What Do Instructional Designers Do?

Recently, I saw an ad in the March 2010 Issue of T&D  looking for instructional designers to create “innovative elearning…” It caught my eye because it was looking for volunteers to build training for kids. But it rubbed me the wrong way and reminded me of a continuing concern I have that when people think “instructional designer” they immediately think “elearning.” Maybe some ID’s like that because it gives us a niche…after all, technical know-how is a sure way to define turf and make it easy for others to figure out what you do.

But, instructional design is more than development. I see it as including

  • Analysis of performance and identifying the required capabilities
  • Designing ways of assessing for and developing those capabilities
  • Developing instructional processes and supporting materials (including assessments)
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the solutions

(The above is really a narrow definition of ID because many of us include “performance consulting” as part of our focus.)

It seems to me that if the focus is only elearning and only development, there are a number of key decisions that the ID will not even be involved in and will only be able to influence slightly (if at all). Not good. You can create nifty interfaces for effective teaching programs that are targeted (potentially) at the wrong things. Sure it can be fun and creative but you won’t be able to reliably get results beyond “neato!”

The key benefit an ID can add to a project is really about capability. What capabilities are needed? What capabilities are there? How can we effectively install those capabilities into the target audience(s)? How can we build supporting materials that really work in the instructional process? Or, even as on-the-job references?

Ultimately, we can identify capabilities that are difficult to develop or critical to successful performance and help create plans and strategies for managing the risk. Often, we can identify ways of simplifying the performance or building tools to reduce the load on the performer, which makes a higher level of performance possible.

Somehow, we need to look beyond (and show our clients and colleagues how to look beyond) outputs and focus instead on the desired outcomes, that is, improved performance. This isn’t a new message…but apparently, everyone still hasn’t heard it.


For more information on the field of Human Performance Consulting, check out ISPI.

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