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Saturday, February 23, 2008

We Need a Degree in Instructional Design

Image from Kathy Sierra's old "creating passionate users" blog via Jane Bozarth

Lately there has been a lot of discussion over at Cammy Bean's blog Learning Visions about whether or not someone has the "right" to be called an instructional designer or whether or not you even need to know instructional theories to be called an instructional designer.

The argument "I develop instructional design and therefore, I am an instructional designer" is like saying, "I have driven a car fast and therefore I am a NASCAR driver." Or, "I have skied down the same slope as many Olympians, therefore am an Olympic skier." Or, "I have read a lot of medical journals, I am a doctor."

Being involved and part of a field and a discipline means understanding, articulating and being aware of the underpinnings of the field. Can a doctor practice medicine without understanding the Hippocratic Oath taught in medical schools but rarely mentioned outside that bet! But I wouldn't want that person as my doctor. Can someone become a tax accountant through self-study and practice without being a CPA, certainly but would you trust that person to help you avoid an audit? I don't think so.

One person writes on Cammy's blog, "I have almost 20 years of experience and at this point, I don't know how much a master's degree would help me," the one thing I definitely know from being on the academic side is that in 200 years I'll never be able to know everything about instructional design (or any topic for that matter.) Yet this person can learn nothing new...nothing to help her become a better designer. Why? Because she has 20 years of trial and error experience and now knows everything. Let's hope it was the right 20 years or experience.

I wonder if this person was born with a divine gift of "instructional design" or did this person's learners have to "suffer" for the first five years with poorly designed mediocre instruction until the designer got it?

John Curry wades in with an academic perspective but then backs off and concludes that by reading one single paper by Dr. Merrill that one can become an instructional designer.

In fact several people claim that without a degree they are actually BETTER instructional designers. Then they claim it far more important to know the concepts and ideas of instructional design than the theories. They state that you really don't need to know the detail of who created what theory and what it actually means or when to apply that concept or idea over another. (What is the evidence that the techniques you learned "on the way" are indeed working?)

Maybe this lack or research-based practice is why evaluation is such a hot topic and so poorly done...I can't tell you how many instructional designers I've seen tasked with evaluating their instruction who can't even put together a simple comparative study design. I had an entire class in graduate school on the topic of "evaluation."

Clark Quinn wades in with a good posting defending theory in Theory Foundations for ISD. Please read it before continuing. I agree with Clark 100%.

As a professor of instructional technology and a consultant in the field who has written, reviewed and advised on ID projects for hundreds of organizations big and small. I have to say that in my extremely biased opinion...a degree is not only needed, it should be required!

If the field of instructional design wants to be taken seriously as a field there needs to be an entry requirement. Otherwise anyone can and will call themselves an instructional designer whether they are good, bad or just passing time.

Now before I go much further, I want to take the personal aspect out of this argument because this is where people become impassioned about the subject and then do not look at it from a wholistic point of view.

This is an argument about whether the field of instructional design needs degrees and/or certificates, not whether Cammy Bean is a better instructional designer than Karl Kapp or anyone else.

On an individual basis, it is possible to learn enough, be smart enough and talented enough to eventually become a top notch designer (as Cammy is a great example.)but this doesn't benefit the field as a whole. And, I would argue those cases are rare.

Additionally, just because a few people can achieve that level of expertise without a degree doesn't mean the field should not require a degree in instructional design. The cost of "trial and error experimentation" while a non-degreed designer figures out how to design effective instruction within an organization is too high a price for the field to pay.

There is far too much bad instructional design, half-baked training programs and ill-advised content masquerading as "instruction" for us to turn a blind eye and say, hey if you've designed enough of this stuff, then, by golly, you are an instructional designer.

I think people believe that if they understand ADDIE then they understand Instructional Design and so they don't need a degree.

The real value of an instructional designer is knowing when to apply what instructional strategies to what type of content. How to use elaboration theory to teach a fact or how to use metacognition to help learners develop problem-solving strategies. What should seperate an instructional designer from a subject matter expert is the designers ability to apply instructional strategies to the appropriate content and being able to articulate those strategies to the stakeholders so they understand why you are not just writing down everything the Subject Matter Expert says and placing that content on four different screens of intense text followed by a multiple choice question.

