The New Digital Divide in Instructional Design

Many people are familiar with the concept of the digital divide—the idea that as technology continues to advance at a remarkable pace, there is a growing gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when it comes to access to, and adoption of technologies. Many in instructional design consider these technologies essential for our day-to-day careers: internet access, easy access to information, and ubiquitous WiFi. Which makes it challenging when we design content for those who don’t have easy access to those things.

But, there’s another gulf forming in Instructional Design. Well, maybe gulf is too strong a word, but there has definitely been a divergence in the traditional roles of an ID—related to needs analysis, designing learning outcomes, and understanding the psychology and science of learning to develop quality learning—and those designers who focus on more concrete skills, such as building learning objects, graphic design, UX design, technical writing, and all the other bits that go into the content creation of good eLearning.

My point isn’t that one of these roles is better, more educated, or valuable to the eLearning process. In fact, quite the opposite. The more that the field of eLearning grows to adapt and encompass new technologies, platforms and ideas, the more it becomes impossible for any one individual to keep up with anything. We NEED each other to get things done.

What Makes an eLearning Professional?

Let’s look at a list of all of the skills that might go into developing a comprehensive eLearning course.

• Needs Assessment
• Learning Outcomes
• Learning Objectives
• Content Curation
• Technical Writing
• Graphic Design
• HTML/CSS
• JavaScript/JSON/xAPI
• Interaction Design
• Audio Engineering
• Project Management
• LMS Integration
• Video Production
• Research Skills
• Technical Troubleshooting
• Copyright Law Familiarity
• Interpersonal communication skills

And the list goes on. Please don’t hate me if I omitted a skill you rely on every day, I promise you it wasn’t on purpose.

My point is, look at that list again. To expect one individual to be able to have all of those skills at an expert level is, honestly, sheer lunacy. And we’re not even counting the knowledge required to use various eLearning software packages and utilities that are being constantly created, rolled-out, updated, and then abandoned. We’ve talked before about how the total of human knowledge is growing at an alarming rate, and that it’s almost impossible to keep up—the eLearning field is no different.

So, what’s an eLearning professional to do?

Focus your eLearning Skills

Rather than trying to a superhero and keep up with all of the ins and outs of eLearning, divide the workload. Let the experts in your ecosystem be the experts in their areas. Obviously, most people need some sort of baseline knowledge, but don’t try to be an eLearning polymath. That way lies madness. Keeping a few generalists around who can fill in the gaps and “speak the language” of all the experts on your team isn’t a bad idea, but don’t be afraid to let yourself be an expert. And if you’re the generalist, lean into that role. Go wide, but not too deep.

Now, this probably all sounds like pretty standard team-building, project-management type stuff. So, I want to talk a little about the mental hurdle encountered by the eLearning version of this scenario. I can only speak for my own experience (and what I gather from my team), but being learning professionals, my guess is, we all, well, like to learn stuff.

It can be very tempting, when we learn about a new sphere that intersects with eLearning, to try and master it. Understand the impossibility of that, and make yourself focus on a more narrow skill set. Learn to delegate what you can, where you can. Teams tend to be fluid in today’s workplace, so as you gain/lose team members, the exact skillsets (and what you’re able to delegate) will morph over time.

Borrowing Models for Roles from Fields Similar to Instructional Design

More and more eLearning teams divide the design responsibilities from the development ones. One person (or smaller team) is responsible for the Instructional Design portion of the project. They administer the needs assessment, develop learning outcomes, devise instructional strategies, and measure the outcomes.

Another person (or team) on the same project actually develops all the assets that go along with that learning. They functionally build out the course in the learning management system (LMS). They construct graphical elements, build interactive objects, and are responsible for much of the look and feel of the course. They implement methods of tracking learner interactions through xAPI. The specifications for these assets are given by the Instructional Designer and implemented to line up with the goals set forth in the design phase. In many ways, it’s ‘building the vision’ of the ID.

We’re seeing this trend of skillset division in other fields as well. User Experience design has been branching out for a while now, into sub-specialties like UX writing, graphic design, etc. It’s worth taking some time to explore how other fields are adapting to an increasingly complex workflow and finding ways to apply it to eLearning. Perhaps in another blog post.

As I said before, none of these roles is superior or subordinate to another in this environment. All of this stuff has to happen in order to construct successful eLearning, so why not lean on the expertise of experts? How has your team worked to establish clean lines to keep content flowing and courses designed on time? We’d love to hear from you on Twitter or in the comments below.

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