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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Accidental Instructional Designers May Want to Just Say No

Perhaps this is the annual right of passage in the field when Cammy Bean and I get into a "degree vs non-degree" in instructional design discussion. She (and many others) feel that a degree is not really necessary to practice instructional design and some even assert that a non-degreed instructional designer is, by definition, better than someone with a degree...just because they don't have a degree...I can't even get my head around that argument.

Anyway, in her post When Accidental Instructional Designers become Intentional, Cammy writes "But I think we can also say that the landscape today has greatly changed, and a formal ID degree may not be necessary..." Oh, contrar, that is precisely why we need formal degrees because the landscape is changing. Without a solid foundation, houses collapse. A degree is a foundation for the individual and, more importantly, for the field which helps distinguish fads from facts.

Being a professor in the field, I might be a little biased but, I firmly believe that a degree is necessary for the good of the field. Degrees provide common language, common research base, common practices and validation of practitioner ideas and thoughts through empirical research. Look at all the valuable research both Ruth Clark and Will Thalheimer perform.

As a partial confession, I sort of believe that some individuals can, with a lot of work become a competent instructional designer BUT I think that is the exception not the norm and, like Jane Bozarath and Janet Clarey I feel that much can be gained, even by an experienced instructional designer, by going through the rigor of a degree process. And I agree with AK that self study can lead to "some lazy autodidacts falling into the trap of just exploring the areas that they are interested in." And, as Joe Deegan has been known to say "After all, knowing how to use WebMD doesn't make you a doctor."

To me, the discussion should not focus on individuals, it needs to move to a higher level. The discussion should not be "does a person need a degree to practice instructional design" but "should the field require a degree?" To me the answer is obvious, "Yes" the field needs to require a degree.

Why should our field allow people without degrees to practice? The field will never reach the strategic level that we want if we don't stand by a degree. Professions are recognized by the degrees rightly or wrongly a degree provides a sense of credibility. Would you want a doctor to work on you who did not obtain a medical degree or a lawyer to defend you without a degree? Or a stock broker without a finance degree (ok, that might not be a good example at this point...would non-degreed brokers have avoided the financial mess?). Would you want someone to develop safety training without a degree in instructional design or training on how to sell products? If your company depends on effective, well designed, scientifically-backed instruction to produce results than a degree is needed. If you can "get away with" throwing content from a subject matter expert to the learners with a little "polish" then I guess no degree is needed. For more on this argument, see the following two posts.

We need a degree in instructional design

Not to cause trouble but...

And I know not all instructional design programs are good, but, for a moment let's assume that most ID degrees are from programs that do a good job, as I have said before just because a graduate of a law school is a lousy lawyer, that doesn't mean all law degrees are bad and we don't need law degrees. This post offers some insights about good programs in ID.
Help, I have an Instructional Design Master's Degree and I Can't Create E-Learning

So, before we move the discussion to the skills required of an instructional designer, I have one more idea. Perhaps when people find themselves in the situation of accidentally becoming an instructional designer, they should back off. They should refuse to design instruction without proper training! (rather than jump into unknown territory with both feet)

For example, any reasonable person who has no medical degree would refuse to conduct a kidney transplant even if they were begged to do so. Why? Because they really don't have the skills or training. Yet, seemingly reasonable people are asked to design instruction quite frequently even though they don't have the skills or training and they gladly admit they don't know what they are doing and then proceed to develop instruction anyway. I've seen it. It is not pretty for the learners.

I often wonder why this is the case. The only answer I can up with is that people have witnessed training and instruction all through high school and college and, therefore, think they can just follow those models and craft effective instruction. Results indicate this is not the case but people try it all the time.

So I beg all the would-be accidental instructional designers to back off from the seductive offer, get training in the field (i.e. a degree) and then design the instruction. (Yes, I know that can't happen in real life and that jobs are at stake, etc. but when people accept tasks for which they are not trained, are they really doing anyone a favor?) Aren't they doing more harm than good. Just because someone has a "knack" for something doesn't necessarily mean they are qualified to do that task or that they'll even do a good job.

Rant over...

So, what makes an effective instructional designer, first of all Ken Allen, Blogger in Middle-earth hit the nail on the head when he steered the discussion toward the realism of instructional design. Human learning is a complex process and no one will ever figure out all the intricacies of what is involved but what instructional designer can do is match the right strategy to the right content and right learner.

