Curriculum & Instruction

Want to Become an Instructional Designer? Here’s What You Need to Know.

Want to Become an Instructional Designer? Here’s What You Need to Know.
Instructional designers are the architects of the learning experience. Image from Unsplash
Rina Diane Caballar profile
Rina Diane Caballar June 4, 2019

Obsessed with learning... everything? There's a career for that. The behind-the-scenes education job you (probably) haven't heard of.

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Have you ever taken courses and thought you could make them more engaging and interesting? Maybe you’re a tech enthusiast with a passion for helping others learn. Or perhaps, you’re an educator looking to transition to a behind-the-scenes role. If any of these descriptions fit, then you might be suited for instructional design. Here’s what you need to know about launching an instructional design career.

What does an instructional designer do?

Before diving into the world of education, take time to educate yourself. Instructional designers are the architects of the learning experience. They “analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate instruction,” explained Natalie Milman, professor of educational technology at George Washington University.

Beyond that, Purdue University lists a few more job responsibilities, which include:

  • Implement feedback from reviews to improve educational materials
  • Train others to deliver learning materials
  • Remain current on innovations in learning design and education

Instructional designers are an important part of the learning process. They tailor educational materials—be it online courses or an entire curriculum, instruction manuals or video tutorials, audio guides or learning simulations—to their audience’s needs and ensure they’ll effectively absorb and digest knowledge.

What skills do you need to become an instructional designer?

Learning theories and instructional design models. Having a firm grasp of learning theories (the different ways people learn) and instructional design models (the frameworks for designing learning activities) is essential to the instructional design process and will help you apply the most effective learning approach to a given setting.

Learning new technology. You don’t have to be an expert in every learning management system out there, but you do need to quickly learn how to use them. You’ll also be required to evaluate existing tools, so you can recommend what works best for various learning scenarios.

Building relationships. Part of your role is to understand the needs of your audience. You’ll work alongside faculty, subject-matter experts, and students to figure out the best solution for learning challenges, so it’s key that you listen and communicate effectively.

Project management skills. As an instructional designer, you’ll handle multiple courses and activities. You should know how to manage your time, prioritize your work, and find ways to do things more efficiently.

What are the educational requirements?

To become an instructional designer, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree in education, curriculum and instruction, or related field.

Most employers also require instructional designers to have a master’s degree, so it’s worth considering—and it might work in your favor in more ways than one. According to instructional designer Heather Garcia: “Going through a formal program will allow you to gain a foundation in instructional design, build a portfolio, and network with others entering or already in the field.”

Noteable on-campus master’s programs in instructional design include:

You could also opt for online instructional design programs like Utah State University’s MA, MS, or MEd in instructional technology and learning sciences.

If you’re considering education outside of a traditional degree, an instructional design certificate might be a good option to equip you with the skills to get started in the industry. George Washington University, for example, offers an online certification program, where you’ll earn a graduate certificate in instructional design.

What’s the job market like?

As an instructional designer, you’ll work in diverse organizational environments, from educational spaces and higher education institutions to corporate settings. To break into the industry, you might start as an instructional design assistant or an intern. You could also search for contract instructional design jobs to improve your skills and build your portfolio.

A search on targeted job boards such as Instructional Design Central, the Association for Talent Development Job Bank, and HigherEdJobs generate hundreds of positions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market for instructional coordinators (a category that includes instructional design) is expected to grow faster than average, at an estimated rate of 11% by 2026. This is also true for training and development specialists (another category that includes instructional design), with employment paced at the same rate.

How much do instructional designers earn?

According to the BLS, the median salary for instructional coordinators is $64,450. Meanwhile, training and development specialists earned a median annual wage of $60,870.

Your salary will likely increase as you gain experience in the field. Advancing to a senior instructional designer comes with an average base pay of $76,327, while a learning manager positions offer a median salary of $90,000. Executive positions such as chief learning officer, director of training, or VP of learning may even pay higher.

What’s a typical instructional design career path?

Successful instructional designers know that their job isn’t just about creating courses or developing training materials. Even more vital is helping people learn, which makes a career as an instructional designer fascinating—not to mention, paramount to education.

As learning design consultant Christy Tucker writes on LinkedIn, “I prefer working in the learning field because I feel like I am making a difference. More than anything else, I think that desire to help others learn is what drives the best instructional designers.”

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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