understanding and imagine encountering information for the first time will often make a good designer.

What Kind of Experience Does an Instructional Designer Need?

There is no standard experience that employers are looking for. However, they do prefer that designers have worked to create educational programs before. A track record of previous design experience is highly desirable.

Many instructional design schools require students to complete capstone projects that will be used instructionally and can also be included on the graduate's resume. New designers may seek out interns with colleges or organizations to build their resumes.

Where Can Instructional Designers Find Jobs?

While there are more instructional design jobs every year, finding them isn't always easy. One of the first places to look is on university job postings. Many schools post opportunities on their own websites and fail to publicize them more openly. HigherEd Jobs has one of the more comprehensive list of jobs available at universities. Employers tend to post openings on virtual job boards like Monster, Indeed, or Yahoo Careers. Attending instructional design or e-learning conferences is a good place to network and seek out potential job leads.

Additionally, many areas have local networks of instructional design professionals that meet regularly and communicate via social networking. Having a friend in the industry is a smart way to get connected.