So, to me, the most important skill an instructional designer can have is being able to apply instructional strategies. To know when to use a mnemonic and when to use an analogy. When to model the behavior to be learned and when to provide a check list. When Constructivism is a good theorietical underpinning for a topic and when a Cognitivism-based approach is necessary.

Instructional designers add value by serving as catalyst who accelerate the process of learning for individuals. Given enough time, almost anyone can learn anything but people don't always have enough time so instructional designers are required to make content scalable to large numbers of people and to make the material more "digestible" by applying instructional strategies to aid retention, reinforce transfer and assist in recall. It is not a perfect science but there is science behind the field and to understand the scientific basis and to explore the underpinnings of the field are important elements in moving from an accidental instructional designer to an intentional designer.

And, finally...

Being an instructional designer is about applying a systematic process to help others learn. We can't force others to learn but we can make it easier, more efficient and more motivating to learn and isn't that a noble calling? Accidental or not, we do some pretty Rock Star stuff every day.


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Andy Petroski said...

Great "rant" Karl! I agree with what you've written. I would even propose that we go one step further and consider professional certification a requirement. A "CPA" or bar exam for instructional designers if you will. I think one of the challenges with the industry is that there is no standard definition of what an instructional designer does or what training they should have (degree or no degree) - or even what an instructional designer's title is.

A recent review of fourteen (14) instructional technology programs revealed seventy-six (76) different courses across those programs. Eighty-six percent (86%) of the programs had some course work related to instructional systems design (not even 100%). And only fifty-seven percent (57%) had a course related to instructional theory. If you compared Architecture programs across universities I doubt you would find such disparity and lack of core skills represented in the course work. (Confession: My review was a course title and course description review so maybe I just missed ISD or learning theory in some cases.) A required certification to practice would/could result in a better alignment of degrees to what's required of the profession, common titles and expectations, as well as limit the number of accidental instructional designers.

I also agree that the changing landscape increases the need for instructional designers. There are too many options and too many "this is the best solution ever and will solve all of your training/performance issues . . ." to not "do" effective instructional design to select the right instructional strategy and right delivery method for the need. Otherwise, the solutio to everything is a tutorial or a game in a lot of cases.

At the same time, the profession - the art and the science - needs to change/adapt. ISD and traditional instructional design has resulted in mainly rote, linear, instructor-controlled learning. Experiential, non-linear, social, learner-centric experiences are the learning solutions that seem to be more relevant for today's performance needs, learning objectives, learning environments and today's learners.

As a "degreed" instructional designer and a learning technologies professor I'm not sure I can honestly say that today's instructional design degrees prepare instructional designers to create those types of learning solutions.

In summary:

degree = yes
changes to degree programs = Yes
required professional certification = YES

Thanks for this ongoing discussion. I think its important to the growth and relevance of our profession.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Karl!

Thanks for this. I'm glad we see in similar directions.

Catchya later

Karl Kapp said...

Andy, Good comments, thanks. I think your assessment is correct. And a certification would be a big plus in professionalizing the profession.

To your point about ID programs, I think a number of programs do promote new thinking and methodologies around social learning, virtual worlds and mobile technologies (I think you may even be responsible for overseeing one of those innovative programs.)

So, while many programs do stick to the rigid, step-by-step dogma of ID, others are more forward thinking. We just need to move the entire academic field forward and not just a few programs.

Jane Bozarth said...

Hi, Karl. I agree that I did find my graduate work useful, but would like to offer 2 suggestions for those either running or considering enrolling in such programs:

1. I entered grad school with 10 years experience in training/'accidental' instructional design. I found coursework very valuable in helping me to focus, apply theory to what I already knew, and improve my practice. (I found it especially helpful in developing the vocabulary and rationale to facilitate good conversations with management about training.) But I had classmates with NO experience in training, design, or even public speaking/basic knowledge of just creating a simple presentation. In group project work they'd say things like, "Oh, we'll tell management we need 6 months for a needs analysis...pull all the workers off the shop floor for focus groups...get management buy-in by having the company President sit in on every class..." Hence, my concern that what they were learning was not very reflective of the Real World.

So my first suggestion: Programs should insist that applicants have some experience first. Or should have more structured apprenticeship/internship/placement programs/real projects with real clients. Something.

