ID: The Discipline and its Practitioner

This is a fond memory of more than 15 years ago when I worked for a large and on-the-rise eLearning organization.

I was assigned as Instructional Designer for a prestigious project. A couple of days later, a colleague came over to my desk and pointed toward the large conference table on the other side of the huge open-plan office. I saw the entire project team (of ‘my’ project) in the midst of what seemed to be an intense discussion which lasted for over two hours.

After the meeting was over, I went up to the Project Manager and asked him whether he knew that I was the assigned Instructional Designer and why I was not invited for that meeting. He replied quite matter-of-factly “Oh! You were not needed. We were conceptualizing and designing. Doesn’t your work begin after the product is ready?”.

“No” I said.

He reacted “So then aren’t you going to spell check and review language inconsistencies?”

The discipline of ID first made its presence felt in the eLearning space in India almost 20 years back and not everyone understood it very well. At that time, most folks thought that the role of an Instructional Designer was primarily to proof-read and weed out grammar errors, punctuation errors and language inconsistencies. They would at best be required to rewrite the verbs on the Learning Objectives screen, after the screens were ready.

Thankfully, today this is no more than a fond memory.

This post briefly looks at the evolution of Instructional Design and its emergence in Indian organizations with the objective of understanding the discipline and the role of its practitioner as it is today.

It was in the early 90s, when present-day eLearning companies (called Multimedia companies at that time) hit upon a realization. In a team of Programmers, Visual Designers, Graphics Artists and Project Managers and Writers, whose job is it to look after learning? Who would be that person who ‘knew something about learning’? This role would have to be filled in by a perhaps a Teacher, a Trainer or someone who would be able to facilitate learning in absentia. And here began the story of the Instructional Designer.

To fulfil the need of a resource who ‘knew something about learning’, eLearning organizations hired smart people from different academic and professional backgrounds – Engineering, Management, IT, Science and Literature Graduates as Instructional Designers. They were trained internally, mainly on-the-project, by other senior team members well-versed with ID and in some cases even by clients.

Two factors helped the growth of Instructional Design in India eLearning organizations tremendously. The first one being that the presence of an Instructional Designer on a project was a key client requirement. Organizations had to showcase ID capability in order to win projects. They provided direction and focus to internal ID training for the role holders.

The second factor that helped the growth of Instructional Design was the sheer zeal with which aspiring Instructional Designers learned the craft on the job. Unfazed by the lack of formal or even systematic structured training, Instructional Designers picked up the practice of ID pretty much on the job.

A new profession was born in the training rooms of these organizations.  And it would be no exaggeration to say that in India, as well as globally, ID is one such profession that has more self-taught practitioners than qualified professionals.

Now here’s the interesting bit. The lack of a defined ID curriculum or course made this an open field. Instructional Designers learned everything from understanding the pieces of Cognitive Science to Bloom’s Taxonomy. They stepped into projects to give learning design inputs and along the way they wrote eLearning storyboards and scripts, understood Visual and Communication Design, mastered the strengths and limitations of the online medium, dabbled in Project Management and at times even managed clients. With panache.

The role of Instructional Designers has evolved today be like that of a movie director who needs to understand all aspects of film-making in addition to directorial skills. Instructional designers can, if required, hold together the Instructional, Creative, Process-related and Technical reins of learning, and not just eLearning. They have become the go-to people for performance gaps that can be traced to a learning need. They apply principles of cognition, and use their understanding of media and technology to create learning interventions that solve performance problems. And this is just a macro-level view of the skills Instructional Designers  demonstrate.

At the micro-level, an Instructional Designer adds tremendous value to the content being taught. To craft a sound instructional strategy, Instructional Designers first need to understand the subject matter to a large extent possible.  An Instructional Designer must also do the following: chunk content into topics, name them in in a logical and appealing way, layer the content, come up with creative ways of teaching the subject using constructs like Games and Stories, ensure that the written word is culturally and technically accurate.

The skill list does not end here. In addition to all of the above, most Instructional Designers have a keen sense of their clients business, have excellent verbal and written communication and research skills, discuss usability standards with flair, can tell a good animation from a bad one and sometimes make small code corrections.

Today almost 20 years on, there is no ambiguity about the field of ID its practitioner. It is fascinating when you think about it. All of these skills – learned on the job, pretty much on their own.

In keeping with the spirit of self-learning that has defines the discipline of ID and its practitioner, this blog will bring a bit of knowledge, a few resources and mainly a host of insights gained in the practice of this amazing profession.