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The Rapid E-Learning Blog - do you need an instructional design degree

Just finished back-to-back conferences in San Jose and San Diego.  As always, it’s fun getting to meet the blog readers and Articulate customers.  Many of them are working with limited resources and it’s interesting to see how they approach their work.  I also get lots of good questions.

One of the most frequent questions asked is whether or not they need instructional design degrees.  I get this question quite a bit and it seems I’m getting it more frequently.

If I hire someone, I put less emphasis on the formal education they have and focus more on their tangible skills.  I’m interested in seeing a portfolio of work that represents their technical skills as well as their instructional design skills.  I don’t care if they acquired the skills in a formal or informal setting. I’m just concerned with them having the skills.

However, I do appreciate what it takes to get a degree in instructional design and know that what’s learned is valuable and can only enhance a person’s base of knowledge.  Because of this, I usually tell people “No, they don’t,” and “Yes, they do.”

You DON’T Need an Instructional Design Degree

You don’t need a formal degree to learn the skills required to build good elearning courses.  There are many books and resources available that will provide the same information you’d get in any formal program.  Combine that with the easy authoring tools and rich informal learning networks available today and you’re all set. Besides many people with degrees tell me they didn’t learn how to apply what they learned in their programs.

If you do want to forego a formal education, here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Read books and apply what you learn to your projects. If you can’t apply them to real projects, create little mini modules where you practice different techniques.  Add them to your portfolio with an explanation of what you did and why.
  • Connect with others so you’re always exposed to new ideas and challenged in your thinking.  One of the great things about social media is the access you have to all sorts of expertise.  Be prepared to connect in a genuine way.  People will tune you out if all you do is take.
  • Develop a portfolio that demonstrates your understanding of instructional design.  I also recommend combining your portfolio with a blog.  The portfolio could be the formal environment to display your work.  Whereas the blog is like the sandbox where you can flesh out ideas.

The key to success if you go this route is to continually practice your craft.  It’s not easy staying on top of your learning.  I recommend looking over the descriptions of some instructional design programs and then mapping out a plan of your own.  Expose yourself to the same books and topics and just do them at your own pace.

You DO Need an Instructional Design Degree

The reality is that many employers require an advance instructional design degree.  If all things are equal, the person with the degree will probably always be considered first.

Whether you like it or not, you’re competing in the marketplace with other qualified instructional designers.  So you want to make sure that your skills and qualifications are equitable.  That means if you don’t have a degree you might never be considered for different jobs.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - you do need an instructional design degree

Keep in mind, that many applications aren’t screened by the hiring managers.  There’s usually some HR assistant who quickly skims resumes and the one who doesn’t meet the minimum requirements goes to the bottom of the pile.

That’s the pragmatic reason for getting a degree.  Here are some other reasons:

  • Broaden your horizon.  You’ll be exposed to resources you may never ever consider or bother reading.  It’s easy to say that you can read the book on your own, but HAVING to read and think through a book is completely different.  The degree programs will force you to think, write, and apply what you’re learning.
  • Challenge your thinking.  You’ll connect with others who probably don’t think like you (and they may even be people you don’t like).  You may not agree with others but wrestling with their ideas and debating different instructional concepts will help solidify what you know and give you a broader perspective on things.  Besides, you may meet some lifelong friends through the program.  Either way, it’s important to test what you think you know.
  • Do new things.  You can be an elearning developer with ten year’s experience who basically does the same type of course over and over again.  Or you can be an elearning developer with three years, who’s worked on 10 diverse projects.  Which one has the deeper understanding?  In a formal program you’ll get to work on diverse projects and you never know where they’ll take you.  One of the reasons for my employment with Articulate is because I was working on a communities of practice research project.  That forced me to be more intentional about my involvement with the Articulate community, and eventually led to my job.

Getting Started.

If you are asking this question about instructional design degrees here’s what I‘d do:

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - comparing desirable skills to current skill set

  • Look at current job listings.  Go to industry job boards or sites like and look for instructional design positions.  What are they looking for?
  • Make a line item list of skills and qualifications.  Next to each item, add details based on your current skills and experience.  Compare what’s desired and how well you meet those needs.  You’ll see where you have skills and where you have gaps.
  • Make a plan to fill the gaps.  This can be a formal approach like an instructional design program or something informal.  Either way determines what you need to learn and work towards learning it.
  • Connect with others.  Jump into an elearning user community and ask what others have done.  Find out what they’re reading.  Ask questions and exchange ideas.  Whether you choose a formal education or not, much of your future success depends on your network.

There are a lot more reasons why you may or may not need a formal instructional design degree.  Whatever you do, you have to continue to push your development to stay competitive and to continue building effective elearning courses.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Feel free to share them in the comments section.  If you do an instructional design degree or certificate, tell us where you went and what you see as the most valuable reason to do what you did.


Free E-Learning Resources

Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.

Here’s a great job board for e-learning, instructional design, and training jobs

Participate in the weekly e-learning challenges to sharpen your skills

Get your free PowerPoint templates and free graphics & stock images.

Lots of cool e-learning examples to check out and find inspiration.

Getting Started? This e-learning 101 series and the free e-books will help.

177 responses to “Do You Need An Instructional Design Degree?”

February 8th, 2011

Hey Tom, nice post as always. I am an Instructional Designer with three years of experience in this industry. I haven’t had any formal education/training in Instructional Design. However, i have been able to survive and grow in this industry. Thaks to my network, various online and offline resources, and exposure to different types of projects.

I liked the idea of listing the industry expectations from a job portal and comparing those with the current skills to find the gaps. I am surely going to take that up.

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Hi Tom:
I totally agree with your suggestion. For some experiend people who have been in the field, ISD degree may not be necessary. However, I do see the benefits to get the degree.
I have a Master’s degree on ISD from FSU. The degree opened the door for me to get into the field. The formal learning also provided me the opportunites to apply what I learned and prepared me for the future challenges. Another crucial benefit is the Alumni connection. FSU’s program has very strong alumni support. With the recommendation from the alumni, the graduates may pass the filter screening easily compared with other applicants.
This is my thought. Looking forward to hearing from you.

February 8th, 2011

In reference to your play on the line from “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre” all I have to say is – Really, Tom…really? I completely understand the message you were wanting to get across and how in digging for clever material you went with that reference, but don’t you think it would be somewhat offensive to Mexicans? It’s 8:41 AM here in Texas – I recommend to a little bit of preventative damage control and re-post this blog without the unintentional stereotyping.

Oscar Ramirez

@Oscar: I can see what you mean.

Do you have a degree in Instructional Design or Educational Technology? Keep up the good work!

I took the culminating courses in a well-recognized/respected Instructional Design/Tech program in graduate school (with my MA in Org Comm) and those courses involved creating static web pages with hyperlinks. This was just 5 years ago. There’s a real disconnect between most academic programs in ISD and “real-world” ISD for business. I could go on and on, as most of us commenting here could. I got a job as an ID because I could do the work (had an online portfolio to prove it), not because I did/didn’t have a degree in ID. I’ve got several posts on my own site about the real value of a degree.


Are there any portfolios combined with blogs that you think are done well that you can share? I’d love to see some examples best practices!

February 8th, 2011

I have been in the industry for 20 years and Degrees have been a bit of a problem for me. I have lectured at Degree level but do not hold a Degree myself so have seen both sides of the coin. I have employed many people with and without degrees and I do have an issue with HR departments insisting I employee someone with a degree over someone without. I strongly believe in looking at each individual and judging them on their abilities/work rather than a qualification.
As for myself, I have decided that after all this time I do need an ID degree as I want to get back into lecturing and this is now insisted upon.
Does anyone have a recommendation for a course in the UK, preferably through distance learning?
Thank you.

I plan on forwarding this week’s blog to several friends who are considering different master’s programs. I couldn’t agree with you more. My master’s degree opened the door to several opportunities that would not have otherwise been available. My degree experience was valuable from a theoretical point of view, but few instructional design programs (or other educationally based degrees) are going to teach you the practical application piece that only comes with on-the-job experience. They typically teach you the way things should be done in an ideal world. Needs assessment is a prime example. In a degree program, your needs assessment project will take a month to analyze and complete. In the real world, sometimes you have less than a week – or even less than a day! – to ask the right questions and provide your recommendations on a learning solution. I would advocate an advanced degree to learn the theory behind what we do and why we do it so you can counsel your clients in the practical ways they understand. Just my 2 cents.

February 8th, 2011

I have a Masters in ISD from the University of North Texas. It provided me with opportunities to learn more about adult education (my Bachelors is in Elementary Ed) as well as practice all sorts of software, video production, etc. which I use often.

I also have the CPLP certification from ASTD and felt like preparing for that exam was very helpful in learning ISD concepts. If you can’t get to college right now, I would recommend that and as Tom said, reading books and blogs and practicing your craft.

[…] On 02/08/2011, in career development, instructional design, workplace, by Daniel Christian Do you need an Instructional Design degree? – from The Rapid e-Learning blog; with special thanks to Dr. Jeff Wiggerman for the […]

Tom, your posts always make me think. Thanks for that!

What I have noticed is while a lot of colleges offer instructional design degrees on a Graduate level, there are not a lot out there on an Undergraduate level. What would you, or the readers here, recommend for an Undergraduate degree that will help to build knowledge and make the transition to the Graduate program most beneficial?


February 8th, 2011

Hey Tom, great post! I had five years under my belt as a trainer who developed my own courseware, instructor led, and eLearning. When I applied for instructional designer jobs the response back was poor. Here I am today (three years later) with a Masters in Education Technology from San Diego State University and I am a Senior Instructional Designer. I was hired by my current company one year ago. One of the reasons I was hired was because the director (former President of our local ASTD chapter) liked the fact that I was currently enrolled in a Masters program and thought that the SDSU EDTEC program was excellent.

My advice would be to have a website that showcases your skills, knowledge, and experience first then if you have the time and resources to get a degree, by all means do. If someone proved to me that they could do the job I would recommend he/she got the job irregradless of his/her lack of a degree. Unfortunately you can’t even get an interview at many companies unless you have a some sort of a degree, even if it was just an undegrad. Having an undegrad in Technical Writing, Informtion Technology, and other relevant fields is a plus.

February 8th, 2011

Hi Tom,

I am currently getting my degree in instructional design at Walden University. Wonderful university, 100% online and 100% accredited. Enjoying every minute of my studies and so glad I made the decision to go back to school and get my degree! Thanks for such a wonderful article!


I’m very curious to know how Instructional Design certificates are viewed by hiring managers? Would getting one be worthwhile even with a strong portfolio?

I have a degree in an unrelated field, but think going for a Masters in Instruction Design would be overkill. Especially since I mostly work on the visual design of eLearning courses.

February 8th, 2011

@Val – Walden University offers an undergraduate program!

Tom, this is an interesting question. I think more than a degreee, e-learning designers need to find an instructional design theory or model that they use and are comfortable with that they can apply to the elearning they develop. I think this would be an intersting blog to find out models people use. At MTS we use the 4MAT learning style and instruction cycle (developed by Bernice McCarthy, for all of courses and elearning project.

Thanks so much for this post! I don’t have a formal degree but have been doing this for 5 years. I am currently enrolled in school, pursuing a degree, not instructional design though. I really appreciate your focus on this very subject.

February 8th, 2011

Thanks for this great, thought-provoking post, Tom. Personally, I’m on the “get the degree” team. I had experience as a course developer, software tester, and technical writer before I decided to pursue an M.S. in Instructional & Performance Technology from Boise State U (go Broncos!) My coursework not only expanded my thinking relative to the fields (IT & PT), best practices, and ongoing research, but it also expanded my professional network. Having the degree has also given me a significant competitive edge in the workplace.

I recently interviewed (I was one of several candidates) for a newly created training position at a local manufacturing company. Because I had educational creds, in addition to actual “street” creds for instructional design, I had a huge advantage over my competition. Bottom line: I got the job–my competitors did not. While the degree alone didn’t sway the hiring manager’s decision, it did get my foot in the door for an interview, and, because I knew my stuff, I received the best job offer I’ve gotten so far in my 12-year career.

While there are many routes to becoming an Instructional Design/Training professional, there’s no substitute for having that piece of paper to bump your name up in a (potentially) lengthy list of candidates who are vying for a job or contracting gig.