2. While I'm sure your program is a good one -- since we know you're a competent designer yourself-- I wouldn't assume all programs or faculty are created equal. I had a couple of great instructors -- both who had moved from corporate training into academia -- and seveal weak ones, who like my novice classmates didn't seem to understand how things really worked.

So my second suggestion: If you ARE in a position to influence such things, take a close look at your program's hiring practices, texts, curricula, and assignments. If you are considering enrolling in an academic ID program, well, please read over Karl's comments, Cammy's comments, and all the other comments first -- then contact every ID'er you can and ask for their suggestions on the best programs.


Will Thalheimer said...


Great post. Great discussion.

A thanks for the kind words!!

Only one thing to add: Some of our instructional-design degree programs seem to create instructional designers who have the following characteristics:

1. Believe there is one set of rules for instructional design and aren't open to other inputs.
2. Act arrogantly.
3. Have learned more than a few wrong ideas about learning.

I think degree programs are desirable, but I wish they were better.

Here is a key point:

If I'm someone who hires learning designers and I have to choose between the following, which choice should I make?
1. A neophyte who has no experience, no instinct, no knowledge, but who is willing to learn. OR,
2. An arrogant, know-it-all, know-lots-of-wrong-stuff experienced person.

Yeah, there are smart, humble, know-a-lot folks I could hire, but they may not be easy to find or I may not be able to afford them.

Anyway, just wanted to add my 2 cents...

Richard Goutal said...

Great post to stir up some opinions. Get the juices going!

There's nothing inherently wrong with your argument other than the fact it is not real world. I think Will's 2 cents probably reflect my own thinking.

Regarding this assertion by Andy: "Experiential, non-linear, social, learner-centric experiences are the learning solutions that seem to be more relevant for today's performance needs, learning objectives, learning environments and today's learners." I hope this misunderstanding of real learning research is not what ID degreed people bring to the table. Sorry, but that is just wrongheaded as saying "lectures and linear learning were more relevant to yesteryears' learners and objectives." Ahh... isn't analysis basic to most ID models? See, and I don't even have an ID degree.

It's interesting that you use the value of a lawyer's degree or medical degree as analogies to the value of a degree. Yet, it's interesting that doctors teach doctors and lawyers teach lawyers. Do they do the training as well as a degreed ID? Well, naturally, doctors who train would benefit from knowing how to train! But is it reasonable for them to also get ID degrees? No, but it is reasonable to give them some help if they are, as Will said, willing to learn.

I know equipment suppliers than have given up on degreed IDs - not because they have nothing to offer, but because it is too difficult for them to come up to speed on the SME technologies. Or they do not fall into Will's group of "smart, humble, know-a-lot" folks.

In the end, it's not the degree, it's the performance. As it always is.

Andy Petroski said...

-I hope this misunderstanding of real learning research is not what ID degreed people bring to the table. Sorry, but that is just wrongheaded as saying "lectures and linear learning were more relevant to yesteryears' learners and objectives.

Yes, lectures and linear learning were more relevant in a manufacturing-based, "limited access to information" world. Change was not as rapid, information not as abundant and employees' not as responsible for the success of the organization. (Unfortunately, this is a better conversation for synchronous communication. I hope I'm communicating my point clearly.)

And, I'm not saying that lectures and linear learning are NOT relevant today. They are just not the only solution available - but, oftent he only solution considered.

Also - how are my comments a misunderstanding of real learning research? Please point me in the direction of the real learning research I'm misunderstanding - seriously. I'd like to know what you're referencing.

-Yet, it's interesting that doctors teach doctors and lawyers teach lawyers. Do they do the training as well as a degreed ID?

That SME teaching is often 1-to-1 or small group. They are not creating asynchronous learning to conduct that training. It's a different learning environment that probably doesn't require an ID.

Joe Deegan said...

I agree with Jane that a dose of experience does an instructional designer well before entering a degree program. I entered a degree program with 4 years experience and it gives me a different perspective on research and learning theories I am learning about in classes. My experience topped with a formal education has greatly improved my instructional design skills and I like to think I am not arrogant and haven't learned more than a few wrong things about learning. If that is your experience with degreed instructional designers I would recommend taking a look at your recruitment practices and like Jane mentioned, look for experience and education. It's not just one or the other, you can have both.

Eric Matas said...

How lucky to find this wonderful blog and to see that some of my favorite people were here already (hi @Jane and @Joe and Cheers to middle earth @Ken).

