Whether you're an aspiring instructional designer or you're a professional contemplating a career change to ID, it pays to determine if you're a good fit for the industry.
Here are ten questions to consider before entering the ID field. As I've worked as a corporate, higher ed, healthcare, and as a freelance ID contractor, I can assure you the questions apply to each specialty.
1. Do I like learning? An instructional designer never stops learning. It's one of the great perks of the profession. Are you genuinely curious about new subjects? Do you continuously seek to improve your skillset? With each new project, I learn so much about content, the target audience, the nuances of a particular industry (banking, risk, law, healthcare, etc.), and the objectives and solutions needed to solve a particular learning challenge.
2. Do I like technology? Are you willing to try new software and authoring tools? Are you okay with testing the latest learning technology, hitting a few roadblocks, and pressing on? Keep in mind there will always be the "next best" authoring software. What we use today as an industry-standard may look completely different next year and in five years. Change is constant and is expected as an ID.
3. Am I a creative problem-solver? Can you look at an issue from all angles and make concrete, specific suggestions? Do you love brainstorming? Do the possibilities seem endless when you're confronted with finding a solution to an issue? Creative problem-solving can require a learning solution no one has attempted before, but therein can lie the magic! Collaborate, suggest, and be open to feedback.
4. Can I function well both individually and as part of a larger group? This is crucial for an instructional designer. Even if you work as a freelancer, contractor, or have a remote position, you'll have to attend virtual project meetings, collaborate with a manager, team up with peers, and work closely with various subject matter experts. Once the initial project scope is identified and the analysis is complete, it's time to work on your own before coming back to the team. To me, this is the best of both worlds.
5. Can I work with subject matter experts (SMEs)? As an ID, you provide the learning solution (through the ID model you choose to apply, which will likely include some form of analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation). The subject matter expert (SME) provides the content. I've built courses on fiduciary responsibility, legal issues, executive leadership, healthcare data analysis, nursing, psychology, and human trafficking (to name a few). As an ID, I can't possibly be an expert in each field. That said, I soak up as much information as I can, knowing subject matter experts are crucial to the ID process. Working well with a SME leads to a smoother, efficient, and more successful project.
6. Do I listen well? Listening is a crucial skill and a professional "muscle" that should be exercised daily. Though it may be tempting to jump in during your first meeting with a SME or project team and make end-solution suggestions, you'll gain respect if you listen carefully first. Step back. Allow the SME(s) to discuss the vision for the learning solution, the objectives or goals for the project, and the potential evaluation of the change in learner behavior they'd like to accomplish. Listen, take notes, and then ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. It's then that you can gently steer the conversation toward an efficient and effective learning solution.
7. Am I patient? As an instructional designer, it's tempting to create a flashy, impressive course in several hours (or days) and be done. However, in reality, the instructional design process is collaborative, thoughtful, strategic, and takes time. Don't skip a thorough performance and needs analysis (What is causing the performance issue? Is this actually training?) before diving into design and development. Complete an audience analysis, as well (What's the goal of this effort? What should the learners realistically be able to do, perform, accomplish as a result of this learning solution? Where is the gap in learning?)
8. Can I gracefully handle feedback on my work? Am I okay with not "owning" the end project? This is critical. Designing a learning solution is an iterative process, meaning your project will go through multiple drafts and revisions. Part of that process is receiving feedback and constructive criticism on the design and development in-progress from SMEs and stakeholders. In the end, IDs do not "own" the project. Compromise is vital, as is grace under pressure. Not all feedback is delivered kindly and with a filter. This does get easier over time. It is perfectly reasonable to discuss potential roadblocks. Be sure to back up your design and development recommendations with examples, research, and instructional design best practices.
9. Am I organized? Can I manage a project and meet a deadline? Organization and project management is essential, especially when working from home/remotely. Agree on timelines from the start, develop a detailed plan, schedule milestone meetings, review sessions, and allow ample time for SME and stakeholder reviews. There will be unexpected tech glitches, unforeseen meeting conflicts, additional discussion around implementation, audience, evaluation of the project, etc. Consistently missed deadlines are fatal for an ID. Your learners are counting on you. Make sure you deliver well and deliver on time.
10. Do I have the learner's best interest in mind at all times? As the instructional designer, you must always consider and advocate on behalf of the learner. Is the content relevant, on point, and timely? Does the course information provide real value? Does the project contain actionable items that can be applied right away? As many wise IDs have said, the most expensive training is the training that doesn't work. Have candid conversations throughout the learning solution process. If changes are suggested mid-project, redirect SMEs to the objectives and ask if the changes will positively impact the learning outcome or create a more engaging experience for the learner?
What do you think? Are there additional questions to consider? I'd love to have your feedback and ideas!
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