It is true that education may not be needed if you are already in the field. I have been out of work for six years and I have a Master of Arts degree in Human Resource Development that hasn’t done much for me. From the blog above, I gather that you are also into theatre. Theatre and school haven’t done much for me, neither has the community and the nice people in the area. Just kidding about the nice people!

I can tell you that I believe in formal education, but formal education without experience and credentials + references means nothing at all. As far as the community, at times they can be a block into achieving anything at all. Most of them are not intelligent enough to carry a decent conversation, or have any input that actually means something and adds value. If I haven’t mentioned before I am the father of two children, and while achieving my M.A. I have taken care of them. That was, is and will always be my greatest achievement.

As far as networking is concerned, it does matter who you network with. The people at ASTD don’t do much for the ones who actually need help as far as networking. They do more for the publishers. Publishers, ASTD, or the school I acquired my formal education have never paid my bills, corporations on the other hands have when I was employed.

I learned more from you, by actually doing some of the things you wrote articles about, than from ASTD for which you work for on occasion, or NEIU from which I graduated from. I always said that if you learn theory, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get to practice the theory you have learned. The things I learned from you Tom, I applied in different ways than you intended them to be used. I applied them to building a better web site to promote myself. Even at making great presents for my wife on her birthday.

Great post!

I agree to a certain extent. An ID degree is not really needed. However, for someone who is looking to get into the field it is not a bad idea to have the degree. I have been doing ID work for over seven years. My MA degree is in Human Resource Development -minor Instructional Design. Here is where I found the degree helped me. While in graduate school I worked as a Technical Support analyst -supporting trading applications. I needed ID experience in order to get into the ID field. Since my course work focused on designing real live projects for current companies (i.e., Evanston Northwestern Hospital, LaSalle Bank, and NEIU); I was able to get the ID experience based on those school projects. I begin to build my portfolio from those school projects. Of course, they were graded by my professors and I had to clean them up to ensure they were ready to present in an interview. Thus, those projects helped me land my first ID job about seven years ago.

On the other hand, I have seen individuals get in this field coming from a development, web designer or HR background (all related). Consequently; it depends who you know and what you can show that supports your ID experience & knowledge. I’m finding that seasoned IDs are participating in the interviews and are asking candidates to explain the ID process dealing with ADDIE (building a course from start to finish). So, it is good to know a lot about the field if you do not have the advance degree. Do your research.

My ten cents worth!

Hey Tom, long-time reader but I have never commented before. I have a Masters in instructional design from National University (an entirely online program, by the way) and I feel it helped to open doors for me. As a result of the degree, combined with a background in graphic design and business, I now hold a position managing a team of Instructional Designers.

I would not be where I am now without the degree.

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Where are you now? Where do you want to be?

Do you need a degree to be an Instructional Designer? Yes. In the sense that you typically need one to be considered for most professional positions.
Does it need to be an ID degree? No. Of course that would be a major plus, but how many of us actually knew this was what we wanted to be when we grew up? I think a lot of us got degrees, launched out into the work force and somewhere along the journey this career found us.

If someone is asking me this question because they are interested in the ID field and they haven’t already gotten a degree then yeah, get that ID degree. What a great head start they’ll have! On the flip side, if they already have a degree and they’re just interested in hopping on the ID train, they really don’t need to go back to school for formal training. Maybe some companies require it, but plenty more don’t.

(PS- Tom, I think you rock. I <3 this blog)

As always, I look forward to your posts!
Thirty-plus years of experience consulting with over a dozen Fortune 100 companies has taught me that while a degree is a good thing, it does little to prepare the holder for the real world. You must be flexible, innovative, able to do wonders with almost no budget, and deliver a superior product in practically no time.
Acutally, that’s what I like best about being an ID.
I’m currently working with several IDs (with and without degrees) in a large corporation. Knowledge sharing is encouraged and rewarded, which continuously leads to better and better solutions for our target audiences.
Bottom line? Our HR is wise enough to look beyond a degree. The resulting mix of theoretical and practical knowledge is what makes this organization a delight to be a part of.

Hey Tom,

I am currently in my Masters of Education, Technology and Leadership. I have many ID classes in my program but its MORE than just ID… Its the hardware, software, networking behind it. Its the human factor and multi-media design and research and everything in between. Its only my second semester so far and I am really enjoying it. I am studying at The George Washington University and the program is completely online – which provides ample flexibility with doing both school and work. Check out my blog post about Grad School and what I am learning

Love the blog Tom – Thanks!


Apparently I need a degree! I’ve been an applications instructor/help desk person for 15 years at a law firm. I had become complacent and disconnected. Now that the tide is turning I am drowning with information and terminology that I have never heard because I was not networking. The regime here at my firm has changed to a younger generation. Yes…I need to learn quickly how to transfer everything that I once did standing in front of a class to e-learning!!! I have only recently been exposed to new terminology such as SCORM, LMS, Authoring, SaaS, SME. Help! I don’t know where to start. I cannot afford to lose my job! Can someone please point me in the right direction.


Take this philosophy into perspective. When one has the education, the experience and has a new problem to deal with, he/she is resourceful and always finds a solution. One knows how to analyze a problem, ask the right questions, find the right answers presenting the right recommendations, and knows how to implement also.

Another great post Tom – thanks!

I tend to agree with your Do and Don’t lists. Back in 93 when I got my MS.ED in Instructional Technology I don’t think I would have been able to get into the field without it. Now things are a little easier. I believe the differentiating factor with designers is an “internal instinct” for training. I have worked with formally trained IDs that could not think past a model and really never produced much of value and developers who came in the “back door” who possessed an innate instinct and ability to think outside the box. I would much rather work with the latter! They helped take the whole team to the next level!

However, there is no replacement for the discipline of the ID process ESPECIALLY the Analysis phase. It has been my experience that those without the formal degree (not all) tend to not delve quite as deep into this phase. Not for lack of wanting to but for lack of being formally walked through process and being required to formally document it – something to be said about being forced through this exercise a time or two.

Also, I still draw on coursework in Educational Psychology, Adult Learning Theory and Measurements & Evaluation (hated this class but am grateful for what I learned!).

Hi Tom,

I wanted to offer the perspective of a hiring manager. I lead a worldwide training group, and I hire people with ID degrees. I agree that one does not necessarily need an ID degree to develop e-learning. My 28-year experience in the field shows me that ID people have the background, skills, and experience to develop worldclass, high-end training as well as rapid, midline training and we develop a lot of both. My philosophy is, if I want to build a bridge, I hire a professional engineer–someone who’s been formally trained and has experience to do the job. Thanks for a great blog. Love the content!

For me (PhD from Purdue University), the best reason for a formal degree in ID is to learn the theory behind ID and to use that theoretical knowledge to create various projects as required by the curriculum and critiqued by the Professors. Without that theoretical knowledge, the approach to good ID can be hit or miss. The Articulate Suite are terrific tools for the development of ideas into terrific training, but if the ideas aren’t based on proper learning theory, then tools used to create the training will not help in creating good training.

I have always found that I will learn some things from reading a book. However, in a formal, classroom setting, the discussion about the book with other students and the Professor will bring additional knowledge and insights about the topic that might not have occured to me.

Regarding employment, most companies require a degree and, when I hire a new employee, I will look at education first, experience second, and projects third. Unless you are truly a free-lancer, the projects that you have created were completed with the assistance of others, be they other ID experts or just the final users. Thus, not showing me what you can do, just what you and others can do.

Regarding an undergraduate degree, I personally would suggest business management with a minor in technical writing, or the reverse. (1) Business management will teach the broad specturm of how various types of businesses operate and, as that is who will be using your ID skills, knowledge of business practices becomes extremely useful. (2) Technical writing skills will allow you to take a lot of information and distill it for the end user. In many respects, we do the same thing in training development.

As my comments are quite in agreement with the above, I’m ready for the arrows 🙂

February 8th, 2011

Has anyone ever heard of a T-Letter? A T-Letter lists the skills needed for a particular position, and your skills as it is applied to it. Tom talks about a skills gap that would tell you the skills your missing for the position, so one would know how to acquire the skills. When the only thing you are missing is the experience, how does one address it? Does he make up a story? Does he tell the truth about how long he has been unemployed?

Hi Tom, like most people above, I agree that your post is yet again topical and valuable.

I have two questions: first, if one chooses not to get a degree, you suggested looking at several programs and setting up your own informal course of study with the same books and topics. While I’ve seen the course titles/descriptions for programs, how would I get the topics and books i.e. the syllabus? Do you have some you consider representative?

My second question is a two-parter: if I decide to pursue a degree (I’ve flirted with the idea for several years now) do you recommend both Instructional Design AND Educational Technology or one over the other? Part B is very specific, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am wondering what the best program is in this area? I checked out San Francisco State two years ago based on several strong recommendations, but they seemed behind the times on the technology side (online learning both live and self-paced is my main interest). Are they better than I think? Is there a better local program? Would it be better to go with one of the online degree programs that are quite expensive (meaning: are they worth it)?

I appreciate your leadership in this field, and your thoughtful posts. I will follow your other suggestions about creating a blog/website to showcase my work.

February 8th, 2011


How about a job? I certainly need one. If you are hiring, I am looking.

February 8th, 2011

Lloyd, it sounds like you are a Professor. But I do agree with you on all points. I personally need work in coporate in order to bring a fresh approach to the field of T+D. It is the mastery of theory with the experience in corporate that makes a great employee. You can’t have one without the other, unless you are in academia where things never change, but the budget.

Having an existing bias of being in a PhD program for Learning Design and Technology, I see the merits of both degreed and non-degreed professionals in the field.

I believe that much ID work can and is successfully done, both anectdotally and thru apprenticeship learning. Non-degreed professionals can be excellent at designing “where the rubber meets the road”, so to speak.

However, with the complexity of the field (integration of technology with epistemic beliefs and domain knowledge), a theoretical foundation will help prevent happenstance outcomes that often come with developing in rapidly evolving environments.

Additionally, a theoretical base can help standardize the field by bridging terminology gaps. If ID’r’s speak a common language, it will be easier to train ID’rs to work within interdisciplinary environments, as is required with much of today’s contextual learning needs.

Interesting and timely post. I’m in the very process of deciding whether or not to enroll in a Master’s in Instructional Design & Technology myself. I currently work at a large e-learning company as a multimedia designer, where I’ve been for a few years now.

My original degree is in illustration, and I have several years of professional experience in illustration, video production (and post), graphic design and 2D/3D animation. I also taught some web design and motion graphics courses a while back at my former college’s Adult Continuing Education Program. I discovered I really enjoyed the process of teaching and many of my students signed up for my courses simply because I was the one teaching them, as they felt I was excellent at taking complex concepts and explaining them in a way they could easily understand and apply.

Additionally, the vast majority of project types I’ve worked on over the years professionally have always been instructional in nature, whether they were corporate videos, 3D medical animations, PowerPoint presentations used in a courtroom, Flash demos explaining how to use a new technology product, or designing an intuitive-to-use interface for a new course creation system.

It seems at my very core, in addition to creating rich visual and multimedia experiences I have a natural instinct and desire to take something complex and make it as quick as possible to understand to as many people as possible.

Having said all of this, lately I’ve been feeling a bit confined within my current situation and as a result, I’ve been looking into possibly obtaining a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design & Technology as a way to expand my career into something potentially even more rewarding, that also has the possibility for more earning potential, and that places me along the cutting edge of what I feel is an exciting industry while also allowing me to continue to utilize my skill set in rich media creation to its fullest.

I do have a few concerns, though. It’s hard for me to gauge whether or not as an instructional designer I will still have ample opportunity to create most of the visual design and media elements for projects or not. From what I’ve been able to discern, it appears a lot of instructional designers spend most of their time writing scripts, meeting with SME’s or developing (i.e. writing code in Flash or some other authoring environment) versus really being able to invest any time into something like creating a rich and immersive 3D animation or shooting and doing the post work on a set of instructional videos. I’ve read some articles that infer instructional designers often farm out a lot of the visually rich material to someone like myself versus doing it themselves.

