Friday, December 4, 2009

Instructional Design: To Degree or not to Degree

While cruising through the blogosphere this week I stumbled upon a debate about whether or not people who practice instructional design should have an advanced degree in the field. The two points of view are well represented in writings by Cammy Bean - Learning Visions (not necessary) and Karl Kapp – Kapp Notes (should have it).

Reading their arguments caused me to reflect on my own career path and choices. I have held a variety of positions in learning & development over the years. On my blog, I identify myself as a “Learning Generalist” but at heart I am an Instructional Designer.

Early in my career I began writing training programs using instincts and intuition. I made instructional design choices that made sense to me about how one would learn and internalize new information or skills. For the most part, I made good choices and my learners were successful. Publications such as Training magazine, T&D (as it is now called) and the InfoLine provided me with an informal “101” education. Later on I supplemented those readings with books on instructional design and courses from Darryl Sink & Associates, Langevin Learning and Bob Pike’s Creative Training Techniques. Through these vehicles and a lot of trial and error I sharpened my skills.

When e-learning appeared on the horizon and I was scared to death. I never was much of a technical person and I was sure my career was over. Eventually, some user-friendly tools came on the market and I was able to avert this crisis by learning how to use Lectora and Articulate Presenter software. It was a new medium but still required sound instructional design.

As my career progressed, I found myself wanting to know more about my chosen field. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Instructional Systems at Florida State University. Participating in the program had its pros and cons. On the pro side, it opened doors to new resources, sharpened my course development skills, and deepened my understanding of how people learn. I gained a better understanding of what motivates learners and how I could attend to their needs and motivations through instructional design. On the con side, I was a victim of the learning trends. I had to endure every new learning trick, tool and pet project my professors threw at me. But in the end, I am better off for this experience.

The bottom line is that the program has made me a more competent and confident learning professional. What I once did on intuition I now do deliberately and my results are consistently better. My company (which is paying for my education) has benefited greatly. I have success stories to tell about learning projects that I don’t think I would have even attempted prior to participating in the program. I am sought after as a learning strategist inside my company and my career satisfaction is much higher now.

But here’s the thing: Would I have had this success if I jumped right into graduate school early on? I don’t think so. Years of self-development and practical experience helped me to get the most out of the program. So I don’t believe it is necessary to have an advanced degree to be successful in this field… but it sure helps.


  1. Hey Mike. Great post! Thanks for sharing your story. So from your FSU education -- were there specific courses that stood out to you? Specific courses that made the difference when you went back into the workplace? (I'm wondering if you could boil down your FSU program to remove the stuff you already knew and focus on the content that was of real value for you?)

  2. I happen to be one of those folks who was educated in instructional design formally, then advanced into the field and the current career path I am on. Whether you learn it in the trenches first or whether you get a degree in ISD, is really not the point. What is the point is you understand the "why" behind your actions as an instructional designer.

    Just as you say, "...the program has made me a more competent and confident learning professional." This is what an education affords and I think if professionals take this route they will benefit greatly from it.

  3. Cammy and Justin - thanks for your comments.

    Justin - you are correct in stating the program has helped me understand the "why" behind my actions.

    Cammy - The FSU program is excellent. There really aren't courses that I would remove. Some of the early intro type courses that talk about the evolution of the field are probably less practical, but I personally found them interesting. The highest value courses have been Theories of Learning and Cognition - which helped me understand how learner internalize things, Systematic Instructional Design - which helped me to understand the trade-offs in taking short cuts in the design process to meet budgets or deadlines, and Design for Collaborative Online Learning - which helped me lead my organization to do more in this direction and to do it effectively.