How Much Technology Does an Instructional Designer Have To Master?

Today’s job descriptions for instructional designers (IDs) require the following: Basic HTML and Flash programming familiarity. Solid knowledge of course development software and at least one LMS. Visual design skills (Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Illustrator).

Whatever happened to the good old interviewing, storyboarding, or writing skills? Is the pure instructional designer role a thing of the past? Exactly how much technology does an ID need to master in order to be a “good” ID?

The Purist vs. Technology

When I pursued a master’s-level Information Technology degree 20 years ago, my concentrations were in Human Performance and Multimedia Design. There was no convergence of the two disciplines relating to instruction. The part of the curriculum that dealt with usability had us design on paper, never touching a computer. And the technical courses had us programming games and branching stories, but never designing a course.

In an attempt to bring it all together, I added the Mager certifications in criterion referenced instruction and instructional module development. Technology was almost a dirty word in that classroom. The professor was adamant that instructional design fundamentals stood firm, immune to the dizzying pace of computer evolution.

And I think, to a degree, he may be right.

So, forget the technology?

I am not saying that in today’s marketplace an instructional designer can rely solely on organizational and writing skills; employers are looking for more. However, those skills traditionally associated with our profession prop up and validate the final deliverable. They don’t merely inform the process; they drive it.

Of course, good instruction can be delivered virtually technology-free in a classroom. Ask Thiagi, whose GameBlog provides scores of free, no-tech training games and activities on a monthly basis.

We know that when you are talking eLearning, technology is intrinsic.But whether the programming is being done by the ID or a dedicated multimedia developer, the fundamentals of instructional design have to dominate. One of the best examples I’ve seen is Cathy Moore’s needlestick injury course. (You can find a reference to it here.) With its basic graphics and lack of special effects, what’s so great about it?

  • An immediate request for the learner’s advice
  • The real-world consequence of the learner’s choice
  • The job aid support at the learner’s fingertips

That’s great instructional design. Did Cathy do the programming? Probably, but the point is that her organization and presentation of content shines through and delivers the learning.

So how much tech knowledge is the right amount?

Depending on your position within the organization, I don’t feel that you necessarily have to be fluent in authoring software. But you can’t operate in a vacuum, plopping your finished storyboard on the programmer’s desk. It’s your responsibility to find out if a specific tool can accommodate your vision for the course. You need to at least be familiar with or ask to what degree the tool offers or supports:

  • Animations
  • Simulations
  • Open navigation
  • Character images
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Knowledge checks
  • Responsive design
  • Output formats
  • LMS integration

I’ve had situations where probing these topics with a programmer has opened their eyes to new possibilities, coaxing the authoring tool to bend and perform in unexpected ways.

My personal knowledge of Storyline and Camtasia has not made me a better instructional designer. Yes, it has made me aware of the possibilities or limitations of my designs,but in the end it’s those solid instructional design principles that prevail and enable me to deliver value to today’s modern learners.

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