Instructional Design — Degree or Not?

This has been one of those weeks that make me wish for more days so I can get some rest!

A recently published e-learning blog raised the question about Instructional Design — does a designer need a  Degree or not? If materials from college courses do not transfer to work place practices, the author asks, is it really worth getting a degree?

A college degree provides a foundation for building lifelong learning — essentially to begin the pathway to critical thinking that fuels creative problem solving.

Before we can ask whether or not an instructional designer needs a college degree, we first need to answer three things; 1) What is instructional design, 2) what does an instructional designer do? and 3) How is the world of ID changing?

First, Instructional Design is a systematic and reflective process used to develop consistently reliable instruction and training materials grounded by learning and instructional theories, principles, and models.  Second, Instructional Designers wear many hats — designer, developer, evaluator, etc. and needs substantive skills for creative problem-solving. Third, the need for qualified instructional designers is driven by changing technologies—pedagogical approaches must evolve with new technologies. The world of ID must evolve to meet the needs of an every changing horizon of human learning.

An instructional designer integrates knowledge about 1) characteristics of the targeted audience, 2) stakeholder needs, 3) constraints of the instructional system (standards, time allotted for the instruction, etc.), 4) desired outcomes of the instruction, 5) learning and instructional theories, 6) assessment and evaluation methods, and  7) current instructional technologies.  An instructional designer delivers the full package from brainstorming through final evaluation of product effectiveness for the targeted audience and goals.

The question of degree or not depends on the context of the job — what are the expectations of the job? If an instructional designer is hired to transform information from paper to digital via some selected technology (captivate, articulate, dreamweaver, etc) then a degree is not beneficial—rather, an individual trained in the desired technology or technologies can perform such routine tasks.

If, however, evaluation of new instructional products is the goal, a degree provides the initial skills that fuel lifelong learning with professional development activities to address gaps in knowledge, or to fine-tune and sharpen existing skills. A Master’s degree or higher is needed — I believe — and one needs a bachelor’s degree to enter a Master’s program.

New Technologies.

Technology is advancing faster than ways to use it for LEARNING — yes, learning (not education, not social activities, and not training people to use technology). The technology will not take care of the learning part, that must be intentionally designed to take advantage of the affordances of the technology. A degree is not needed to learn how to use new technologies, however, the technologies must be selected and used for their affordances to facilitate the desired learning process.

Providing learners with an I-Pad or a smart phone does little good without first developing  a plan for learning. If it were as easy as providing I-Pads and smart phones, achievement failures in education and in training & development would have been solved YEARS ago. We cannot get around a good solid instructional plan for learning — BEFORE technology selection.

Research about new pedagogical approaches is needed (whether formal research or in-house action research) to learn more about how to effectively use new technologies for learning. In my professional opinion, a degree is needed, and lifelong learning through professional development experiences cannot be ignored.

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