How much truth is there to that? As instructional design professionals, how is most of your time spent on a day-today basis? Are you locked in meetings most of the time? Typing away in Word and consulting style guides for weeks on end? Coding JavaScript functions all day? I’m just trying to get a sense of whether or not such a program (and career path) is truly the right choice for me or not, since I don’t want to sacrifice the ability to create rich media experiences in exchange for a role that could end up feeling less satisfying than what I do now.

Any responses are appreciated. Thanks.


Interesting article, and quite frankly it worries me. While there is a growing need for Instructional Designers and more and more opportunities for informal learning that can meet many of the desired skills the theory and pedagogical sound practice often gets misssed and deemed irrelevant in the informal learning path.

I agree with Lloyd however in that the theory needs to be behind the learning. It seems more to me that Instructional designers are being confused as media designers and techies, in my department I do not work with the programs such as Articulate, Flash etc. I work the instructors and professors to storyboard the learning experience based on sound pedadogical practice, inlcuding an understanding of multimedia design principles, ID models, adult education philosophy, cognitive load theory etc. and the media designers build the learning object from the storyboard.

Having said that like Amy there are those with the ID degrees that cannot think past the models either. In terms of Instructional Design degrees being at the graduate level, it seems to me this is because there is often necessary (dependent on the graduate degree) prerequsite knowledge that comes from having a degree in education, and having worked first in the field.

There is a saying out there it is not about the tools but about the pedagogy. A degree in instructional design gives the background in the pedagogy that I think too often lacking. I see it time and time again as I work with graduate students and new instructional designers, it is not all about the gadgets, you need to understand the learning process first before you can be a good designer.

February 8th, 2011

Hum, I’m kinda disagree. It is true that the daily work and informal learning gives us skills, but the pedagogical vision of e-learning is acquired in the Instructional Desing Degree, or at least in Spain so, where I am. Do not you think?

February 8th, 2011

It’s funny, in my experience having an instructional design degree does help, but I’ve also found that other types of degrees/education assist in e-Learning development.

For example, I’ve found that (for some reason) film and music education lend themselves directly to e-Learning. Film, from the aspect of telling a story visually… and music, from the order and pattern recognition.

In either case, you don’t need a degree to prove how good you are, or to be good at all… however, you may need a degree to get in the door and provide the foundation for excellence.

(I have a degree in ID, I’ve seen both types of experience and excellence)

Off topic, I know. Any chance of you sharing the “Getting Started with the Keurig Brewer” files now that you’re back, Tom? Thanks!

February 8th, 2011

Sean Bengry,

I believe you are wrong. To be an Instructional Designer is more than teaching, it is putting together a curriculum for a school when talking about music. It is the ability to know the difference between the methods you use for a child and the methods you use for an adult. It is the skill of interviewing the right people, doing a good job on consulting and providing the right results based on the directives of the people who hired you. At times it takes more than a Instructional Design degree and takes experience. But together experience and an advanced degrees can help. At times professionals like you hire a writer to do the instructional design. But there is much more than the writing and the music to have a good curriculum that can be documented, printed and used. Ask the administration at Old Town and they don’t even have their own books. They purchase them from publishers. A good ID can build the documentation and design the curriculum. For music they probably need to know the subject matter too.

February 8th, 2011

I have a MS degree in Instructional Design from California State University Los Angeles. I’ve been working in Instructional Design for 10 years. I’m the only ID with a formal degree at my work. I’m glad I got the degree because it gives me confidence based on knowledge of learning styles. My classes icluded knowing what was good and not-so-good about existing e-learning. If you want to be inspired, check out some of the e-learning for elementary kids. Another good bit of knowledge was finding out how adults learn. I believe you can learn how to make impressive e-learning, but if you don’t reach the learner, it’s nothing.

In my experience people many of the people who claim to be Instructional Designers are really multi-media developers who happen to work in education. ID is really about understanding pedagogy (and androgogy if you’re a Knowles person). I think that’s what you get from a degree.

If you can design and impliment an effective learning activity with out the use of any technology beyond a room, a pen, and some paper then you are an Instructional designer.

[…] read an interesting article on Rapid E-learning Blog that discussed the background of instructional designers especially whether the ID […]

February 8th, 2011

I’m a grad school dropout. I figured I needed a master’s degree to get work in the field, but began finding work right away. (Two previous careers got me in the door: newspaper reporting and real estate sales. There was a real estate training project that hired me.) I was never keen on the idea of working full time while going to school, so once it appeared that I didn’t really need that piece of paper, I quit. Only once has my lack of an ID degree been a barrier. A number of years ago, there was a job as a civilian working for the army in Ft. Leavenworth, KS. I had a phone conversation with someone who said she would hire me in a minute, but the army required a master’s degree. Too bad … I could be living in beautiful downtown Leavenworth, where the high tomorrow will be 16 degrees, instead of here in boring old San Diego, with its day-in day-out sunshine. 😉

Bachelor of Business from University of Florida and Master’s in Instructional Design, Open and Distance Learning from Florida State University (a great program which I highly recommend). I spent the first 20 years of my work life in the “don’t need a degree if you work hard and study on your own”. Then one day I decided I just wanted to get a business degree. It wasn’t until I had a few classes behind me that I understood that going after a degree is as much about the journey as the destination.

At FSU, I learned as much (or sometimes more) from my classmates as I did from my instructors and textbooks. I think there is value in learning “with” people. It’s hard to get that experience by reading a book in solitude. And learning at work is often hampered by the need to just get it done.

I’ll always encourage people to get a degree or a certificate from a reputable higher learning institution.

Hi Tom,

My dad (Brian Marvin) was at the instructional design conference in SD this weekend, and I got the opportunity to have drinks with him and several of his fellow Coast Guard officers and friends last night. As a teacher, it was a wonderful opportunity to learn how so much of what I do on a daily basis actually fits into the real world. I have had your blog on my reader for a while, and it’s so interesting to see how small the world is!

Mindy Gray

February 8th, 2011

nice post as always and your content is full of information.

Hi Tom,

I totally agree with you. I am working as an ID for the past 3 years without any formal education on the same. I am greatful to my ex-office where I was given enough on the job training and sessions of ISD. Our company also had a full-fledged e-learning created called ISD 101 that covered the ADDIE model. It was very helpful and i received certification for the same. So, i would suggest that companies who have experienced IDs can provide certificate of completion to such employees.

I am an instructional designer (love it) and decided to get an ISD degree to open new doors. Many potential employers want candidates with the degree and without it, I’m not even considered even though I can do the work.

I’m in the the middle of my second course at Ashford University (asynchronous online classes) and am enjoying it. It is fascinating to discuss using techniques and technologies in different training and educational settings. I am learning as much from my fellow students as I am from the formal materials (which is not a surprise). The classes definitely helps me get outside of our corporate “box” of how we design, develop, and deliver online content.

Ashford University offers an online program for adult undergrads.

Great post, Tom. We are using several of those books in my University of Washington eLearning Development & Design Certificate course. The various philosophies of the authors are being contrasted and discussed. I prefer Michael Allen’s approaches. We are creating real-world projects and getting feedback and help from classmates. Overall, it’s a great course. I’m also learning more about asynchronous virtual learning environments from the “other” side.

I’ve been in the training industry for over 20 years, and never found the time and energy to get a degree. With the launch of my own business, I’ve found that potential clients really like to see the “credentials.” Even though managing school and work (and family and life) is difficult, there is never a downside to learning.

Tom, I’m going to be biased here and say that you really do need a degree in instructional design to be proficient in your role, whether that is developing e-learning or instructor-led training.

I invested 2 years of time and money into a Master’s in Instructional and Performance Technology from Boise State. Great program! The education I received prepared me not only with the skills but the business acumen to navigate myself in the corporate world.

The program also gave me a great sense of learning styles and learning theory that I apply back to my work. Understanding how people learn has made me a more effective trainer. Now, do I use EVERYTHING I learned. No? But I have the tools and resources to meet the needs of my clients or employers anytime, anywhere.

February 9th, 2011

I have a Masters of Educational Technology from Concordia University (Montreal) and Instructional Design was but only one subject(year long) in this program. I have been doing instructional design work ever since only because I enjoyed that subject the most. I think BOTH my degree plus the fact that I referred to myself as an Instructional Designer in my resume were important factors in winning the job. Should someone with less degree and more experience have gotten the job? Possibly, but in a Government town such as Ottawa the degree sometimes trumps experience. In all honesty I learned more about instructional design informally by doing the tasks required (making lots of mistakes), reading many books, reading blogs, googling and talking with colleagues. Did employers know that when they hired me? Of course they didn’t, they only assumed, so thank goodness I had that degree!

Hi Tom,

You’ve summed up my thinking pretty well.

My clarifying point is that there are degrees out there that let you apply what you learn. Do your research both internally and externally. I wanted a Master’s program where I learned through application, not tests/abstract theory.

I received my Masters from Roosevelt University in Chicago( which is 100% based on ASTD’s competencies…and is project-based instead of finals and tests. I graduated with a degree AND a usable real-life portfolio.

At the time, it fit my needs perfectly. However, now that I’m considering a PhD, I think I want to focus more on theory than application.

My point is that you need to do your internal research to find out what you want, who you are, what your focus is, and what’s the best way for you to accomplish your goals.

“It wasn’t until I had a few classes behind me that I understood that going after a degree is as much about the journey as the destination.”

This quote from Bryan is what rings most true for me. But it’s more important to understand that while that journey is important, it’s not the whole journey. What you bring to the work (talents) and what you did before school, instead of school, or after school are just as important as that time you spent in an undergrad or grad program. The journey matters. The whole journey.

I have a love / hate relationship with academics. I have many, many credits under my belt. I’ve taken classes where I wanted to take classes. The classes I liked, I finished and I moved on to take another in the same or a completely unrelated field. I’m a learning addict. Unfortunately, I’ve dropped more classes than I’ve finished because I couldn’t envision myself tolerating the environment after the second class. I have high standards for the folks I’m going to spend time with and I won’t spend $$ to spend time with those (instructor or classmates) that won’t go at my speed (speed of a rat on crack).

That said. I believe one can be successful in the field without the degree. If you have what it takes, you have what it takes. If you are cut out for the work, an education will not hurt your chances either. Sadly, if you aren’t cut out for the work – an education won’t make you much better than someone that doesn’t have it. This is my largest criticism of the field. The education in many cases is an overvalued factor.

February 9th, 2011


Although I do agree with you on some points, I see a different perspective. I went to school after having worked for many years. I went to school and achieved an M.A., after which I got a chance to evaluate everything I have done in the workforce, before ever achieving a Bachelor or a Master Degree. I realized that I have practiced and implemented a lot of the theory before ever achieving any degree. With that said, having the education allowed me to understand what I have done before and if given a chance with my current education, I probably would be more productive, smarter, and more efficient beyond the belief of some of my former Managers. With that said, having the education, not only do you understand more, but it does change who you are in the workforce and at home. Someone once asked me, “What was the hardest thing about achieving your M.A.?” I answered: “It was balancing taking care of a child, and prying my final paper out of her hands.” Education, experience and other transformational things do change a person. For me taking care of my children and my wife has made me a stronger, more intelligent, more daring, a better communicator, better at time management, and probably a better manager than most people. With that said, it is true that some people are cut out for some work over others, but if you are a good Manager and know how to select your people and know the expectations from a non-biased perspective, basing your analysis from a performance of a person who has mastered the task before, you can do a great performance analysis. One thing is for sure, you have to make sure it was the same position and not a different one. You can’t take employees with different tasks and say they should be at the same level. A manager knows how to analyze and not just judge.

February 9th, 2011


Another thing I have learned from academia is that if you have a good analysis, you always and with certainty make the right decision. I have learned a lot from academia from the standpoint of Organizational Development, to Training, to performance problems and ways to find solutions for any issue.

[…] Tom Werner on February 10, 2011 Tom Kuhlmann touches on the question of whether you need an instructional design degree to develop […]

I agree you do not need a degree in Instruction Design. Like any other field, I have seen the work of individuals with a Masters in the field and their work looks really bad. I have seen the work of others who did not have a degree at all and their work was splendid. I do think it helps to have hours in education or a related field. Training in web design or a related area would be helpful as well. Some knowledge and skill in IT is helpful too, especially when working with servers, or an LMS. Don’t try to defend your degree. Be honest with yourself and the work of others. Also, what is the objective of your work? Are you changing behavior or informing? Big difference. Sometimes I do feel that Instructional Design is as much an art form as a science. Thanks for introducing the topic for open discussion and debate.