Now, to jump head on into the mosh pit!

Disclosure: I have a graduate degree in English, not ID. I work as an instructional designer.

Now, to that kidney transplant analogy. Untrained people wouldn't jump into a kidney transplant, but they deliver babies, perform CPR and stop major bleeding. Successfully. Nowadays, people even handle long term care without training. That very accidental work cannot be avoided with a refusal until proper education can be obtained.

Those thrust into ID positions certainly have less than life at stake.

My personal, face-to-face experience is that designers who have ID degrees are less competent than designers who do not. Perhaps they lack the experience @Jane mentioned. Even so, I find myself recommending ID programs to people--who do not already have a degree. I think people who have a degree have learned how to learn, and I can recommend books and blogs to them.

Still, so many can learn from watching (osmosis?). They never need words like cognitivism or constructivism and are still able to design brilliant classes or courses or seminars. Many of these have been my professors, whose educations were English, biology and political science. I am glad they were allowed to design their courses and teach them.

Last comment (for now anyway): teach students in ID programs how to sit in meetings. It's sort of like kidney surgery, requiring real-life experience to really learn it, but the board room is one place where I have seen the official IDers get skewered.

Karl Kapp said...

First thanks to everyone for all the great comments! It is great when the field can come together and debate these types of issues. So, let me just throw some more fuel on the fire even though it seems to be burning really brightly at the moment.

Question to the folks who think non-degreed designers are "better" than degreed designers. In what way?

Are they faster, easier to get a long with, cooler?

Or do they truly create instruction that impacts behavior and helps people learn. I've seen too many managers push back on ID to the point where the design of the instruction is no longer effective!

Anyone can put PowerPoints online quickly and easily but no learning will occur. Sometimes when designers push back it is because they know learning will not occur if it isn't designed properly.

To me a good designer designs good instruction that aid retention and application.

Also, if not having a degree is so good, why does our field have so much trouble trying to sit at the C-level table, why can't we evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing? Why can't we show that people have actually learned.

I think we forget that ID is more than just designing instruction, it is the evaluate and implementation of it as well. You can't be a half-baked designer, you need to be the entire package. A perspective that does come from graduate school.

Eric, I too have an English degree as an undergraduate (thanks for stopping by as well).

As an English Major in college, I have learned that ID is much more than good writing. It is the application of instructional strategies and even if one doesn't use the terms of theory, they'd better know how to apply it.

Karl Kapp said...

Frank it is hard to teach complicated things to a designer but, I would argue that working together, a designer and a technical expert would create better instruction than either one alone. Thanks for stopping by and adding your insights to the discussion, much appreciated.

Montay said...

I am on the fence about the need for an ID degree. I went kicking and screaming to get my Masters about 2 years ago simply because the local job market demanded it. After working as an ID for a year and a half, I would have to say that I found two courses that have been helpful in my current job. But the single course that I have found the most valuable I ended up taking after I graduated ... and that was simply because work offered to pay for it. If I was given the tools to learn and a nice big project to complete, I believe I could have figured out what I needed to do on my own ... but employers don't have the time for such a crazy notion ... so while I still believe I didn't need the degree, the current work environment requires it ... *sigh*

everist said...


I just wanted to reinforce Eric the Blog Man's point, and say that I think the kidney transplant analogy is inappropriate.

If a novice makes an instructional design, eggs may break, mistakes will be made, and learners will suffer, but I don't think anyone will die in the process. Mistakes are how we learn of course.

Now I have a PhD (almost) in CS and there's no way I'm going back to school for another degree, so where do I go to find the theory behind instructional design? You mentioned a few things such as constructivism, analogies, mnemonics, etc. which sounds like really great stuff. I wonder where I can find all that stuff presented to me in a structured way without having to go to school again? (textbooks are acceptable)


Cammy Bean said...

Hi Karl,

I really don't intend to be the spokesperson for some "you-don't-need-an-ID-degree" movement. Really. I suspect a degree could be in my future -- it might not be an ID degree -- but I could see some advanced work around learning and theory. Maybe. Possibly not a Masters in ID, though

But to back up -- I really don't think anyone's going to turn down a job and say "no, wait, I don't have that degree." People wouldn't even know to say that. And when companies are hiring "IDs" -- they're often looking for writers, etc. Those are skills that can be transferred from other fields and honed on the job. Hopefully, those orgs have team leaders with more background in ID -- they can be thinking at the higher levels, talking to business leaders and creating an overall strategy. I've always worked that way -- mentors are great.

