Thursday, 23 April 2009

Working as an Instructional Designer

What's it like to be an Instructional Designer?  Well, you are often underpaid, held in low esteem, ignored, expected to churn out sausages and used as a scapegoat.  But you can also find yourself treated with respect and courtesy, listened to at all times and, most importantly of all, getting a tremendous amount of satisfaction from a job well done.

For me, working as an instructional designer is the job I most want to do whenever I get the chance.  Some people might think that I must have masochistic tendencies by admitting to such a thing because they have tried instructional design and found it to be a most disagreeable experience.  In particular, when working as an e-Learning instructional designer the art and science of the job are so often pushed to their limits, which is either a good thing if you are good at what you are doing or a really bad thing if you aren't!

In an ideal world the instructional designer is someone who is respected and who takes the lead on what learners need to be able to do, how content will be structured and sequenced, what delivery media will be used, and how assessment will be used.  When e-Learning is either a part of or the whole solution, instructional designers should also take the lead on how assets will be used, the look and feel of the GUI, and the use of navigation and function buttons.  Why?  Well, it's because they know about such things and how they can be used best to help people learn - they need to be the leaders of the team and not the tea-makers.

However, all too often reality is far removed from the ideal world.  Far too often, even with nearly 14 years instructional design experience, I have found myself being dictated to by graphic designers and programers, most of whom have very little idea about instructional designers and how people learn.  If you pay peanuts then you usually get monkeys but more and more instructional designers are expected to work for extremely low rates of pay.  They are often kept in the dark, a bit like mushrooms, only to be let out into the light when it's far too late.  Their advice is not heeded and when the inevitable happens they get the blame for a poor programme or end result.  If this wasn't bad enough, they are also expected to mimic a sausage-making factory, by churning out designs, learning materials and scripts to order in a robotic, machine-like fashion whilst working in an environment akin to a sweat-shop!

The environment in which instructional designers work is incredibly important to them if they are to produce quality stuff.  The more experienced the person the more they will know what works best for them.  For example, I simply cannot do instructional design work in an office, surrounded by a whole load of people.  I'm far too nosey for a start and easily get distracted by what those around me are doing!  To produce quality work I need a conducive environment, one which is quiet and where I feel most comfortable.  I need time to reflect and my own space in which to feel inspired because I don't churn out sausages!  Yet I am constantly amazed at the number of clients who insist that instructional designers work on-site at all times - how 20th Century is that?

If a client wants an experienced, mature instructional designer then why do they insist on treating them like children who can't be left to their own devices and who have to be under the watchful eye of the project manager or whomever at all times?  In addition, I wonder just how many clients have missed out on employing quality instructional designers on short, fixed-term contracts because they expect them to commute many miles each day to be on-site?  Somehow we need to get over to these people that we are now in the 21st Century with reliable and powerful communication technologies at our disposal and that their 'Victorian' attitude is doing no favours whatsoever to the provision of quality and effective learning solutions.

To this end I am currently engaged in trying to convince recruitment agencies of the futility of this outmoded and draconian approach, in the hope that they will be able to help turn the tide so that working as an instructional designer becomes far more of a pleasure instead of a pain.  Wish me well!