Hi Claudiu,

My observations are from having been in / around the business for about 16 years or so:) There’s a common expectation at all levels that folks will have the formal education to do the job successfully. In my experience, the education hasn’t been the determining factor for most people.

Here’s an example that illustrates common encounters I have had in the industry:

– We’re making a proposal presentation session with to large government client.

– The client brings ISD’s to sit in on the presentation and ask questions.

– We talk about common approaches we’ve taken with clients that have had similar needs. We address process and results. We present proof. It’s pretty kick-ass stuff from a statistical standpoint. The materials look great, were designed and built with an awesome and inclusive process, and our L1/L2/L3 and some L4 data shows that the stuff REALLY works.

– The only question the ISD’s levy is “Do your ISD’s have Masters Degrees?”


If this was the only encounter I’ve had that has been similar, I would dismiss it. But this is way too common. The psychological alignment of someone that brings only an education to the table, and values only that education, with nearly zero experience can be completely counter productive.

The side effects of an ISD mindset (a requirement for success, in my opinion) can lead to some very destructive practices. For example, the nature of ISD work often requires strong autodidactic tendencies. True autodidacts are rare, but gaining a grasp of concepts, skills, and subject matter is often a condition of success for an ISD. The extension of this mindset is “I can learn to do that, that means I CAN do that”. Does it really make sense for an ISD to take the form of another craft (graphic design, multimedia design, programming)?

Dilution of craft is one of the many ails of the industry. Many academic programs seem to be preparing folks to be jack of all trades, master of none. Make no mistake, ISD is a craft that requires focus. It’s also a craft that usually demands a good salary. Want specialized services, hire a specialist. An ISD is a specialist!!!

On the other hand, I’ve worked with very educated folks that have a brilliant grasp on all aspects of the craft and know how to focus on their role. I firmly believe that an education has enriched the ability of those that were attuned to the craft from the get go. The ability to “see the matrix” is rare and some education programs can help sharpen these skills. But I also believe that a select few have stronger abilities in this area than most of those that carry the pedigree.

Experience matters. You can learn far more outside of the classroom than you’ll ever learn in the classroom if you’re worth your salt. Passion matters. You’ll never develop your skills if it’s just a job and you don’t stay up into the night reading research, working on your own projects, and developing your talents. Talent matters. If you don’t bring an affinity for the work you’re just an educated robot. It takes all kinds. Don’t count out the educated or the semi-educated.

Education is good. But it’s no substitute for competence, capability, or potential.

While you might be able to do the work without a degree, I suggest we think of our profession as a whole when having this debate.

The instructional design field will not advance nor will the position indicate any expertise, specific skillset or explicit value to those outside the discipline until those doing the work are properly and similarly credentialed.

Could you imagine Architects or Accountants having this discussion?

Yes, there is “Trainer.” But, that’s outdated. Otherwise, an instructional designer in one organization is most likely not doing the same tasks, nor requires the same skillset as an instructional design in another organization.

Maybe a degree isn’t the ultimate indicator, but at least a recognized national certification is needed so that others know what we do and that “you” have undergone some type of preparation to do it.

Unfortunately, this national standard does not currently exist.

What a wonderfully balanced post on a gnarly topic.

I need to say that I am biased in favor of academic study in the field. I’ve been involved with it for 30+ years.

OK, maybe it need not be study that happens in academia, but study it must be. Which outcomes? Really, what must they know by heart, what can they reach for at the moment of need? How much practice? What are the benefits and costs of a diagnostic pre-test? How do we boost confidence? Scenarios are great– but do they teach? How do we increase the teachability of scenarios? What does the literature tell us about change and teams and engagement?

If you build e-learning, it is an art and a science, which is why it is fun, of course. Will you take the time to dig into the science when you are overwhelmed by tasks and twins and snow drifts? School, professors and classmates boost discipline, or they should.

Many academic programs promote skepticism, an entirely good thing. As good a thing as e-learning is, there is lots of debate about what it is, how it fits into blends and systems, and how to execute within organizations and cultures. You wouldn’t want to build great e-learning and stick it on a metaphorical shelf. Skepticism leading to preparation leading to execution should be the hallmark of an academic experience.

Well, I could go on.

Blogs and conferences and online gems are GREAT. They do some things wonderfully well. But so do academic programs. They provide a home for curiosity, reading, homework, feedback, relationships, standards, data, evidence and deliberate practice.

Why not all of it? Aren’t you worth it?

Hi Tom,
Many people in the training and development field do not come through formal educational channels but there is an option. Certification. ID professionals can assess their knowledge and skill against professional standards, and carry a certification that attests they know what they are doing. ASTD offers the CPLP, ISPI the CPT and in Canada, CSTD offers the CTDP.

Interesting point of view Andy. I agree with many of your points. I wanted to post a comment there but it seemed to be unavailable to me (probably my browser’s fault:P).

If you’re starting out, a degree will provide a platform to launch a path of expertise.

But I also think it’s really important to figure out whether or not the field is for you. I don’t have any great suggestions for providing assessment tools to ensure that those that enroll in the program are entering into the process because they want to provide professional services and can meet some kind of “design capability / problem solving capability” pre-requisite.

The trouble with many of the arguments for education… the source and system condition makes it seem disingenuous. It seems to come from one of two groups, those that have it or those that purvey it. On the surface, this seems more than a little self serving.

If we could get away from the factory throughput based profit mentality of the college experience, focus the professional definition of the craft, and apply some consistent certification standards the field would be far better off. But that’s not the direction things have been moving.

I really like your architect comparison. The trouble is a bad architect isn’t going to survive professionally. A bad ISD can tread water for an entire career and has a solid shot at getting into management (only to direct the hire of more underprepared but appropriately educated folks just like him / her).

Personally, I’m pursuing the education. Not because I think I have a heap to learn (though I do), but I think I have a heap that I can contribute to classmates and academic sources. It’s the only reason that makes any sense to me:)

I taught English as a foreign language in Germany and France for 6 years. It was a way to get stay and work. Many of my friends there said, I didn’t need any training or certification, after all I was a native speaker, I must know how to teach the language. I was skeptical of this perspective even as someone who at the core is an autodidact. But as one, I’ve learned along the way, that you can only teach yourself so much. One reason is: You don’t know what you don’t know. So I came back to the States and got a university certificate in teaching ESL, which I later enhanced with 2 private-school certificates. I then knew what I was doing, and I had no problem getting work and being confident in my expertise.

Another story: At a conference on game design and academia, how academia can better prepare folks to become game designers, the representative for a major design house said they need people who have sound theoretical backgrounds (i.e. degrees) in either art or computer science. Technique and tools they train employees on.

In the States, we’re particularly proud of the guy/gal who does things on their own, and for a minority of people that works. They’re smart, talented and hard-working. For the majority, I don’t believe it does. As educators, I think we do a dis-service to young people when we don’t help them navigate the landscape of what being successful entails.

[…] Tom Kuhlmann does a great job of providing a balanced approach to having or not having a degree, I must weigh in […]


We need to have people in the field how have degrees! We need degreed designers.

Here’s why


February 10th, 2011

Very interesting discussion! I stand firm that experience does matter, but can experience outside of the Instructional Design field be applied? I know that a Masters Degree from an accredited institution does prepare someone on the theory aspect at more than one level. One can get a degree in HRD and go into HRM, another can become a Developer working with ID’s. What kind of experience should you have to become an ID? I say that if you can do anything in corporate, you can do Instructional Design. If you know the corporate culture and the way corporations work and what is expected of all the departments in a corporation and know theory and are a good consultant, you can be an Instructional Designer.

Now, with that said should you be able to do the graphic design, web development and everything other than the theory? I would say that is icing on the cake and should make you even a more valuable Instructional Designer. Mind you, there is a person for every task in every corporation. When I worked in Print Production, I had writers to do the writing, graphic designers to do the proofs and digital files, and printers to do the printing. I am sure as an ID, one may have developers for building the web content if needed and graphic designers to help. My belief is that it is nice to be able not to be tied down by any graphic designers, programmers, etc. It is nice to be able to do it all. I do a lot of it for fun, just to see how I can improve things and make them better. Without that I might as well teach at University level and be a dry theory hound for all my life. I can’t have that. I need to learn more from the corporate environment. You learn from the people you interact with at all levels of an organization. You learn about the field you are in, the changes in the market, and that is what makes it interesting learning experience for me.

I suppose you could apply this logic to anything or any industry really. Question really is, if someone really has the skills, do we really need them to have the degree? The flip could be asked as well. If they have a degree, do they really have the skills? Or the add-on to that, do they have the skills WE WANT? We could go a lot of ways with this I s’pose. But the reality in our society is that we use resume’s as a first face of a person’s qualifications. If we are in a process where we are allowed to get as far as portfolios, then that cuts down the “need” for the degree a bit. But, in a larger setting, really that degree is going to get you in the door a bit more quickly. My .02.

February 10th, 2011

Suzanne, you sound like one of my university professors. Going to a conference is different than actually implementing and doing. I miss the time I spent working in Direct Marketing, as things were constantly on the change. The more they changed, the more I was inspired to learn. Not to discount my education, or my university professors, but there are things they don’t get. One is that it is more fun to do things and experience than being stuck behind a paper analyzing it.

I for one am a believer of analysis when it is for a functional purpose and not just theory. I refuse to take another class in academia, until I am employed. Theory of what, why? If my intention would be to pursue teaching, I would go for a PhD. I am not and won’t be. There are people with Bachelor Degrees publishing books, how did they get to publish? They must have done something right in corporate and have the experience they need to grasp the attention of the readers.

February 10th, 2011

Suzanne, you sound like one of my university professors. Going to a conference is different than actually implementing and doing. I miss the time I spent working in Direct Marketing, as things were constantly on the change. The more they changed, the more I was inspired to learn. Not to discount my education, or my university professors, but there are things they don’t get. One is that it is more fun to do things and experience than being stuck behind a paper analyzing it.

I for one am a believer of analysis when it is for a functional purpose and not just theory. I refuse to take another class in academia, until I am employed. Theory of what, why? If my intention would be to pursue teaching, I would go for a PhD. I am not and won’t be. There are people with Bachelor Degrees publishing books. How did they get to publish? They must have done something right in corporate and have the experience they need to grasp the attention of the readers.

@Karl –

I wanted to reply on your site but comments seem to be closed unless you have a site account.

In some ways I’ll agree with parts of your argument, but there are some sticky points that give me pause.

1) The source of the argument. I reallize this is a poor argument in itself, but as your livelyhood is based on “more people having ID degrees” certainly one could perceive a weakening of your argument based on your stake in the outcome. This is my first impression. Of course Karl thinks everyone should have a degree. A Honda salesman thinks everyone should have a Honda. That doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t have a Honda, but perception is a powerful destroyer of arguments.

2) The implication that an ISD degree is all you need to be successful. “Tom, really? All the appropriate instructional strategies, learning theories and concepts in ONE day. With no application of instructional design strategies of reflection, application or practice.” If you’ve never worked in the field, you may assume that the richest feedback comes from the classroom. This is patently a false argument. There are some really great things that happen in some classrooms. Just like there are really worthless things that happen in other classrooms. But don’t discount the richness of real world experience nor the richness of the feedback received in this environment. It’s disingenuous — see #1.

3) “The other argument that drives me crazy is “I have been designing instruction for years so, by default, I must be a great instructional designer…and I don’t have a degree.”” – This implies that just because a designer graduates from a degree program they are also going to be a good designer. Also patently false. Also see #1. If someone is a good designer through experience, self study, and selective education paths it means they are a good designer. Design is problem solving and many of the folks I’ve worked with in the industry (degreed or otherwise) don’t have the problem solving gene. When schools begin filtering folks for design skills before entry, I’ll place more faith in the institution. Schools operate for profit. Bottom line. More students = more money. Instructors may have different motivations than the schools they work for. Doesn’t change the formula.

4) “The unfortunate thing is that people forget instructional design is about improving performance and altering behavior not about technology or nice looking screens.” – I agree heartily with this statement. Unfortunately, many degreed folks I’ve met are apparently unaffected by the education if this is at the core of the degree.

