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Death of the Instructional Designer

Fifteen years ago when I joined the profession, Instructional Design was a new profession. Friends and family asked about what I really did for a living. Customers were surprised to find Instructional Designers in India and after a few years of struggle, getting business was not so hard. We were grudgingly accepted as Instructional Designers without any formal qualification in Instructional Design. As Instructional Designers we spent time in learning about the underlying theories of instructional design, did our research on the project content area and spent hours in brainstorming instructional strategies.

Over the years instructional design became less of a mystery. Many more companies were vying for instructional design projects. Setting up a new instructional design company was and still is easy. Type of projects over the years changed. Entry levels lowered. Instructional Design transformed into more Content Development and less Design. Design became user interface and media elements. Visual appeal overshadowed fundamental instructional design.

Last few years has seen the emergence of Subject Matter Expert (SME) as the absolute key role in content development projects. And rapid development tools are in. Tool product companies wooed customers with rapid development tools showing samples that could be created in less than an hour. So technically SMEs could create one hour of content in only a few hours. Companies preferred to hire pure Content Developers with knowledge of various tools instead of Instructional Designers. Customers questioned about what value the Instructional Designers add to their projects. After all the SME provides content and graphics designer and programmer add media elements and integrates using various tools.

With content development commoditized, Instructional Designers needed to transform into Solutions Architects and move up the value chain. So if you aren’t solving large corporate problems like improving productivity of 50,000 people across 10 countries, you aren’t really adding value. That takes care of about 1% of Instructional Designers. So what do the other 99% Instructional Designers and Content Developers do? Do we even need Instructional Designers today? What value do Instructional Designers add in content development projects today? What are the key skills in an Instructional Designer that are required and valued by organizations today?


Pradyumna said...

Manish, I tend to agree with you. The reasons might be a wee bit different.

Living 3 years out of NIIT’s safe domain, I had to continuously reinvent the die-hard instructional designer in me! I had to hard-sell learning and its virtues to programmers, tech geeks, tech sales and marketing samurais, and technological evangelists across the world… Had to explain who an instructional designer is and what they do. Over the years I have crystallized a few tentative conclusions…

The industry is a-changing! In the pure IT domain, no one now wants to become an instructional designer. I thought they (the IT world) didn’t understand instructional designing. Instructional designing is so exciting… so invigorating, so rewarding… but the facts stared in front of me and willy-nilly, I had to accept them.

Then introspection started…
Why is instructional design disintegrating – or is it? Is there a problem? Are these specialized skills no longer required? If these skills were so key not so long ago – how is the industry planning to survive (and prosper) without it?

Looking back – we were learning and growing in a nascent industry. NIIT was the pioneer in instructional design in India and one of the pioneers in the world. We were at the point of inflection where we learned and paved the path too. This path headed towards multifarious growth – learning, imparting training, and of course business too! In the process, we learned, we implemented our learning immediately in live projects, we recommended best practices and solutions to the clients, we mined the accounts and increased our business substantially… and the rest is, as they say, recent history!

The changed world scenario…
Now things are different… we live in the world of Wikipedia! There are tools that help create (or more specifically integrate) content. Now we have visual designers who design the backend database and can code too! HTML and .NET are passé, Java is in! Now technical writers can write content that needs to be fed into these tools.

LCMS and LMS are now integrated into CMS! The grand plans of implementing (after designing and creating) custom LMS are now gone. Large organizations that have already invested heavily in LMSs now only need content writers for maintenance and upgrading of their content!

The industry doesn’t need programmers or instructional designers now. They only need technical documentation experts, SMEs, and programming-savvy visual designers! These are the results of convergence – technology and management convergence! All the survey reports by IDC et al couldn’t predict this change!

The learning cycle is shorter, the clients too are trained and knowledgeable. Their problems are smaller and so the solutions are cheaper! The hourly billing rates are stagnating or falling… and with the rising Rupee …and increasing local salaries – the world is changing irreparably! Business of hyper-specialization has started. Now that is a different story… But what will happen to the instructional designer, version 2007?

As the IT industry matures world-wide – the requirements and needs change, and all of us have to be lithe and agile to mould ourselves into the newer roles that this convergence is enabling.

All change throws up new opportunities – we have to grab them and have the onerous task to reinvent instructional design! Today’s instructional designer should have the following attributes:
- Technical savvy
- Has a passion for the language, learning, and training
- Is an integrator
- Can double up as a technical writer
- Has tool-specific expertise
- Has documentation expertise (with chunking and information mapping abilities)
- Solution expert (problem identifier and solver)

The instructional designer that we knew doesn’t exist any more. The king is dead, long live the King!

Sandipan said...

