Developing Instructional Design

What motivates people? What makes information stick? What do people’s eyes and brains do when they learn to read? Do people remember memorized facts or story concepts better—or is it a combination? What information is most important for people to learn? If these are the kinds of questions that drive you, a career in developing instructional design may be right down your alley.

Perhaps you’re interested in the quality of education in the United States, or in your own community. Maybe you want to take part in designing the curriculum that’s used, and thus have a say in exactly what students are taught. Perhaps the ways people learn are intriguing and exciting to you.

The field of developing instructional design is vast. Corporations, governments,
sales, motivational leaders, human resource departments, and all levels of education employ any number of methods to help information stick. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on educational instructional design, from primary to secondary school.

What is it like?

There are many, many different types of teaching methods—and someone has to study and develop all of them. Take reading: There are a variety of phonics methods, whole language methods, bottom-up, outside-in, and many others. Popular math curriculums include Everyday Mathematics, Singapore Math, and New Math, and many others. Generally speaking, what each school uses is a matter of teacher preference.

A Video Game Is Just a Game

Though educators and trainers the world over would love to capitalize on the addictive and immersive nature of video gaming in their education curriculum, new research shows that it’s not as effective. As one example, those who played a complex video game to learn how to create a wet-cell battery performed worse when explaining the wet-cell battery concept than those who were given a traditional slide presentation including diagrams. Students who played the video game even rated the game “more difficult” than they rated the slide presentation.

Developers of instructional design will have to stay on top of trends in education. For several years, one teaching method might gain popularity, then new research will prove that another method is more effective and schools will switch. Much of the job of designing instructional products involves staying up on new learning trends and modalities, and then integrating that into the school’s current educational philosophy. Is the school system currently designed to promote memorization of facts, or is the interest in concepts and problem solving?

Some educators make a study of education theory and modalities. Textbook and instructional designers listen to all of the deciding authorities, such as federal and state governments, local school boards, and principals and teachers. Then, they write textbooks and materials that conform to those requirements.

Still another part of the job is understanding the learning process. Scientists and educators are constantly studying and discovering how people learn; how they think, comprehend, and remember things; as well as what motivates students’ enthusiasm for learning. Someone who develops instructional materials will have to stay up on the science, and then adjust their products and curriculum to match current research findings.

Instruction design developers don’t just develop textbooks. They also develop games and activities that reinforce or introduce the material. For example, rather than using flash cards, many math teachers today may introduce concepts with games that involve math skills. However, this too may change, as new research is already indicating that games aren’t as effective as the old-fashioned “putting the learning hat on.”

Also, different curricula may tackle the basic facts in a different way, and sometimes via a totally different scope and sequence. Fourth graders may already be learning basic algebra in some schools with the Singapore Math program, while others using Practical Math will not have those concepts introduced until at least a few grades later. Both approaches have legitimate reasoning. Singapore Math teaches in a spiral, introducing several related math skills simultaneously and moving up the arch of difficulty. Practical Math teaches foundational skills such as multiplication and division, helping students to master each level, before moving on to more difficult concepts such as graphing and geometry. It really comes down to a matter of preference on the part of the decision makers—as well as an understanding of who the student “audience” is.

Also, more and more instruction is incorporating technology, from Power Point reports to Accelerated Reading and Accelerated Math on computer generated tests where students go at their own pace. There is also a huge trend toward homeschooling; this trend really puts the emphasis on consumer demand and what parents and students really want in their curriculum.

Developers of curriculum then must make sure their curriculum is effective, and engaging for students. This is done through field testing. A new curriculum might be introduced in a class or two, while kinks are worked out, questions and descriptions reworded, and corresponding games evaluated. The curriculum must then be presented to school boards and put to the standardized test, to make sure that it meets all of the district and state requirements.

Can I get a job?

Instructional design jobs are expected to grow by about 20 percent between 2010 and 2020. Those with technology backgrounds will be in high demand. There is a need for graphic design, technical writing, creativity, computer software development, and other technological skills.

The Funnel

Think of instructional design as a funnel. The developer must first start with the overall philosophy, then narrow it a little into a broad concept, then narrow it further until it becomes a group of ideas, then an instructional goal, then by specific skills, then finally narrower until you define exact questions or problems that meet the above criteria and end up on a homework assignment.

By being able to identify both the big picture and “the devil in the details,” you’re able to more easily create a curricular scope and sequence (big picture), as well as have a jump on creating individual lessons and activities (small picture).

If you’re looking to become strictly a textbook writer, it’s likely that this career isn’t going to be a long-term solution for you. Students are spending more and more time online, working with computers, and learning at their own pace. In fact, some people envision textbooks that are entirely on hand-held devices, which will be more efficient in every way: editing facts and errors without reprinting textbooks, allowing students to jump ahead or lag behind, adding games and resources with a simple upload, all make handheld devices inevitable. Some schools already carry such e-textbooks in their libraries.

Many instructional design jobs are on a contract basis. This means flexibility in your work schedule—something that many people truly cherish. It also means working from home, which works really well for some people, but requires a great deal of personal discipline and time management skills. Also, working from home you will have little social interaction, and many people miss that. There can be little consistency in paychecks, particularly if the work is freelance, so it’s hard to plan a budget. Work comes when it comes, so it may even feel like cheating when you turn work down to take a family vacation. Still, many developers are employed by educational companies or school districts full time.

What does it pay?

The median salary for developing instructional design is around $60,000 per year. This accounts for those in education, corporations, as well as those that work as freelance contractors. Many in the field make much more, while others make much less because they take fewer contracts.

If you’re working as a contractor, you should keep in mind that you will have to pay your own Social Security taxes, income taxes, health insurance, and individual retirement account. Therefore, you will have to charge enough to cover these expenses and still have enough to live on.

How do I become an instructional design developer?

It may be difficult to break into instructional design development. Generally people face a Catch-22: How do I get experience, when they don’t hire people without experience? Contract work helps solve the problem of breaking into instructional design with no prior experience. Getting a contract or two under your belt, and having a portfolio to show employers, will have a snowball effect on your career. It is vital that you network within your profession, so people will think of you when they’re ready to hire an instructional designer.

A person seeking to develop curriculum must have either expertise in the subject area they’re creating it for, or access to subject matter experts. Their main expertise, however, is in how people learn and how to engage students in the learning experience. A bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum. Usually instructional designers have a master’s degree or higher, although that degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in instructional design.

The Certified Professional in Learning and Performance Certification (CPLP) from the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) can help you break into the field. They offer certification, job listings, and additional training; and their publications will keep you up-to-date on new research.

People commonly transition into this field after time in the classroom, school administration, or other types of training or coaching. However, there are many career paths to this profession.

It should be noted that once you become an instructional designer you’re not limited to the field of classroom education. Corporations need training programs, and hire instructional designers to design these programs as well.

If you’re intrigued by how people learn and want to have a say in the educational curriculum offered in this country, a career in instructional design offers a creative, rewarding challenge that’s increasingly in demand.

Schools Offering Accredited Education Programs


Teaching and Learning