5) “The technology is the easy part. ” – Correction. The technology is one part. It isn’t the easy part. In some cases it isn’t really the ISD’s part. The other part of my problem with the current set of ISD factories is an unnecessary focus on making one role also cover another (or in some cases all others). While being able to understand the team roles of others is really helpful, it’s folly to expect a designer of one flavor to also jump into another role (often one that is filled with a lower resource rate). This contributes to dillution of the craft. It’s completely destructive and most curricula I’ve reviewed in my search for a good school are stocked with a healthy amount of “be a generalist” courses.

6) “Otherwise we create an army of people creating the lowest level of e-learning possible, the shovelware junk that passes as e-learning because it looks good but really doesn’t help anyone learn a darn thing.” Hrm… I don’t see what you’re getting at here. Is the argument “my students don’t do that”? Sure, Karl. Whatever helps you sleep at night. A degree is ONE component that contributes to success. As a performance technologist you certainly understand that pinning a panacea pin on any single solution is a waste of energy.

7) “So, do I think our field needs a degree? Yeah, it really does. ” Our field needs more than a degree. At this point an enema wouldn’t fix the problems created by the androidgic academic complex. A degree is really helpful. People in the field could really benefit from a consistent body of knowledge and a reliable measure of performance. But degree programs offer neither. To say you need it to be successful and it’s the only way to get there, and those that don’t have it are talentless posers, is complete BS.

I have some education. A variety of this is from some of the most reputable ID programs in the nation. I also have a heap of passion and experience. I likely read many of the same books and peer reviewed journals you read. I have tried dilligently to find excellent mentors and have sought out real world problems to solve in this industry (which I’ve repeatedly solved successfully). I don’t have a degree in ID. The “you must have it or your worthless” argument is insulting and false. Because I haven’t paid the tuition… sure, I guess it makes me less capable.

Great post, and have really enjoyed reading all the comments.

Like many others who have posted, I am instructional designer with a Masters degree (Organizational Learning and Instructional Technologies from the University of New Mexico) that opened doors for me. Those doors may not have opened without my degree, but it has been as a practitioner – “doing” ISD – that I have become proficient. It’s also through communicating and collaborating with fellow professionals, and attending conferences, that I’ve been able to grow in the field. I think I could have done those things without the degree, but having it has made it much easier.

I’ve worked with people who don’t have degrees in the field and who are excellent, and have also worked with people who have the same degree, and their strengths lie elsewhere. Like many people have already mentioned, it’s the passion for ISD that is a differentiator.

February 10th, 2011


I agree with you. But remember, you can’t discount a good education. I’ve learned a lot in hopes that it gets me a new start. It hasn’t, yet.

Keep working at it Claudiu. Affinity and passion pay dividends. You have the education – it’s a good start!

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your good work. I agree that a mix of experience and education (formal and informal) is the best approach. I am biased toward educational programs that have you build a professional portfolio (most do not require this).

What I have found in my career is that it is important to be open to learning new things (it increases your marketability too). Since I learn a great deal from others, building and maintaining a professional network is also very helpful.

Greg Williams

I appreciate all of the insightful comments and discussion. Someone posted some links to different programs in the user community for those interested.

@Greg: I agree with the professional portfolio. I’m an advisor to a local media program and one of the big weaknesses they have is that they don’t have a professional portfolio ready by the time they graduate. Probably the single biggest complaint I hear from people who have graduated is that they learned a lot about theory, but not enough about how to apply it in a real world setting. And I’d add that too much of the focus is on ID applied to K12 and not corporate.

Those complaints aren’t true for every program; and people get what they put in. But if I were looking for an ID program, I’d look for one that will help me build the skills and knowledge to move my career forward.

February 10th, 2011

I am beginning my journey about selecting an online graduate certificate in instructional technology, and I think I want to focus on elearning and ID. There are so many programs to choose from that it is difficult to narrow it down and make a decision. Do you have any strong suggestions?

My educational technology degree did not teach me how to do e-learning development. I actually knew how before I entered the programme and was a resource person for many students and professors about e-learning production when I began back in 2002.

What my Master’s degree in Educational Technology taught me was how to think critically about issues regarding how people learn in the hopes that I would make a significant contribution to the research, practice and profession of Educational Technology.

It is the same thing as saying you don’t need an MBA to run a business. Of course you don’t. But why are so many executives enrolling in Executive MBA programmes? Because they see the value in a research-based decision making.

I boil it down to this.
– Do you want to be a chef or do you want to be a cook?
– Do you want to be an architect or do you want to be a builder?
– Do you want to be an educational technologist or do you want to be a course builder?

February 11th, 2011


I know a few Presidents of companies that have no formal education, but a High School Diploma. When I worked with them at the time, they were intelligent, knew their business, and how to do a lot of the duties of every person in the company. Not only were they intelligent and knowledgeable about their business, but dealt with highly educated customers and had more responsibility and consultative skills than a lot of professors.

February 11th, 2011

At one time, I would have agreed that you don’t need formal instructional design training to be a perfectly good practitioner. For a couple of decades, I have hired, trained, and coached dozens of instructional designers, some whom came with impeccable academic credentials and others who brought on-the-job experience and aptitude. I have found that without a degree, you can probably learn to do a very fine job but you’ll lack the theoretical framework to design an overall strategy, to guide your decisions, and to evaluate and defend your work. There are always exceptions, but then, they are by definition, rare.

Some of the things that occur in school are that in addition to covering theories, you have to apply them. Implement them. Evaluate them. And revise. It’s hard to do. It’s that application of theory, with expert guidance, and the experience of experimenting, testing, negotiating, making and learning from mistakes, and defending, that a good graduate program provides.

Some people with degrees are terrible in applying what they know. They were probably great at cranking out papers but not very good at figuring out how to solve a specific set of learning requirements for a specific group of learners. I found that if I had an applicant do an in-basket exercise during the interview process, I could screen the viable candidates from those who probably wouldn’t work out. And, some graduate programs are terrible. These are the ones that place a heavy emphasis on learning tools. Tools are great – amazing, even – but they aren’t a substitute for deep understanding and application.

February 11th, 2011


You also need to know that if the Presidents needed to hire someone, i.e. an Instructional Designer, or another type of consultant they had the means to do so and the judgement to weigh the value of the consultation.

For HR related issue, one has to look at the whole package and not just one portion, ie. (Education, Experience, Skills including communication and technical, Results, some passion)


First, thank you for your informed and professional comments on my post. A healthy, professional discussion is what helps a profession grow.

However, I think you mis-read or mis-understood my basic argument which is that in order for the profession of instructional design to be taken seriously as a profession, the profession needs to ensure that members who practice the profession are degreed. You can’t have a person do engineering work who doesn’t have an engineering degree or practice law without a law degree but we have instructional designers without a degree in the field. It doesn’t mean a person with the degree is better or worse, it simply means that from the overall perspective of the profession, degrees help define a profession and turn a practice into a profession.

Also, this is not an argument about how to become a better instructional designer, it is about how to position the field so that it gains the respect it deserves.

While individual instructional designers can learn a great deal from experience, they also benefit from academic rigor, exploration of concepts and the learning experience that comes from a degree program which cannot be done in one day no matter how good a classroom instructor is in presenting information. And, at times, experience alone can lead to the wrong conclusions, assumptions and outcomes especially when no theory is available to counter balance the experience.

Real learning, as you know, requires reflection, assimilation of new ideas into existing ideas and application of information learned. Eight hours is not enough time to design those activities and the content requirements of the field of ID into a single session. So that is why I think that one is not able to learn everything about ID in one day as I am sure the journal reading and book reading you do with subsequent reflection and application has taken place over a longer period than a day.

Now, I do not believe that everything one needs know is learned from a degree in instructional design. I think people learn from experience as well. Of course,the combination of the two is the most ideal.

But why do people with experience and no degree tend to believe that they can learn “nothing” from a degree program. That they cannot enhance any of their own knowledge with knowledge gained while earning a degree. In fact, often non-degreed designers discount a degree because they are experienced. Yes, experience is valuable but its not the entire picture. A degree teaches things that experience cannot and visa vera.

We in this field should always be looking for new ways to learn and new opportunities to broaden our knowledge, as I am sure you do based on your informed, professional comments.

@Elizabeth Watson

If you are interested in an academic program that combines experience, theory and hands-on use of tools then you should look into Bloomsburg University’s program. We have carefully created an academic/real-world blend of course content that creates excellent instructional designers. Check out my entry on the subject.

February 11th, 2011

@Karl Kapp

Karl, I respect your opinion. Having taken theory at the graduate level and following it with training at ASTD in WLPI didn’t add to my knowledge, as I was already knowledgeable in theory. Instead of volunteering for the program, ASTD should have paid me to train. I didn’t learn much and every time I had to do an evaluation, I found myself lying to make the instructor proud of their accomplishments. I do believe that the training is of value, since I went to school with some of the people that designed and developed the materials.

Also, going to a CCASTD meeting in Schaumburg and listening to the Chairperson at the time give a speech, I qualified her as a Professor in the first two minutes she spoke. After I got to know her I realized that her husband is the ex-chair of the department at my university and she co-counsels with him.

It is truly scary how educators, sound like educators and you can tell them apart from the people that actually do some of the things they as professors/consultants do case studies of. If I were to do Instructional Design for a company, I would learn more from the people around me by doing the work and interviewing them, being able to make sure I deliver some result, instead of talk about a case study like I was involved in the process. Same goes for the professors.

Now, with that said I am not discounting an education or the value it brings, as I have learned a lot from it. But, I do find that experience in the workplace is much more valuable. I like to be part of the process: (analysis, design, development, evaluation) within the workplace. I think that would bring some value to the ID experience and any other professional experience in HR one may have.

The problem with ASTD is that they make assumptions and don’t evaluate the people they actually take on as volunteers. They didn’t help me and they won’t help others as far as networking, or anything else. The people they are going to help are the publishers and people who actually have no knowledge of Adult Learning Theory and (ADDIE) as a whole.

@Karl –

Thanks for your response:) In some ways I’ll agree with you. But I think our opinions diverge largely because of the inconsistency of output of our degree programs. The lack of consistent measurement or definition of what it means to be an ISD. If you look at 100 job announcements requesting applicants for ISD positions you will see 100 different descriptions – most of which baffle me personally.

The profession lacks focus. Seriously. It also, in my opinion, begins to sharpen the academic path too far down stream. Requiring a degree is only part of the solution, if that’s the projected fix for the industry’s ails. We also need to fix the standards by which these professionals are prepared and focus the field in a single direction.

We see many folks that simply don’t have an affinity for the work. Too many that don’t know how to assess or solve problems. What are we to do? Are we to take those folks that have waded through 6 years of education and say “this really isn’t for you”. And there’s no incentive for academic establishments to dissuade folks from a program that is attached to a revenue stream.

I would advocate some undergraduate preparatory pathways in educational sciences. Some critical problem solving focus. Requirements that included stuff relavent to learning science. And focus the graduate level on a focused specialty path that could look like these:

EdSci: Digital Solutions
EdSci: Business Performance
EdSci: Medical
EdSci: Information Technology
EdSci: xxx xxx…

Primary professional certification: Education Science
Sub certification: XXX

Until we get to this level of specificity, the field will remain filled with lost sheep. And while that condition exists, the education vs. other argument will remain moot. That’s the way I see it:)

I’d love to see our academic establishment get it’s act together, our business management folks set reallistic expectations, and our practicioners demonstrate a more consistent affinity for the craft and a more firm focus on what it is to solve performance problems and attend to learning needs. But that’s not the world I live in:)

There is a large misconception of what instructional design and by extension eLearning is about. It is often equated with computer science and website design. Quite a few job postings stress php programming skills and knowledge of Adobe CS5 products and failing to include knowledge of educational theories and research methodology. The underlying assumption here is that if course materials look good, they will work as good. The book is judged by its cover. And this is where is argument is flawed. Learning goals need to be aligned with what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is assessed both formatively and summatively. The real instructional design is grounded in traditional pedagogy and epistemology.