Mike Petersell was like Joe and got his degree after a few years in the field. He says the experience was invaluable.

And then there's Guy Wallace who said he's done just fine without.

And Karl - I'm not sure it's the degree or lack thereof that leads to no seats at the C-level table. But that's a story for another day...

Anonymous said...

Terrific discussion - is this a natural process at this time of year, or does it hint at a wider identity crisis?
Karl - your point about C level is well made. In most cases, training is nowhere near this level. Where it is, then theres a much closer relationship with results and organisation performance. In Sims projects for the military, oil and gas and healthcare for example I see much higher level buyin. The demands of the learning intervention are high and usually link behaviour change to performance improvement.
Maybe most LD is not like that because the organisations don’t see the need; I’m sure that many mortgage originators involved in the subprime crisis had ticked the box in many areas of compliance training – and filled in ‘happy sheets’ for a positive evaluation of the training intervention. Or maybe we are not convincing organisations of our ability to effect behaviour change or the results it may bring? Maybe both.
Anyhow, I don’t know whether a higher degree is either necessary or sufficient for success in designing interventions that impact at the c level. From my experience of training IDs in designing immersive sims, I see large differences in the skillsets that people bring into the training. In this, there are some skills that I expect delegates to have or be aware of (learning related) and others that are to be acquired and supported by other means (creative design). The ‘learning’ related ones are things like – scenario design, case based reasoning, problem based approaches, error handling, measurement techniques, feedback and mentoring. Those who have a formal background in behavioural science or ID do a lot better in those sessions, in my experience.
If as a LD ‘profession’ we to become relevant at the decision making levels of organisations then I think we must become more evidence based and data driven in designing interventions that improve performance. In doing so we’ll bring best practice from related areas into our design - ID, neuroscience, learning and memory research, learning theory and behavioural economics. Its quite possible that you can acquire that expertise without going near a university, but to raise standards and provide expert credibility as a profession I think we would benefit from high quality ID qualifications. Law, medicine, accountancy, even marketing. Why not Learning Design?

Geoff Cain said...

I find these discussions pretty humorous coming from college professors. The majority of college professors do not have degrees in teaching and yet somehow by osmosis or worse yet, by trial and error on poor hapless undergrads, they become teachers. I have worked in academia and the private sector and my experience with degrees or certificates is that the curriculum is nearly always 5 to 10 years behind the technology, they tend to be Behavioralist with a dash of Constructivism thrown in to give a nod to the now 20 year old "latest thing." Many of the programs cater to the business training models which may not be effective for academic subjects or long term learning. In other words, the kind of learning you need to do to get up to speed on a corporate PBX system in a week may not be the same kind of learning that will give you a lasting understanding of history or biology. These kinds of certificates and degrees are no substitute for experience in building curriculum and teaching. I agree that it is nice to have a common language but that common language is too often used to build formulaic, cookie-cutter learning. There isn't an ID program on the planet right now that teaches things like change management or networked learning theory.

Amy B said...

I think this discussion comes at things from the wrong direction. The issue we have is quite simply that the skills of the instructional designers currently available are not, for the most part, up to creating the kind of rich eLearning that justifies the budget to move out of Powerpoint or an HTML page into something with a higher budget and higher standards.
So, is requiring a degree going to fix that, or make the problem worse? If we look at the experiences of Eric and Montay suggest that the degree programs currently on offer largely are not of much value to either the degree seeker or his/her potential employer. Yet a degree at even an inexpensive college will run around $40K, plus at least four years where the degree candidate is not working.
I have to ask, who in their right mind would hire someone who would spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars in an enterprise that is not as valuable as pretty much everyone here agrees that actual experience is? So it seems that unless degree programs are radically changed to make them more universally valuable to both the designers and their employers, you WILL get bad designers because you're selecting for people who are incapable of discerning the difference between a valuable use of their time and useless endeavor. And that's probably the least of their faults.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of the assetion at the Line Roundtable?

L&D departments not users are barrier to innovation say corporates

Skills issues among those delivering learning and development within organisations are a bigger block to adoption of new learning technologies than either board-level management or learner acceptance.

Seems non controversial really. Seems to fit with a lot of blog debates of late.