Additionally, the goal of instructional design (and this part addresses ASTD's January Big Question) is to change behavior or attitude.

If you just want to make someone "aware" of something, no need for instructional design (in fact, just send a link.) If you want to consiously work to change an attitude or behavior or increase the velocity of performance then you must design the instruction to achieve the desired result.

We can't really be viewed as a discipline or a field unless we have standards, techiques and codified practices that are enforced and followed by everyone and that are emperically based. (This is the work done by Will Thalheimer.)

Instead of standards, we have a good sales person promoted into a training position who designs, develops and mointors the creation of instruction for a 2 year stint on his or her way to a manager position. Not acceptable for any other field but good enough for ours?

I've written about this before in Value of Instructional Designers

So, do I think a degree is need. Absolutely, now is the time to start requiring degrees. Degrees, like the one at Bloomsburg University, that blend theory and practice, that build the bridge between what is happening in the field and what is happening in the research side. But to say that you can develop instruction without understanding the underlying theories, developments and ongoing research trends is not believable to me.

I've seen too much bad instruction which has pointed me in the direction of saying that a degree is needed.

Organizations can't wait 20 years for someone to work their way into designing good instruction...and neither can our field.

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Anonymous said...

Great Post Prof Karl Kapp.

I really appreciate and agree whatever you have said in your post.

I also want to thank you for your wishes and good words for me in my blog.

Thanks soo much..

I ordered for Games Gadgets and Gizmos and I will be receiving it the coming week. I am looking forward to reading your book.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that's been discussed on Cammy's blog and elsewhere is the idea of the "informal masters." Do you think that people can learn enough by blogging and participating in the online communities, plus reading and doing self-study, to achieve the same goals as a masters?

I've also seen discussions about whether it needs to be a full masters or whether a certificate would suffice. Do you have an opinion either way?

This is one of these areas where I'm not sure what I think yet. I've always planned on doing my masters, although over the years I've changed my mind several times on what that degree would be. (For a while, I considered doing musicology in grad school.) Life always seems to get in the way though, and I haven't made the degree a priority.

At this point, I feel like I'm learning so much just from all the wonderful and wise people like you that I interact with online. Blogging has been a great learning experience. Even reviewing research to support the Wikipedia article on constructivism has been very valuable. It isn't that I don't think I'd learn anything getting a masters degree; I know I would. I'm just ambivalent about whether it's the best way for me to learn, at least at this point in my life.

Jane Bozarth said...

Love the "driving a car really fast doesn't make you a NASCAR driver" argument. The moment you suggest that someone's "real world" experience might be enhanced by formal training or exposure to "academic" information it seems to get dander up.

I had 10 years in the field when I went back for my Master's in T & D. Time and money well spent! It sharpened my saw, opened my eyes to other ways of approaching practice, helped me rethink some old habits, and yes, showed me that I was doing some things right. More importantly, it gave me a different vocabulary that I found helped me articulate training and its uses to non-training management, and in fact helped me get my ideas and solutions heard.

I once started a maelstrom on a training-related listserv by daring to suggest that trainers should have to have some sort of credential/certification before being allowed to practice. My point was actually intended to encourage ways of thinking about building training's credibility. It was sparked by a 'New Yorker' article that mentioned that 150 years ago doctors were just guys with boxes of leeches. They figured out how to establish credentialing and licensure for practice.

I'm sending a photo from Kathy Sierra's old "passionate users" blog that sums your comments up pretty succinctly-- so check your email!

Geoff Cain said...

The field of higher education is filled with untrained "experts." A person with an MA is all of a sudden a teacher. In many colleges they are just thrown a syllabus and text book and told "good luck." After a few years (think a couple of generations of poor students), he or she MIGHT be a decent teacher. Then that teacher might be promoted to the writing lab director where not only do they not know much about education, but they are now magically transformed the wave of a VP's pen into a manager. Where they also get to learn about labor law by trial and error too! No other field on earth would survive like this, except maybe churches and the military, but surely no business!

I think instructional designers should have at a bare minimum a certificate and five years or more experience teaching. I would want to know that a technique or tool worked not based on the pamphlet from the vendor floor at the conference but because someone can actually show me a working model from their own classroom experience.