Here is one of the origins of the problem. Software companies are pushing their easy to use courseware products, and many website designers jumping on the band wagon offering eLearning solutions. It is the new dot com hype of late 90’s. Everyone is the e-commerce developer. Be all you can be. Just pay us $50 for the software, print business cards and start offering instructional design services. Just Google eLearning or instructional design service and compare the percentage of formally trained instructional designers vs. amature-wanna-be-know-how-to-use-power-point experts. The ratio is 1:80.

I do agree with you on that “There are many books and resources available that will provide the same information you’d get in any formal program. “On the same token, one could learn how to fix tooth cavities by watching instructional videos, but the financial or legal liabilities outweigh the advantages, and therefore such activities are regulated. I would argue that there are no advantages of hiring a self-trained instructional designer as they charge as much as university educated professionals.

Furthermore, I would not hire an instructional designer with less than M.Ed. MDE or MDDE. University accredit programs, which are on average 2 years or 36 credit hours, provide a peace of mind that individual you hire has passed a series of rigorous tests. For 1 course projects under $2K it may not make a difference, but if you run a 30 course program with enrollments exceeding 500 learners per year and operations exceeding 3.5 million hiring an amature-wanna-be-know-how-to-use-power-point is not justifiable.

Thanks for this thought-provoking discussion. I agree that our profession lacks focus. I can see how a *well defined* degree would help, but I also think that the lack of focus is so endemic that simply requiring a degree is unlikely to cure it.

Academicians, people who hire designers, and the designers themselves vary hugely in what they expect from an “instructional designer.” The expectations can range anywhere from “Analyze and solve complex performance problems” to “Turn this content into an online course.” I’ve been concerned to see the latter definition dominate.

I agree that the problem is a lack of professional stature. But until we as a field define more clearly what we do, I don’t see how simply requiring a degree will help, because the degree and certificate programs also don’t appear to agree on what we do.

We know what architects do: They design buildings. If someone with an architecture degree were told to simply draw the building that each client described, they would protest.

However, too many IDs are told to just build the course that the client describes–and they don’t protest. Too many IDs accept jobs that are tacked on to the end of the problem-solving process instead of embedded throughout it. Twice recently I’ve heard a designer’s role referred to as “instructional design formatting.”

I don’t see how simply requiring a degree would change that widespread misconception, because I’m not convinced that all ID degrees teach performance consulting.

I realize that Karl’s program is built on real-world projects, which is great. Unfortunately, other programs don’t appear to be so hands-on, at least based on the struggles that I’ve seen recently degreed IDs go through. They had lots of learning theory and tech knowledge, but no preparation for solving business problems.

I think that both practicing instructional designers and their academic programs need to change to take on the politics of corporate work, reposition IDs as performance consultants, and show our value as problem solvers.

This would require budding corporate IDs to develop deep critical thinking skills and to learn about topics such as business strategy and organizational culture.

As long as we have degrees and certificate programs that avoid teaching the hard work of performance consulting, a degree alone won’t help designers raise their professional profile.

February 11th, 2011

Steve, the way you write you strike me more as a JD, PhD. I agree with a lot of things you mentioned.

February 12th, 2011


You mentioned that the expectations for Instructional Designers vary. I understand they probably do. I want to hear from a true Instructional Designer and find out what the true expectations are for such a position. DeVry has Instructional Designers. I would like to see how the ID position is applied. How many corporate employers actually hire Instructional Designers?

Nobody in my academic circle, from the professors, to the students knows that I was introduced to the idea of Instructional Design from a HR person from my company. He finished a Bachelor Degree in ID and couldn’t get a job. He went for a Human Resource Management position instead.

Now Cathy, tell me how a corporation would expect someone in an ID role to analyze, or design, or develop, or evaluate a course and about the complexity of problems in a corporate role. I understand the theory, studied in academia and how it affects the way someone solves problems, making them supposedly a better contender, but tell me about big business and how they treat this role of the ID. I know the corporations I came from had no Instructional Designers, but they had HR consultants, graphic designers, programmers, and a whole bunch of other departments and roles.

If I would be hired as an Instructional Designer, I would know how to do the whole package from analyzing complex problems, to designing and developing training, to actually doing an evaluation. What is its purpose in corporate? How is academia, going to make a lasting impression on corporate philosophy? Should this be a question for ASTD? They certainly publish interviews with CEO’s like Adobe and other corporations, but what I read stands from the perspective of the belief system of corporate on education and not what they actually do to make their corporation a learning organization. What someone like me wants to know is: how is the corporate world going to change training and development? Does that really happen?

Sadly, at most corporations the A and E are completely removed from ADDIE. Interest in evaluating a program once it’s been deployed is rare. The box is checked, hands are washed, and we all move on. I think a part of the problem is conditioned expectations. It’s what we’ve always done.

Many ID’s don’t have a choice but to assembly line produce course series. Once a course is done, they move on to the next. Then the next, and the next. There isn’t time to look back and evaluation (proof, science, statistical input) is not expected or resourced. This is the part of the systemic problem that an ID degree isn’t going to be able to fix on its own.

At my organization (government) we have a strong focus on performance technology. We even offer a Human Performance Technology Workshop once a year a local venue (It’s free if you’re interested A significant number of our instructional technology folks are exclusively focused on performance analysis. Even so, the part of the organization they work for is called “training” and the conditioned expectation of customers approaching our service matrix is “I’m gonna get some training”. Training isn’t a bad solution sometimes. But it becomes a less powerful solution if it’s used all of the time. This expectation in itself is a complex problem that could use some performance technology, intent analysis, and commitment for a lasting solution.

Perhaps a wider exposure to behavioral engineering sciences (at the core of business, HR, and pretty well anything that impacts human behavior) and more incentives to actually apply holistic science to a solution vice taking the quick fix path would correct these conditioned expectations. Imagine an undergrad program with core courses that also applied to business (BES 101) that covers behavioral engineering / holistic performance views. These courses are introduced early in the eventual IDs development path. They are also introduced early in the eventual HR manager, COO / CEO, etc. development path. We start to late and too compressed in ID with a disproportional focus on training factors, in my opinion.

The behavioral engineering sciences undergrad prep path / shared core I referenced above has intrigued me and I think it has merit. It could potentially solve the issue of personnel selection and also allow for stronger focus at the graduate level (credentialed specialty). My next paper may be on just this topic. Heck, I might tune my education journey around this goal:)

Claudiu, I’m not sure I understand your comment. I’ll address this: “Now Cathy, tell me how a corporation would expect someone in an ID role to analyze, or design, or develop, or evaluate a course and about the complexity of problems in a corporate role.”

What I’m saying is that instructional design should be about more than designing courses, because people learn through more than just formal, course-like events.

The learning theory taught for ID degrees applies to all types of learning, not just formal courses. Restricting an instructional designer to simply designing courses is like telling an architect to solve every need for a building with a 2-story, gable-roofed house with attached garage.

My concern is that too many people currently in ID positions in corporations are being treated (or treat themselves) as course builders and nothing else. At least, I hear from many people in that position, in comments to my blog, in personal emails, and at conferences.

This limited role reflects the widespread beliefs that the solution to a performance problem is always training, training means imparting information in a formal course, and the role of the L&D department or its equivalent is to train and nothing else. I think the change needs to come both from the C-level and from instructional designers themselves, who (if they don’t like their current role) could try to raise their profile and show their performance-consulting abilities.

One way to do this could be for an ID to recognize a performance problem on their own, analyze it, and propose truly effective ways to solve it, demonstrating publicly their ability to do more than build courses.

Another way could be simply to start asking more difficult questions when a manager shows up with a stack of information that they “need” to have turned into a course. I have an interaction modeling that last method here:

When it comes to elearning, the best proof for the value of instructional design degrees is to see how school’s have used their exclusive knowledge of instructional design to build their own programs and content.

February 14th, 2011


Philosophy and theory don’t mean much if you can’t apply the learning in a professional role. Instructional design in the business world may not mean as much as ASTD makes it sound like. I know Walgreens has an ID program, because I have spoken to managers from there that came to my school. They talked about the field, but talk is cheap. When someone is in the field they truly get to learn the profession. Graduating with a degree is a start, working in the profession is a process, getting promoted is the goal, and making a difference is the optimal success story.

Have a great year!

February 14th, 2011


From your statement above, it sounds like you’re talking about CPS, and not the higher education system. All I have to say is good luck with that and the B.S. educational consultants. Education has always done a good job, since when is change that necessary? Is Obama dictating open systems, where everyone makes a difference? I think that should leave the general population out and make the right decisions by having strong leadership.

February 14th, 2011


You do understand what I asked. I did understand what you said. When discussing Steve who probably is a professional in the business world, you need to take into consideration what the corporate world expects. ASTD does not properly represent that and education just covers the theory. My question is, what does the corporate world need and what do they need training for? Are most of them aware of the field of Training and Development, and if they are why are they not hiring in the field? Also, when I talked about expectations, I wanted to find out about the true qualities needed for the function, other than theory.

February 14th, 2011


I do understand that Instructional Design is more about the design than development, as I come from theory perspective from an educational standpoint. But, when you work in a corporate environment it is usually function and form. When you have both function and form you have a great product. After all isn’t training about the product? I don’t just mean the documentation. When I speak about training I talk about training in corporate. To me that is where I see a future. When I talk about training, I don’t talk about education. There is a difference, teachers don’t see it!

I welcome active and lively comments in the discussion. But I ask that we keep the tone respectful.


I think theory matters in two places. The first is academics, the second is application. I think groups of folks like ASTD are valuable. They offer networking and interaction opportunities. But, like anything else, you get out of it what you put in.

Training, by my understanding, isn’t really about the product unless you are talking about the behaviors and goals as a product of the solution. A product is just a product (even those that are tuned to make money) but a real solution solves a real problem or set of problems. There are a many similarities between education and training, both in goals and composition. Training tends to be shallower and task focused while education tends to be the deeper backfield that supports higher order construction. There’s overlap.

I think you’ll see varying degrees of practical, real world, perspective in the education field. Some instructors will have a strong research bent others will come from a more pragmatic standpoint. I think there’s room for both. Someone has to push the limits and validate assumptions. In the business world this usually equates to risk. This leaves the validation and exploration dirty work to academics. I think this is a good balance. The measure of a quality program will be an accurate exposure to pragmatic factors and real world demands balanced with some exposure to elements that aren’t bound by those rules.

I’ve seen it both ways in courses I’ve taken and finished. I don’t think it’s necessarily that teachers don’t see it. It’s a matter of priority, timing, and perspective. Each of which can be fleeting. We’re looking at two different goals for academia. Only one of which is direct influence on current student body. And I think that’s OK. Somebody has got to do that work. Academia is well situated to execute in that role and has proven itself more than capable.

The only thing that troubles me about the current state of prep programs for the ID profession is the variety of focus and consequently the standards of measurement (there aren’t any). If there were and it were focused I’d be all for a credentialed path. As it stands I don’t have confidence in the argument for one vs. the other. There doesn’t seem a clear winner (perhaps an edge on the education side, but not a tremendous edge in my observation).

I’ll be focusing my own education efforts beyond self-study and mentor seeking. I want to influence what’s happening instead of simply complaining about it:) That degree should really be the key to success. The costs are high both in time, sacrifice, and monetary investment.

Cathy really knows her stuff, by the way. She’s got her own way of doing things and I admire it. I do things my way too. I can only hope to one day accrue such great esteem:)

Steve, thanks for your comment. Claudiu, you seem to be unclear about what I do. I’ve been an instructional designer for 28 years, most of it working with large businesses, and I don’t have any connection to ASTD’s instructional design programs.

With that, I’ll go enjoy the beautiful day here in Mexico and let your discussion go on without me.

February 14th, 2011


I have volunteered for groups like ASTD, and went to networking events. When it comes to networking, I know that when the audience seems to be from higher education and publishing and you want contacts from corporate, you or anyone else will not go far. The ASTD group of facilitators and mentors are too much into the theory and although they mention they are from corporate, I believe most of them are consultants, as the business cards they hand out are not meant for corporate networking. When you need a job you don’t go to discuss theory, volunteering, or publishing. I know the difference, as I have spent years in the corporate circle, even if it wasn’t at C level. I talked to different people in different roles from C Level to Line Managers, Supervisors and Employees.

