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9 Tips for Success as an Instructional Designer

These best practices from the Learning Design and Technology program at the University of San Diego will help practitioners create the best possible learning experience for students and develop a rewarding career in instructional design.

It's official — e-learning continues to rise in popularity as the go-to method for delivering online courses and training programs. While the explosive growth during 2020 should come as no surprise, the truth is that demand for online education has been steadily building, and institutes of higher education, ed tech companies, and venture capitalist investors have all taken notice. 

As the education and corporate training sectors continue to develop their e-learning programs, instructional designers are increasingly in-demand. If you enjoy building effective content that will engage learners, boost retention, and improve outcomes, you're entering the field at a great time. However, increased demand can also increase competition, so you'll need to ensure that you can stand out from your peers.

In our Learning Design and Technology program at the University of San Diego, we train aspiring learning and instructional designers to apply best practices and work with the leading technology tools to develop the best possible learning experience. Let me share some of the top advice taken from our blog post on 12 Best Practices for Instructional Designers to highlight the areas you'll want to focus on in your professional development.

1) Identify learning outcomes.

Effective instructional design solutions begin with clearly articulated learning outcomes. Consulting with stakeholders will help you determine what knowledge and skills learners must acquire and what they must do to demonstrate knowledge gain.

You should be able to:

  • Write specific and measurable course objectives aligned with the learning need.
  • Determine which instructional design model will work best to achieve your outcomes (i.e., ADDIE, SAM, or Backward Design).
  • Select the most appropriate learning theory to inform your design choices.
  • Demonstrate project management skills to balance the scope of the course, account for your budget, and ensure that everything gets done on time.

After establishing the learning outcomes, there is one last — and certainly not least — important consideration that's fundamental for your course design…

2) Know your audience.

Knowing your target audience — students' skills, prior knowledge, and preferences — is essential for designing a course that meets their needs. Gather demographic data such as level of education, age, and whether they are second language learners.

Regardless of learner demographics, you'll need to set clear learning outcomes so learners are aware of what the instructor expects them to know or do after completing the course. Articulating clear learner outcomes also helps learners feel comfortable contacting the instructor if they need clarification or have questions.

3) Show that you're open to communication and feedback.

Good professional practice requires taking the initiative to ask questions and communicate with the other professionals you'll be collaborating with.

  • Be comfortable in reaching out and discussing all elements of the course with the stakeholders until everyone is on the same page about the instructional goals. Don't be afraid to offer suggestions or insights — your expertise could be key in helping stakeholders think outside the box or encouraging them to consider different approaches.
  • During the course design process, cultivate open communication with instructors and any members of your development team. They'll need to fully understand your intentions since anything left up to interpretation may turn out differently than planned.
  • The instructors are ultimately responsible for facilitating content delivery to the students. Proactively reach out to clear up any misconceptions or answer questions about the content delivery method and keep an open mind when considering their insights and preferences.
  • Finally, set aside time to listen to the learners themselves. If possible, observe a course to take note of what's working well and what may need to be improved. At the end of the course, gather learner feedback and analyze the results to inform future course revisions.

4) Be comfortable with commonly used technology tools.

Keeping abreast of new tools, technology, and resources is integral to the instructional designer's lifelong learning journey. You should be familiar with content authoring tools (such as Articulate Storyline 360 and Adobe Captivate), multimedia development tools (such as Camtasia and Adobe Creative Cloud), and learning management systems (such as Canvas and Blackboard). 

Your ability to learn a program and its capabilities quickly and effectively is more important than mastery of specific software. Many skills are transferable, so your learning curve should be manageable if you're familiar with one platform. For example, if you can build a course in Blackboard, you can build one in Canvas. Likewise, if you can develop e-learning in Adobe Captivate, you'll be able to do the same in Articulate Storyline 360.

5) Commit to iterating and simplifying.

Ensure your course is as easy for learners to follow and navigate — the fewer clicks they need to access content, the better. Note that achieving this may require multiple iterations of the course design based on feedback from sample learners and colleagues.

Start with an outline or visual storyboard to map the scope and sequence of your course. From there, you can decide on elements like open vs. guided navigation — where should there be restricted or conditional navigation, and where should learners have more freedom to explore? 

Writers have a rather grim yet effective axiom: "Kill your darlings." Don't be afraid to scrap or revise a course element, no matter how fond you are of it. Knowing what to cut and what to emphasize is essential for keeping your courses engaging — and ensuring that you can meet your deliverables by the deadline.

6) Allow time to test and revise your design.

Good time management is an essential skill for any instructional designer. Create a project development plan that includes time to step away from your work and return to review and assess it with a fresh perspective. This is especially important after reaching a project milestone to ensure all stakeholders approve the design before moving on to the next step.

Part of that process should be evaluating the course program from a learner's perspective. Give yourself time to go through the course at the intended pace and take notes on what is and isn't working as intended. This testing phase is even more effective if you enlist the help of others to offer you preliminary feedback.

7) Be mindful about multimedia and accessibility.

Today's instructional designers have unprecedented access to video, audio, and other multimedia and interactive development tools that facilitate engaging learning experiences. However, you need the skills and knowledge to know when and how to implement best practices for multimedia instruction. While video and audio can engage learners, too much is just as likely to overwhelm or bore them. As a general rule of thumb, aim for under 15 minutes per video or presentation.

Another professional habit is to keep accessibility top of mind. Accessible design, when applied correctly, benefits all students. Recorded presentations should have closed captioning, and visual elements should include tags that make it easy for screen readers to convey what the image depicts. Always use clean and clear graphics, appropriate white space, and contrasting colors to keep content readable on as many devices as possible.

8) Showcase your best work.

To succeed as an instructional designer, you'll need to demonstrate proficiency with these skills and techniques. Every designer, no matter how new to the field, should have a portfolio to showcase the design solutions and products they've created. Your portfolio should showcase the work you're most proud of, including planning tools, storyboards, multimedia content, instructional materials, and e-learning products.

Every artifact should tell a story about you as an instructional designer. Collectively, they highlight your professional competencies and professional identity. Anyone who views your portfolio should see who you are, what you know, and what you can do. Be sure to tag your portfolio entries with vital information, such as the role you played, the problem you solved, the tools used, and the outcome of the solution.

9) Remember that you're always learning.

To be an instructional designer is to dedicate yourself to lifelong learning. Every course you develop gives you practice in applying theory to design. To ensure that you can learn from your experiences, always ask yourself how you'll measure outcomes to determine the effectiveness of your design and whether you've met the objective criteria.

Your learning extends beyond personal accomplishments. Stay engaged with the instructional design community's "on trend" debates and conversations, collaborate with other designers, examine the field of best practices, and subscribe to industry publications and journals.

One of the best ways to shore up your technical skills, knowledge of theory, and interpersonal experience is to get an advanced degree in instructional or learning design. Pursuing a master's degree, such as our Learning Design and Technology program, or an advanced certificate is a highly effective way to learn the latest skills, build your portfolio, and network with other designers entering the field.

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