The Value of an Instructional Designer

At Learning Design Summer Camp, a panel presenter made a rather provocative statement to the audience that, paraphrased, amounted to: anyone who teaches is an instructional designer. I think many in the audience (of mostly instructional designers) were put off by this comment, but for me it raised some interesting questions: What is the difference between what one does and what one is? What is the difference between the practice of a field or discipline, and the sum of its parts as understood by the practitioner?

As an analogy, I take photos. We all do, with greater ease and better equipment than was available to consumers in the past. And sometimes I even take photos with intention, with some focus on composition or lighting. But I would not call myself a photographer. Not ever. Not even when I think I’ve taken a great photo. That’s because the field of photography encompasses much more than just the resulting product. The photographer has the knowledge of art history and theory, the practice of considering all the elements important in a shoot, the experience of taking lots of photos and making mistakes, and the benefit of being part of a community of practice.

Similarly, the instructional designer is fluent in cognitive psychology and learning theory, practiced in the systematic approach to design, experienced in designing for different learning environments across disciplines and topics, and part of a rich community of practice. The teacher indeed designs instruction, with varying degrees of intent and levels of success, but I would characterize the act of designing instruction as being distinct from being an instructional designer.

But as the tools of a field become easier to use, and the practices easier to mimic, what is the role of the trained practitioner? Technology increasingly makes it easier to use previously difficult tools, and makes available information on basic practices of any field. The lines between the amateur and the professional become increasingly blurred. But it also creates an opportunity for practitioners to identify and communicate their value proposition. So, as LMSs improve and educational technologies become more user-friendly, what is the value of the instructional designer? I’ll suggest three strengths:

  • Cross-disciplinary. Instructional designers are trained to work across disciplines and topics, which allows them to focus on the form of the learning experience rather than the content. Many subject matter experts are guilty of placing too much emphasis on covering content as opposed to teaching skills. The objectivity an instructional designer brings to a project helps to clarify learning goals and distill what content is most important to cover to meet those goals.
  • Systematic approach. Instructional design is really a process. Whether one uses backwards design or ADDIE or another model, the instructional designer employs a systematic approach to every project. The process asks us to consider important questions that may be overlooked in traditional classroom teaching: What are the needs of the learners? What should the learners be able to do at the end of the course? What resources are required to develop the course/project/product? Was the instruction effective? The process enables the instructional designer to effectively manage projects, meet deadlines, and evaluate the efficacy of the learning experience against established criteria.
  • Experienced. For most subject matter experts, teaching is a small part of what they do, often in a narrow domain of expertise. The instructional designer, in contrast, develops experience across disciplines and practices design regularly, creating opportunities to risk and learn. They also can borrow the best ideas and pedagogies from different disciplines and consider how they apply in new contexts.

The best teachers perform their craft with intention, passion, and excellence. It’s just not instructional design. Instructional design is the confluence of theory, process, and practice, and its strength is in its relevance to different contexts. So the teacher that moved desks in the classroom? Not an instructional designer. And that’s okay. She’s working to engage her students, asking them to do something a little different. And we’re here as backup, if needed.

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