It is essential that instructional designers keep up on the latest learning theories as well as advances in technology. The ID must always be ahead of everyone else to be ready with the solutions for the problems that haven't happened yet.

Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear! I agree with your perspective, and appreciate your having made the case so clearly.

I, too, worry that we too often get away with having talented people "do" instructional design - and do a pretty good job of it. We don't know there's a problem until those people are confronted with more complex issues. Then, they don't have the background to make solid judgements and critical recommendations.

Of course, having a degree and truly understanding and using the knowledge and skill you were supposed to gain by getting the degree are two different things. As a field, we ought to be more consistent in assuring students and employers alike that an individual with a master's degree will have done more than write a few good papers - our programs ought to consistently have a practice component that truly helps to shape students as artists in instructional design.

ASTD seems to be interested in professionalizing the profession with a CPLP designation (Certified Professional in Learning and Performance). What is your opinion of that effort?

Anonymous said...

Jane, can you post a link to the Kathy Sierra image?

When I did corporate training, all the trainers at the company were required to get CompTIA's Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+) credentials. Everyone did Microsoft Office certs too (then MOUS), since that was the subject. It was one of the selling points for companies to hire us, and there's definitely value in that.

Geoffrey's point about higher education is right on; the assumption for professors seems to be that if you've spent enough time in classrooms to get a masters or PhD that you've somehow absorbed enough to know how to teach. And in that respect, I do see that instructional design is similar; I've taught and trained and have a bachelors in education, so I've absorbed a lot about instructional design.

What if instructional design followed a model for certification like PMI does for project managers? Anyone can call themselves a project manager, and people do get promoted to it all the time (contrary to Geoffrey's assertion that no business could work this way). The main PMI certification can't be gained unless you have 5 years of experience. They just added another lower level certification for people without experience to show basically that they understand the concepts, which I think could work for ID too.

And yet, my personal experience tells me that too many people with degrees don't really understand them. I expect that's the fault of unrealistic and poorly designed programs, not that masters degrees as a whole aren't valuable. The eLearning Guild salary survey shows very little difference in pay between people with a bachelors & a masters degree, and Cammy's survey showed that few people have lost career opportunities for a lack of degree. There's a distinct gap between what's being described here as "what it should be" and "what it really is."

Jane Bozarth said...

Response to Christy: Karl added the image to this I had hoped he would!


Anonymous said...

Great image (but Kathy's always were terrific).

Ironic to use that image as an argument here, when in the post itself Kathy makes this argument:

But with that out of the way, nobody needs a PhD (or in most cases -- any degree at all) in education or learning theory to be a good teacher. Just as there are plenty of great software developers and programmers without a CompSci degree. People can be self-taught, and do a fabulous job, for a fraction of the cost of a formal education, but they have to be motivated and they have to appreciate why it's important.

Beagle said...

Liked your article!
Shruti from E-learning (India)

Cammy Bean said...

Ooh, Karl, I've been waiting for you to weigh in on this conversation and you came in blazing!

Thanks for your implicit faith in my skills and abilities as an instructional designer. Perhaps you'd feel differently if you actually evaluated some of my work...;)

I'm still not convinced that every ID job requires an ID degree. Some ID tasks require much more conceptual skills and analysis, others may be more basic. Back to my post on Instructional Design as a Spectrum.

In the corporate sector, I'm not sure how one would even begin to try and make that a requirement. So many ID jobs are filled as the need arises by available resources and talents. For better or for worse, that's the reality. It's how I, for one, found myself in training and ultimately ID.

Anonymous said...

Karl--Good post, good discussion. I've found increasingly in organizations I work with and observe that bona fide instructional design seems to be perceived as optional in many cases. The increase in tools that make "do-it-yourself" seem very easy along with the rise of social media tend to add to that perception, in my opinion.

I think a degree would help address that to a certain degree. On the other hand, I tend to agree with Stephen Downes' view that it would be in danger of becoming dated very quickly. Drawing on the brain surgeon analogy from Kathy's pic--medical specialties have an established maintenance of certification (MOC) practice. You have to wonder if something like that wouldn't be needed to support the ID degree on an ongoing basis.