I agree with you that theory matters in academics, and application. But when it comes to networking, I gave up on ASTD, as I find that most of their associates are too much into the sponsoring of publishers and books and creating a world for the Academia. Although there is nothing wrong with that if someone is already an Instructional Designer working in the field, I can find better ways to network. My professors from the University are intelligent enough to answer any question, beyond the material covered by ASTD, although it really isn’t their function.

When you said that “Training, by my understanding, isn’t really about the product unless you are talking about the behaviors and goals”, I believe you are wrong. The reason I say that is because, the way I was taught consulting and the whole ADDIE is: If there is a need for training to expedite production and you have a roll over training, your product is the training. A product is not just an object when it comes to the field of Training and Development, unless you’re talking about Collectibles. You are right in saying that “There are many similarities between education and training, both in goals and composition”. I do agree with you on that “Training tends to be shallower and task focused while education tends to be the deeper backfield that supports higher order construction”. When a writer has a book and they do consulting, their product can be training in leadership, training in communication, etc.

About Cathy, I am glad she is enjoying her Mexico vacation. I have been in hell for five to six years, looking for work in a bad economy with two children. As far as me listening to Steve, I do listen when people have good reason and a point. But although I don’t have a PhD, and only a Masters I am smart enough to realize that I don’t want to be part of the culture that designs procedures for the whole corporate world, but I would be satisfied with procedures at the corporate level. Therefore, I just need a job and ASTD will not, does not and will never help me. It helps students at the University Level who have no clue about the corporate culture.

February 14th, 2011


Even when you consult for 28 years, you may a little off key with reality if you only deal with people at C Level and Academia. Reality is a bad economy, a 40 year old guy at home with two children and a wife who works her tail off, bogus not for profit organizations, and a father who doesn’t have time to waste his time volunteering for ASTD.

February 14th, 2011


About the unclarity, even if you would be the president of a company, it wouldn’t matter to me. Because you, just like ASTD will deliver the same result for me, “No Result”.

February 14th, 2011


Send me some samples of your professional work. The problem with this is: Instructional Design only pays when you get result to the company you work with, or for. I probably wouldn’t enjoy reading it or seeing it. I enjoy doing the process and not analyzing case studies.


Now, tell me more about your 28 years of experience.

You can learn more about Cathy via her web site.

[…] or not you need a formal education to create effective elearning.  We looked at that in a previous post (which includes some good discussion in the comments […]

I have a Grad Cert in Training Systems Development (ISD), a Masters in Adult and Higher Education, and I am currently a doctoral candidate in Adult and Higher Education, with a focus in HRD. I have worked in the corporate environment for almost 20 years. I’ve employed both degreed and non-degreed individuals. However, from my perspective, the most talented individuals are those who have the ability to apply the theoretical frameworks of ISD and Adult Education within the limitations of the organizational culture. In today’s market, degrees have value from an HR perspective. However, it is the role of an ID expert to deliver effective solutions, as a result it is critical that IDs understand the foundations taught in formal and informal education programs (more formal than informal) and can filter through the sea of miss-leading incomplete ideologies that litter the literature.

February 19th, 2011

After reading your reasons for having a formal education or not, I see that some bloggers are earning a living without a degree and others are with a degree. I feel that formal education is needed if just to learn the theoretical approach to learning and especially understanding pedagogy (the art of teaching). Although,designing e-learning modules could be considered “hands-on” because a SME is providing the knowledge for the training module, I feel better if I understand the whole picture. One of the reasons that I chose the Masters program that I am in is because of the idea that a portfolio is important when looking for a job. This also gives me a feeling of confidence that I could manage an ID project from beginning to end. As e-learning becomes more prominent, a degree or not will determine which IDs will be part of management and which will not. I worked some years for a company who decided that everyone in management had to have a Master’s degree because the company wanted to boast about the number of employees who had a formal education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Today, this same company is going strong even in today’s economy. Another example is that in school districts across the nation, instructional aides who only needed a high school diploma are not being told to go back to school. In some cases, an associate might do but most request a bachelor’s degree. “So to be or not to be.” Formal education or not! Which would you bank on in the long run as the world continues to shrink?

Wow, I’m really glad I found your blog; love your writing style.

Ok, so a few comments:

I don’t have a degree in instructional design; but I have worked in the field of online instructional design for over 5 years. I actually began this career when I took my master’s in IT Management online through Capella University from 2001-2003 while I was living in Norway (I’m a U.S. Citizen). In 2003 I returned to the U.S. and designed and (still) teach my two online courses for the University of Alaska (2003) – once I did that I got work for them as an instructional designer (2005). Now I’m senior instructional technologist for Idaho State University.

My degree prepared me for deep thinking, strategy, and the technical aspects of instructional design work, but I was left wanting in the philosophy of pedagogy. Once I got work in the field I took it upon myself to learn the applicable pedagogies. My instructional design mindset is based off the work of my colleagues at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and the “understanding by design” framework laid out by wiggins and mctighe.

I’ve been accepted into the phD program for instructional design at Idaho State University (it’s mostly online as well), but I’m not sure if its the right next step for me. I can read about pedagogy on my own and my experience already puts me at least in the intermediate territory of instructional design experience if not advanced.

I loved your suggestion about ‘reading’ in general and I found syntopical reading on the area of instructional design to have been (and continue to be) quite valuable. I often refer my undergrads to read the text ‘how to read a book’ if nothing else before finishing their careers.

Thanks for the great post!

February 27th, 2011

I can appreciate that there are many books out there that can help a person understand the many theories behind Instructional Design. In fact many of them are laid out with step by step instructions on how to do things like complete a needs assessment or how to create effective rubrics. The published information is incredibly valuable and I would suggest every educator expand their approach and viewpoints by looking into the various learning styles and teaching methods.

I have been in the Higher Ed setting working with faculty for four years now, and am finishing my MEd in Instructional Design. So I have had the advantage of the “before and after.” My feelings on this are that like anything, I could try a DIY approach by buying a book and the tools, but going through the degree puts you into an environment where you have the ability to receive peer feedback, have a safe haven to experiment with various techniques and gain the experience of knowing what techniques to apply when. Those skills only develop with commitment and community that a concentrated program can offer.

@Meredith: I think you hit on some key reasons why being in a formal program is valuable.

March 13th, 2011

Ok, this particular blog is quite interesting to me. My company currently has several Instructional Designer positionS available and I applied for one and received an interview. Two of the qualifying questions were whether I have a degree and the other was am I familiar with HTML or dreamweaver? Interesting enough it did not appear the recruiter was interested in whether I had an instructional Designer degree(initially). However, after checking around and discussing this information with several of my friends who are Instructional Designers, they all agree having the degree is definitely a plus. Understanding the language of an Instructional Designer is especially important to them. Also, they felt like it really gave them an distinct edge over those who did not have their degrees. I have learned knowlege is power, and if this poosition or employeer does not require the degree; somewhere along the line some other company will(just a thought)!

I currently have a Master’s Degree in K-12 Educational Technology, and I teach at a local college where I use Blackboard in a blended course. I have 9 years experience as a middle school teacher, but have to build my technical skills. I feel that with an undergraduate and master’s degrees in education that I have a good grasp of the pedegogy.

Do you think my degree would be looked at in a similar light as an ID degree once I gain the technical skills I need? I don’t really want to get another master’s degree, and I would rather commit to expanding my technical skills than going for a Ph.D. Therefore, I am getting books, working with tutorials and software. I may also look at ASTD certificates or maybe a university graduate certificate also. Any feedback would be great.

@jared: the degree is good and most likely when you go to get hired just having the masters (regardless of discipline) is a plus. Look at job postings via ASTD, SALT, and the elearning guild to get a sense of what people are looking for. Then build a portfolio that represents those skills.

@ Tom

Thank you for your response. As a teachcer, I am planning on spending this summer working with many programs and building a digital portfolio. I also bought Michael Allen’s Guide to E Learning, and plan on reading in once it comes in.

Like others in this list, I am currently attending online courses through Walden University for a Bachelor of Science in ID. Since I am coming in from a background in IT, I was surprised to see so many of my fellow students already working in the elearning or instructional design fields and I get the idea that a while back it wasnt so necesary to have the degree but rather fall into the field. Now it is ever more important to have the degree. Of course, from my perspective, I also work off hours on getting comfortable with the software such as Captivate, Flash, Premiere, in addition to the ID process. It’s a lot to take in, but I love it.

I also am really burning the midnight oil in trying to get a portfolio of work together. It’s important in showing I can create learning which is creative as well as effective!


You have a great site here with a lot of good info, especially for those of us who are new to the field. Like Bill La Fave, I too am a Walden U student with an IT background (actually I am taking Walden’s Master program in “ID and Tech”). I have prepared training material and conducted training (using primarily PP) for computer security classes for the government, however, my primary job is IT. Any “tips” on how I can transition into this field? Thanks!

When I wanted to transition out of media production into training I downloaded all of the job descriptions I could find. Then I made a list of skills and experiences people were looking for. Once I had a list I went out and volunteered to get as much as experience as I could.

This opened the door for me to transition into training and then elearning. If you want to get into elearning, then I think you have to get the experiences to show that you can do the job.

Most degrees in instructional design offer little value if you don’t have the proper background.

I got a MA in that from Indiana Univ. of PA back in Summer 2001 and even did additional coursework in what I hoped would be a better program at Philadelphia University. The Philadelphia University program was discontinued and the one I graduated from only offers the program at a satellite campus. Most graduate programs in Instructional Design are only adequate for people who already have job experience in training and instructional design, but who want to increase there credentials and pay-scale by obtaining a MA or MS in instructional design. Furthermore, if you are not a web developer, multimedia developer, computer programmer, or a teacher, there are not very many programs that are going to give you any where near the skills you will need to enter the profession of instructional design. Most industry training is done via web applications and multimedia and most instructional design programs only touch the tip of the iceberg of that skill set. I do fear that you may ending up ripped-off and let down by the state in which you receive your degree. The state should not give accreditation to many instructional design programs unless they only agree to admit those who have work experience instructional design or highly-related job or educational experience such as that in IT (Information Technology) or teaching.

Carol, Thank you for the post.

I have subscribed to your rss which have to do the trick! Possess a nice day!

October 18th, 2011

As I read through these posts it appears that most here began work in an IT or Design field and have moved to utilizing tools they were familiar with in a different capacity, namely the creation of training, or elearning resources. I am actually coming at this from the exact opposite direction. My background is in training and education and now I am beginning to build e-learning resources to support my work.

What type of coursework do you recommend that will jumpstart my ability to successfully manage this transition?

@E-Teacher: From my experience, most seem to have been subject matter experts who were good at explaining things and ended up in training (all sorts of industries not just IT). Then they transitioned from face-to-face to elearning.

As far as coursework, there are some certification and degree programs that will help, but I’d focus on actually creating modules. Find a topic you like and then build something. Jump into the community and ask for input and then make adjustments. It’s an iterative process and you’ll grow in your skills.

October 21st, 2011

Hi tom,

Thanks for sharing .. Can you recommend a few books to read up on instructional design?

Thanks in advance,
Vishesh Jayawanth.

October 21st, 2011

I designed learning for higher education for years without a degree in ISD, but I have a Ph.D. in English. Most people in higher education love it when you can systematically design learning since so much of the learning in higher education is still comprised of professors lecturing at their students–very passive, to say the least.

When I wanted to venture outside of higher education into private industry, I had problems even getting any interest in my skills and experience whatsoever. That is, I could not even get to the point where I could share my portfolio. Therefore, I enrolled in a graduate certificate program in Instructional Systems Design and completed the program. I am highly marketable now.

I will say that the HR person, particularly someone with little experience in hiring personnel, should not be the person to screen resumes and applications because they are often not skilled enough to assess the skill set of applicants for ISD positions.

@Vishesh: here’s a list of books we’ve been compiling in the community.

@Michele: good point about the HR screener. I always tell people to tailor the resume to the screener and use the same key words. The purpose of the resume is to get the interview, so you need to appease the process and consider that the person who first looks at the resume is not the hiring manager.

November 4th, 2011

Thanks to all of those who mentined Walden University.
I have been struggling BIG TIME to search for courses, so I can learn something new apart from regular courses such as ID, Online strategy, etc (having worked in with eLearning softwares and LMS’s for more than 8 years, this was tough)

Walden Uni has cool courses.
Can you guys recommend any other Uni programs which covers more examples and hands exp rather than concepts.