Hi Manish,
Thanks for the timely article from you! Your insights are really thought-provoking for any ID.
At the same time, your article spurred me on to respond for another reason: due to some self-introspection that I have been doing about my own role as an Instructional Designer!
I am pretty new to NIIT, and my views are based on and relate to my cross-organizational experiences in the field of e-learning.
Even after spending about 4 years in this industry, I sadly find that as an end-user, I, like many other IDs, still prefer learning by the old bookish method!
And so, I asked myself: is there something wrong with the way we have been doing things?
And I came up with certain observations:

As IDs, we have been learning and preaching well-established theories and concepts, and designing and developing training based on those theories. However, in the process, we tended to overlook someone: the LEARNER.
We tried to please all our stakeholders, but rarely put ourselves in the shoes of the learner. We didn't try to see HOW we are making learning easier for the learner.
We tend to stress too much on language and style, but forget that what most people need today is easily found Just-In-Time information. And I believe, designing content to provide Just-In-Time info with minimal effort is still not a child's play, and if anyone is best equipped to do the job, it is the ID.

As IDs, we either act as completely ignorant of technology, or we try to be the technology expert. At the same time, we try to be CONTENT-WRITERS.
I think our role is neither. The content is never ours; it belongs to the technical expert (and not the SME) who has spent years learning and then practicing the particular technology.
What we need to do best is to make the content more attractive, less complex, and easily digestible to the learner, without over-simplifying the technical info.

We need to be Technical Writers who can re-engineer content to make learning easier, and at the same time, experts in integrating content using rapid development tools and multimedia applications.

In the process, we, Instructional Designers, can easily acquire the role SMEs play in our industry. Often, SMEs are not the technical practitioners; they are more of persons who have a conceptual knowledge of the technology. The actual technical practitioner is, and will always, be short-of-time to develop training. It is NOT something that he/she would really enjoy doing.
So, I think, we, IDs, still have a bright future ahead of us, provided we keep on self-introspecting and changing ourselves, and yes, remain technology savvy.

Feliz said...

Manish, while I tend to agree with what you have said, it appears more to be true for the US market, where instructional design is known. However, most of the European market still seems that an Instructional design theorist (didactic) is still in demand. I seem to be going back to basics reading about different ID theories and putting them across to clients.

P K said...

Very true, but then, all new concepts and ideas have been subject to commoditization. The software services industry is a prime example. Once concepts and ideas mature and are nailed down to a few basic rules of thumb, they are easily learned and replicated by the masses. To keep the profession interesting and challenging, practitioners have to tread new frontiers. Developing faster, better and cheaper learning is a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and very relevant posts. However, if one looks at the spectrum of e-learning with Education and Industry at each end one sees a great deal of difference in the concept of e-learning and it uses. To me instructional design is nowhere near dead. Once, industry in particular, it is realised that the instructional desinger is the qualified and experienced person to create a legitimate 'learning' journey, then rapid build adoptees and SMEs will understand why the learning outcomes as a result of what I call the 'rapid-build fad' have been so poor. I feel its more a haitus in the ID world, and a period of consolidation for IDs, and I have already seen numerous examples of industry e-learning pursuers back-tracking to see why their WBT/CBT tools are not producing reliable, valid or sustainable learning outcomes.

greggc said...

I agree with a lot of what you said, Manish, both about the problem and about one approach to remedying it. I have what might be a different take on the problem, though. My two cents: The problem for instructional design as a profession starts with a simple equation: teaching = telling. Many people believe in this equation, including, amazingly, many instructional designers. If you believe these things are equivalent, this leads quickly to another equation: instructional design = domain knowledge + writing + graphics/media. To put that another way, if teaching is telling, then all that matters in instructional design is how effectively you can tell someone something, which is a function of how much you know to begin with and how well you can express it. There is no obvious role in this equation for a special competence in instructional design.

The traditional shibboleths used by instructional designers to ward off the charge of irrelevance are for the most part vacuous (the ADDIE model), fatuous (learning styles), obvious (instructional objectives), useless (Bloom’s taxonomy), or deleterious (content mapping). If these shopworn ideas are all we have to offer it is no wonder that we seem increasingly irrelevant to many people.

To make a serious case for instructional design as a profession you must start by rejecting teaching = telling. Instructional design is, or should be, about creating learning experiences, not “writing content”. Creating an effective learning experience is not just a matter of telling what you know; it requires an understanding of how people learn, and it requires a method for discovering the barriers to understanding that must be overcome to help a target audience learn a skill.

As instructional designers, if affirm the idea that teaching = telling, we are effectively signing our own “death” warrants.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe e Manish!

Don't you think it is interesting that at a time in education, when content and subject matter are being poo-pooed by the educators, the instructional design scene is being more dominated by the subject matter expert? Don't you think this is all a bit crazy?

I have always believed that there should be an equal partnership between those who have the skills in design and those who have the knowledge in subject. Usually the demarcation is not distinct. Where the overlap lies is where there is potential for synergy. Things happen there!

Catchya later

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my personal opinions. Content published here is not read or approved in advance by my employers and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of my employers.

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