Benjamin Hamilton said...


Greatly enjoyed the post and catching up on the discussions. It is interesting to see this discussion come around every couple of years. One of the first books I read after I received my Masters Degree was Marc Prensky's "Digital Game-Based Learning" (2000) where he claims that ISD is actually hurting the learning process (a lot of these "justifications" for ignoring ISD have been repurposed recently in the blogosphere).

I agree with everything you said. I think the current crop of bad ISD has caused the C-level to put the emphasis back on evaluation and business results (and for all of the game designers...that emphasis will be coming in the gaming direction very soon). Also, too many people have seen awful projects created by "ISDers" simply because those people had no clue what they were doing. Unfortunately, that gives the entire field a bad reputation.

Having managed enough R&D projects, I will absolutely stand by the need to have a certified ISD on training projects. Some companies have tried to avoid the ISD role by using people with 1) training experience, 2) stand-up lecture experience, 3) awesome creativity, and/or 4) great subject matter expertise. Those projects have not come close to producing the end results that other projects which used ISDers accomplished.


Benjamin Hamilton said...

Hey Karl,

Sorry...just couldn't let this one go. A lot of the comments and discussions surrounding this topic are reminiscent of our discussion on the Professionalization of Instructional Technology back in August. I guess I need to correct myself from my previous comment in that this topic seems to come up every couple of months rather than years.


Anonymous said...

I've got a relevant master's, and I've got a couple decades of practical experience, and I've got a couple decades of involvement in ISPI. This discussion has me thinking about how professionals in the training/learning field actually learn: how do they build and expand their own skills?

It can't be by going back to school. That costs too much and is usually too far removed from the reality of the workplace.

The downside of "professionalization" is "credentialization," I fear. ISPI launched its Certified Performance Technologist program some years back; I noticed with dismay that at a recent conference they offered five or six other certifications.

Instructional designers want to be like doctors or lawyers. I fear they'll end up like real estate agents or insurance salespeople, with a string of initials after their names and with clients who have no idea what the initials mean.

I'm all for research-based, but I'd say that if it wants to be taken seriously as a field, instructional design ought to focus more on demonstrable results rather than erecting tuition-based hurdles.

Client organizations fall far too easily into the give-'em-a-course model. (Lord knows I've helped to give 'em.) And people in the training field -- including not a few instructional designers -- often enable the dosage method, because it's easy to track.

Karl Kapp said...

Rupa--Enjoy the book, I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

Christy--I think a few people are focused and dedicated enough to earn an informal masters (like yourself) but I think the actual number of people who are capable of doing so is small. I think a certificate is a start but given the choice, I would go for a masters, its only a few more credits and adds more to the field, treats it more like a specialized body of knowledge. I agree that everyone needs to find their own best way to learn and making the decision to go for a masters can be difficult especially when you are as self-motivated and directed as you are. However, for the sake of the field/discipline of instructional design we should encourage everyone to seek a degree to have us be seen as a discpline and a field we need to encourage the vast majority to receive a degree. Also, see Jane's comment below about her return to for a degree.

Geoffrey--I have to agree, in fact when I first started teaching, I got reviewed by a faculty member and received high marks (because I came from corporate training). The problem was the rest of the evaluation committee didn't believe I could be such a capable instructor having only just started teaching at the college level. Usually it takes a PhD years to become a good instructor because they focus on research and not on teaching style or ability. People spend thousands of dollars to send their kids to college and many times the professors haven't had day one of instructional design training or even a course on how to teach....? that's criminal.

Also to your and Cammy's point that few people have lost opportunities because they didn't have a degree speaks more to the general ignorance of corporations concerning instructional design mainly because the field doesn't do enough to let corporations understand the importance of good instructional design. We do a poor job of PR for ourselves.

Also, you don't need a PhD to be a good teacher...perhaps...or even a a good instructional designer in some rare cases. But the majority of the folks do...and if a degree isn't needed to study the field...then perhaps the field doesn't exist.

Catherine--Thanks for your support, I think the certificate is a good tool for a field in transition to help competent seasoned professionals get the recognition they deserve but a full fledged degree for everyone is ultimately the best thing for the field.

