If you aren’t happy with your career in instructional design or want to start a career in this industry, there’s no reason to be a square peg in a round hole. There are numerous instructional design career paths you can follow in this field.
The roles and responsibilities can be so diverse and varied, that you might not even recognize there’s an instructional designer (or learning experience designer) behind the curtain. Here are some ways that instructional design work can be sliced and diced. No matter which path you choose, the day-to-day life of an instructional designer is unusual and often fascinating.
1. Working in corporate, nonprofit, academic or government
An organization’s mission and purpose can make a big difference in the type of work an instructional designer performs. For example, a corporate environment might be geared toward improving sales or developing custom work for clients. Designing in a higher education environment often involves training and working with faculty on their overall curriculum, classroom or distance learning courses. Listen to this interview about an instructional design career in higher education.
Working in a school system may involve designing educational technology curriculums. It may involve helping schools and individual teachers with technology for learning. Working for a school system may focus on curriculum design for varied subjects.
Government work might involve managing vendors who create courses or creating training for large government agencies. The military requires an abundance of training and many instructional designers work for different branches. Nonprofit work, such as that for an association, might involve designing and delivering training to association members. You can see that an organization’s mission is one of the keys to identifying the instructional design career path for you.
2. Designing internal, client-based, or commercial products
Many organizations hire instructional designers to create internal training for their own employees. This might include training required to meet regulations, to improve workplace performance and for professional development. Organizations also create custom learning experiences for external clients. Some develop education and training products for the marketplace. The pressures, deadlines and focus of each of these approaches will affect the intensity of the workplace environment.
3. Designing for specific audience types
With preparation and a little luck, you can choose whether you want to design learning experiences for children, teens, higher education students or adults. There are opportunities to design for all of these age groups.
Or you may want to design for people who speak another language or for those who have a disability or special needs, such as older adults. Unfortunately, not all age groups are equally funded, so it may be more difficult to find a job with one particular group.
4. Working with a small or large team
Do you prefer to be a one-person band or to work on a large team? The size of the group can greatly affect what you do every day as a learning experience designer.
On solo or small teams, designers are responsible for the analysis, design and production of learning experiences and materials. An increasing number of companies use very small teams.
On large teams, designers are often responsible for just the analysis, design and writing. Other team members take care of the multimedia elements and development.
5. Becoming a content specialist/subject matter expert
Instructional designers are typically content neutral, but some concentrate in one field. This may happen when they start out as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and transition into an instructional design role or they simply work in one content area for an extended time and develop into experts. If you have a special area of interest or knowledge, this career path might be for you.
6. Designing for different types of media experiences
Some instructional designers specialize in designing for one particular format, such as instructor-led training or eLearning. Others are comfortable designing for many types of media and environments. It’s now common to design for a blend of learning experiences using a mix of media and approaches. Some formats that instructional designers design for include:
- Online learning (eLearning, webinars, virtual classroom)
- Serious games and gamification
- Video and interactive video
- Websites and learning portals
- Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)
- Mobile learning, mobile apps
- Instructor-led training (writing manuals and creating slides)
- Self-paced print guides
- Job aids (print or mobile)
- Content curation
- Social media
7. Working as a technical specialist or developer
Quite a few instructional designers migrate partially or wholly into the technical development side. This is a fairly common instructional design career path. Becoming an authoring tool specialist may involve gaining competence in several authoring tools, like Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate. It may also involve building learning portals (websites), creating mobile learning products and other technical tasks. In organizations with a one-person design team, the instructional designer may do both design and development or outsource this part of a project.
8. Working as a media specialist
In smaller organizations and academic centers, instructional designers wear many hats. These might include audio and video production and editing, as well as graphic production. Some come to the field with past experience in these areas or develop competencies on the job. By specializing in media, you use your instructional design skills to ensure your media productions are instructionally sound.
9. Becoming a project manager
All design and development projects require planning and management. Some instructional designers develop the skills to create and follow through on project plans. Those interested in this path should get supplemental training in project management and leadership. This role often requires exceptional people skills, business savvy, and knowledge of project management procedures and software. See the review of Agile for Instructional Designers for more on project management.
10. Working in curriculum design
Through instructional design knowledge, you can help school systems, higher education, companies and non-profits develop curriculum for formal and informal learning. The curriculum designer analyzes the standards, goals and purpose of a curriculum and devises high-level learning strategies to meet these goals. Curriculum designers might also be involved in selecting textbooks, defining certification requirements and creating assessments.
11. Managing an LMS
Large organizations and institutions require one or more full-time staff to manage their Learning Management System (LMS). Technically-minded instructional designers are capable of taking on this position. Large LMS applications can be complex and require special training from the vendor to make full use of the program’s capabilities. The LMS manager ensures the system is running smoothly, trains others in its use, creates standards for the many detailed issues that arise and troubleshoots technical problems.
12. Working as a community manager
As the number of communities of practice grow, there will be a greater need for online community managers. These individuals will need to understand the benefits of learning through collaboration and discussion. The community manager builds an engaging online community through positive relationships, relevant discussions and the effective use of social media tools. See the book, Building Successful Communities of Practice, for more on this topic. Also see my interview with a community manager.
There’s no reason to be a square peg forced into a round hole. You can find the space that’s right for you. If you want to find out more about a career in instructional design, download my quick read eBook below.