I am looking for the distance learning option.

Thank you all!

Hi Tom, I have done MSc in Electronics and currently working as Instructional Writer in Bangalore, India for last 2 yrs. I have created Self Learning Modules (Print material) for one of India’s reputed Distance learning Institute (MBA and MSc subjects). I have also worked in Storyboard creation for K12, Distance learners and skill enhancement programs of a companies employees. I have worked with the tool Articulate and have knowledge of Lectora and I also have significant knowledge of ID theories and models. I am planning to get a certificate or degree in Instructional Design after 2 yrs. Do you think with this exp I can get a job as Instructional Designer in IBM or Accenture?

@Ravish: I’d try to make contact with those two companies to see what needs they have and what skills they desire. Knowing how to use tools is just one aspect of the job. Make sure you get to work on diverse projects to learn different types of skills.

@Ravish: I would like to bring to your notice that you have considerable experience to work with aforementioned companies. To my mind, whatever projects you have worked on thus far are enough for you to land an opportunity in these two companies. So just be ready and get interviewed by them sooner. They have many openings all over. Don’t wait for any longer. Here is the email

Great article, I actually benefited from studying it, keep up the hard efforts.

Is a completely online degree equally recognized as a live/blended degree in Instructional design. I am asking this because i have a young kid and it is difficult to go to school. I live in Milpitas, near San Jose. I have a background as a Psychology tutor and I like the teaching learning process. Any advice about nearby schools is also welcome. Thanks to all of you sharing insights.

Schools have to go through an accreditation process. I’d like for that. Personally, I prefer a blended approach. There’s a lot of value in the real social part of learning and having face-to-face connection to others versus just online instruction.

As someone that graduated from one of the, arguably, top Education Technology programs I would generally say that getting a degree is important and necessary. In my experience I have run across too many people that claim to be instructional designers (with years/decades of experience), who may have held instructional design positions, but grossly lack the knowledge necessary to understand learning science and instructional design strategy. What I mean is that they may be a good (even great) content and course producer, but lack an understanding of how to approach each situation with a deep analytical inquisitiveness. Mostly, this seems evident in alignment of instruction and various cognitive strategies beyond the common models. Subsequently, they often grasp on to the models as if they are a prescription rather than guidance.

Instructional design is an interdisciplinary field, which can often manifest as a double-edged sword. Further, it has a broad application across a myriad of industries and disciplines. This means people can end up as instructional designers by accident or through a showcase of skills (and potential) in one of the fields that is typically considered part of the holistic instructional design field. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – per se. However, I think having this ability has given people license to claim they are instructional designers – in the sense of a consummate professional that has both the theoretical and practical backgrounds. While there are always going to be exceptional individuals that can pass muster without the degree, I think the problem, as someone else alluded to, is understanding the differences between a content producer and someone that systematically designs instruction using analytical skills based on research at a level usually obtained from graduate level work. I think the reason people immediately ask the question whether someone has a masters is for the above stated reasons. Certainly, there may well be individuals with the degree (yes, your school/program matter) that still lack the attitude or ability to perform, but I imagine it is not nearly as many as those individuals without a degree.

Personally, I see no harm in moving to a more standardized profession even if that means the entry point is a degree. Of course, this becomes more difficult when the tools used to produce courses become the focus (due to lack of professional definition and ignorance on the part of business) at the detriment of the employment of strategies in the design of instruction to affect an outcome.

Hello Tom,
I appreciate all of the wonderful advice very much. I discovered your website at just the right time. Hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to be vulnerable for a second. Just this past week I found out that I was turned down for a permanent position that I have been actively doing for the past 2 1/2 years as a contractor, because I did not have a bachelors degree or a degree in ISD. You can imagine how disappointed I felt. I have over 5 years of instructional design and have focused mainly on building my technical/software skills. Even though I had all this, I didn’t even make the “qualified” list because I didn’t have the piece of paper they wanted to see.
I believe in formal education, but the truth is, with a disabled husband and tight funds, I just didn’t have the means to pursue it and I didn’t want to get further in debt with a student loan. It was very disappointing to say the least that they turned me down for that one reason even though I have proven myself time and time again. I guess it pays to have a degree under some circumstances, but the advice I have found on your site has helped me tremendously.
Thanks again for letting me share and for having such a wonderful website…I literally stumbled upon it by accident and now I know there are no accidents…a blessing in disguise!
Thanks again!

@Sandra: a less expensive option than a degree is a certification program. Many schools now have specific programs focused on elearning. Unfortunately, the reality is that when you compete against others for the same position, having a degree is one of those things that they use to separate the candidates.

Thanks for responding Tom…do you have any specific schools you can recommend with a strong certification program? I know Langevin is one.
Loving your site! So many great tips!

Thank you so much for the tip on Walden University….can someone currently in the program share about what the program is like and whether or not you think it’s worth the cost, time, etc.?
Thank you very much.

Hi there Tom…sorry to bother you with this again, but can you please answer the following….which degree program at Walden was one of the bloggers referring to…a “Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Instructional Design and Technology” (3 specializations) or this one…

Please advise and thanks so much!

@Sandra: I have friends that have gone through the programs at SDSU, University of WA, and Boise State. They enjoyed them and seemed to to do well with what the learned. I’m sure others will chime in with their experiences.

February 9th, 2012

Hi Tom,

Can you please list the top 10 places for certificate courses in Instructional Design?

@Soumya: I can’t list the top ten since it’s kind of subjective and I haven’t attended more than one; but I can provide a link to a list of programs.

February 17th, 2012

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Hi Tom,

Thanks so much for this post. I’m currently looking into different Master’s programs and any feedback specific to eLearning helps!

That list from the community forum is fantastic. I’ve seen SDSU, Boise State, IU and Walden University are highly recommended. Are there any others on the list? Specifically I was looking into University of Colorado – Denver and Utah State, but I’ve had trouble finding praises for those programs. I’m looking into hands-on programs that finish with a tangible portfolio – and I really love to mix robust design skills with effective ID theory.

Any input helps – Thanks!

@Lee: Boise’s program seems to produce some good stuff. Karl Kapp makes a compelling case for Bloomsburg in this post.

The thing is when a person goes for an interview he/she only gets to spend about 30 minutes with the employer. This time is too less for the employer to be able to judge if the interviewee really has the required knowledge. A certificate/degree helps the employes with an assurance that he can take a chance on the candidate.

Hi Tom,

in response to your post on:

February 13th, 2011

When it comes to elearning, the best proof for the value of instructional design degrees is to see how school’s have used their exclusive knowledge of instructional design to build their own programs and content.


What is your opinion on Full Sail’s program?

@MJ: I don’t know enough about the program at Full Sail to comment.

[…] First Blog: Do You Need An Instructional Design Degree? […]


I am an Instructional Designer, currently working in an e-learning company. I joined this company as a fresher, after completing my Post Graduate degree in Science and I am working as ID since then. I have a total experience of 2 yrs 5 months. Recently I got a job offering from a reputed software company as ID. It is a product based company and they are into ERP and Cloud computing. I am a bit confused regarding this job offer, as I am not very much sure how my profile will affected if I work as an ID in a software company. “Do you think it will be possible for me to come back to e-learning after spending couple of years in a software company as ID?” I recently completed MA in Mass Communication and Journalism, I want to study further. I want to take up MBA but, getting a degree in ID can be an added advantage. So I am confused what to do, whether to study MBA or get a degree in ID.

July 8th, 2012

I’m am glad to read this blog. I am currently working on my Masters in Instructional Design and have been thinking of ways to increase my knowledge in this field out of school. This is my first time dealing with this career field but I have a Bachelors in Computer Science. There are many jobs available in this career and I have thought about applying for them but was scared to because I haven’t worked on projects. Your blog has allowed me to open my eyes to more opportunities to market myself in this field.


@Garreth: take advantage of the community. Do a project and ask others for feedback. You’ll get lots of good tips.

I have one more semester before completing my undergraduate degree with plans to start graduate school shortly thereafter. I have over twenty years in the healthcare care setting. Currently I work as a ultrasound technologist. My desire is to be an instructor either in the college setting or corporate setting. I’m torn between a M.Ed Adult Learning versus Instructional Design. What advice can you offer me that will allow me the best of both worlds? Also do I need to be computer savvy to succeed as an instructional designer or will I learn as a move along?

@Cheryl: good questions. The world is becoming more dependent on technology, so being savvy is good. But that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert on all technology. Instructional design is one facet of instruction. If you do stand up delivery your focus is different than elearning. I’d say develop expertise in the subject are you want to teach with a focus on learning how to teach it. You can get a degree in your discipline and then take classes or certificate on learning/ID.

Thank you for the advice. I will look into some certificate courses for ID.

@Cheryl: we have a list of some programs in the community. I hear good things about the certificate from University of WA.

Hi Tom – I checked out and did not see a certificate program in ID. Can you suggest another program?

@Cheryl: this is the program at UW. You could jump into the Heroes community and ask if people have some recommendations.

November 6th, 2012

I am happy to have found this site but I am totally out of my league. My daughter has expressed an interest in ID and she will be starting college next year. We live in NY City. I did a Monster search on ID and came up with 5 jobs, all requiring a lot of experience. Aside from getting an actual ID degree, how can she break in to the field and get a first job? Are there opportunities for internships, etc. so that she can try out the field, get experience, and see if it is something she is interested in?

@Alisa: not sure about internships but it doesn’t hurt to contact some orgs. When I got started I volunteered where ever I could to get experience. The experience requirement isn’t as great if you have solid multimedia/ID skills. I’d hire someone with a solid portfolio that demonstrates she can do something over a person with lots of experience (in years) but has basically done the same course 100 times.

@Tom: great article. I am currently in the process of changing careers and all signs seem to point to Instructional Design in some capacity. I have a MA degree in Education and this would be my second MA degree (in Educational Technology), however, my work experience for the past 5 years is not in the education field. That being said, do you think you can recommend any reading material to someone interested in the field (as extra curricular) and/or any workshops that one might attend to gain experience?

@Rory: you already a MA in Education so I don’t think you need to get an additional degree. I’d start with reading some books and then crafting a portfolio. Make a plan to build ten demo modules. Each one should be different (perhaps one is a drag/drop activity, another a tabs interaction, etc) and let you practice and be able to show your skills.

Here’s a list of books to start.

If you do want to take some workshops, the ones I do are pretty decent and cover a lot. Many of the conferences also workshops and some schools offer year long certifications.

@Tom: Thank you for the advice and book lists. I will be sure to check out your workshops and next time you are in NYC I will more than likely be there. Have a great holiday.

Wonderful read. I just stumbled into doing eLearning and instructional design and it’s definitely a career path that I’d enjoy pursuing.

My two cents is this…
A degree in instructional design is fine, but if you don’t have basic communication/graphic design skills under your belt, you’re not likely to create magic as Tom does in his weekly examples.

I got my Master’s last year, but that was after a great deal of soul searching about what makes a good graduate program and how much hands-on training (vs. theory) is enough.

My suggestion for someone with a passion for eLearning is to consider a 360-degree (no pun intended) approach – learn about designing with type, develop great Photoshop skills, learn the basics of Flash/HTML 5, take a few communication design courses, experiment with different tools like Storyline and Captivate, get a decent digital camera, practice, find a pro-bono client to work for so that you can grow your design skills, and don’t do things the same way all the time. Shaking things up, using Tom’s information as a cookbook of sorts is a great way to stay fresh, current and user-friendly.

…when you have these skills, go to school, get your Masters so that you can demonstrate your full potential and your passion for this ever-changing field.

Cheers to all..

May 10th, 2013

I know I am late to this discussion but I would like to chat with folks who know about the following schools:
– Boise’s IPT and EdTech and its differences
– University of North Dakota delivery and curriculum
– U of Arkansas’ experience and overall opinion
– West Texas A&M opinion about the program
– Emporia State’s experience and overall opinion
– Northern Iowa’s Program
Basically looking for folks who can chime in and help me decide between these schools. I am leaning towards Boise States but torn as to which program to choose between the Ed Tech and IPT. I am looking to make a decision soon so I need help.

Thanks in advance to everyone.

@Fernando: I can’t comment on the other programs, but I’ve talked to people who really enjoyed the program at Boise State.