Jeff--Just because a degree woudl become outdated is no reason not to do the degree. Mechanisms can be put into place to require updates of the knowledge like they have for doctors.

Ben--Good post, everyone should check it out.

Dave--The danger does exist of providing too many initials after the name to be of value. And with ASTD, ISPI and others wanting to provide nifty acroyms it is tempting. But I think that degrees provide the rigor, discpline and focus that a field needs. Degrees are where research begins and validation of theories is done, research drives innovation and exploration of the real value of processes and techniques. While we need to show results and be able to provide value, it is a research base that allows us to trully be recognized as a field, otherwise, as you indicated we are just a bunch of people with many initials.

Thanks, everyone for the great discussion and debate, if history is any example, we'll be having this discussion sometime next year again:)

Mark said...


Let me just say, in my most academic prose; great friggin' post!

Second, while the post was great, so were the comments (present company excluded of course). The one that got me was Dave's comment about ending up like real estate agents - spot on comment especially in relation to the nascent attempts at certification. I have friends in the organizations that are trying to do this but I am compelled to say...Stop. Fractured attempts at certification will only lead to greater confusion in the field and at one level are quite blatant business plays. PMI works because it is the unitary, gold standard for its domain. If org.s like ASTD, ISPI, the Guild, et al, were actually to coordinate their efforts to create a unified certificate program; then we might be on to something.

On the academic front, I am right there beside you. I am a historian and an anthropologist by education, not an instructional designer (so thank goodness I'm not designing instruction:-)) and if I hear one more person without a degree in American history focusing on the Revolutionary/Early National period, tell me what the Founders were thinking or better yet one more hack saying they used "ethnography" in some way - and in neither of these examples is there a degree in history or anthropology (much less any field work)...then I think screaming will be in order.

Its odd though how these things move. I just cam back for the Game Developers Conference and a degree in game design, IMHO, has never been less relevant. Show me the game you have made and loaded up to Kongregate - that's what is important.

Back to the academic front though - my argument would be to not only expand the population of instructional design programs but to expand their focus as well. This has got to be one of the greatest places in academia for interdisciplinary work. There must be work on learning theory, memory, cognitive psychology, situated cognition, literacy theory, economics, neuro-biology, anthropology/ethnography, history of technology and history of education. Holy cow. You show me that program and I'll sign up right now. Maybe we need to look at law school as a model that could inform us a bit...they clearly do not teach people how to be lawyers - they teach them how to think about the law. While models (Bloom, Kirkpatrick, etc) are informative, they are also by definition limiting - that is, they are defined in large part by what they leave out. A new curriculum would/should deal with those but I have fond memories of my history classes in which a place in the Canon did not shield you from critical attack but rather ENSURED it. Lets talk some about models but more about how models are made - how to adapt - how to think through an issue rather than blindly throwing a model at it.

I think you are on the right track Karl - but let's think BIGGER!!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Priest said...

You attempt at analogy re: Olympic Skier, etc., was a perfect exammple of arrogance compounded by stupidity. The analogy fails to hold as the person with 20 years of EXPERIENCE in the PROFESSION means your skier and race car driver would actually have competed in the events.

Secondly, citing to the pathetic whores who are physicians in America as an example of anything more than hubris wedded to greed is as sophomoric as it gets. The over priced mechanics and slaves to the Pharmacy Industry are completely without personal integrity or principles. Bad choice of ally.

As for the whole degree argument, what a joke, more than a few of the top paid ID in the government sectors don't even have a BA/BS yet they routinely produced work product good enough for the CIA and DIA. Personally, I'm working on a MS in Ed - Instructional Design degree simply because I enjoy the learning experience.

Question: How does one become an EXPERT?
Answer: By repeatedly holding oneself out as one. Bottom line is that is how it works in all areas including the practice of law. "Experts" in court cases are regarded as such based on a very soft set of criteria none of which necessarily includes a formal degree.

Karl Kapp said...


My neighbor is a caring and dedicated physician who cares for kids in IC units. I do not think he is a whore to the pharma companies nor is he in it just for the money. He really cares for those kids and has dedicated 100s of free hours.

Sorry you feel the way you do about all doctors.

In terms of your own life, good luck getting your degree! It will be great to have you join the
"professional" instructional designers.