Two Big Things™ I Learned in my first year in Instructional Design

When I started in eLearning (just over a year ago now), I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I came from a background in IT and creative writing, so while it’s theoretically a simple matter to apply some of those skills to ID work, finding the practical application of those skills in an entirely new arena was…challenging.

While I obviously picked up a ton along the way (and still have much to go), today I’d like to focus on a couple of the broader-stroke areas that have really helped me to get a foothold in the field. For pretty much everyone who has been around any sort of design field for a while, these will sound like no-brainers. But we all have to start somewhere in the eLearning ecosystem. Hopefully if you’re newer to the field (and came into it sideways like me), this broad view can help accelerate your learning process.

Designing vs. Making

Before I took this job, I was no stranger to making things. I wrote stories, built some graphics, occasionally did some page-layout type projects, and even made some games on the side. But I’ve learned there’s a significant difference between making things and designing things.

When I created before, rarely ever was there a thought of planning before I built the thing. I just started working. When that didn’t work, I made changes until I was happy. Often this led to iteration after iteration, getting slightly better each time.

Obviously, that’s less than efficient. And a good way to end up with a product that doesn’t have a cohesive look, feel, or purpose. Without goalposts to occasionally check your work against, it’s easy to end up with vestigial elements from draft to draft that negatively impact the final work. Without these checkpoints, your design becomes unfocused and communicates less of the overall purpose.

Similarly, when I wrote, I always, quite literally, made it up as I went along. Which is fine in a lot of cases—there’s a reason why revision is a part of the process. You can’t edit what isn’t on paper. But when I add in more planning and outlining, I’ve found the writing process comes much more effortlessly (Ed. Note: we appreciate this—keep those drafts coming!).

More importantly, I found that if you don’t design with purpose and goals of the user in mind, and consider how they are going to use the product, it makes it harder for the user. This applies to basically everything you’re going to design, not just eLearning.

Turns out, it’s called Design Thinking. Who knew?

Project Management

As our team looks for ways to adapt to new trends in instructional design roles, a significant part of what I do is streamlining the procedures and processes for our eLearning team to help us run more efficiently as we continue to scale up. So, while I don’t regularly find myself doing traditional ID project management working with Subject Matter Experts (SME), a large portion of my job involves standardizing processes and design elements across multiple programs/modalities, designers, and within our learning management system (LMS) itself.

Pause. It feels like I’m writing a bit too much of a job description here.

Project management is honestly a lot more hand-holdy than I anticipated. It’s more than just communicating what needs to be done. Implementing all of these changes (even in just course design) involves getting the buy-in of multiple people. You need to make sure everyone is on the same page and create a broad-enough consensus to actually implement change—which can be difficult at times. In IT, we definitely worked with teams to get the task at hand accomplished, but I never really grasped the full scope of making the whole thing tick. Let’s just say I have a newfound respect for good project managers.

Every Day Brings New Challenges—and Opportunities

My work these days is never dull. Retiring old learning software packages, picking up graphic design skills, getting to know learning theory, researching new technologies and software alternatives, and a whole host of other day-to-day skills—the ideas I explored in the two sections above are simultaneously the areas that I’ve noticed the most growth, and where I still have the most room to grow. I could actively do these things for the next 20 years and still not have everything nailed down, which is part of the fun. I had no idea what I was getting into a year ago, and I’m looking forward to what I’m going to learn today.

What are you most interested in learning about in eLearning? What didn’t you expect to have to know coming in to the field? Let us know on the Twitters, or in the comments below!

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