Becoming an Instructional Designer, Part Three

There are two basic paths to instructional design. One, which is what I was mostly referring to in the first two parts of this article, is as a generalist who picks up and puts down content expertise as he or she goes. That’s the path I took. My training is as an instructional designer and for a given project I rely on a subject matter expert to teach me what I need to know about that topic.

The other path is to come to the field of instructional design once you already have technical expertise in another field. For example, I know auditors who have found that their love of teaching auditing was even greater than their love of auditing, so they became instructional designers.

This path into the field has the compelling advantage that, at least within the field of their technical expertise, content expert designers can much more easily design technical instruction. They already have a conceptual understanding so can rely on SMEs to fill in gaps rather than starting from scratch, making much better use of the SME’s time. The more advanced the technical topics, the less able a generalist instructional designer like me is to take over the development of the material, and the more I act as an adviser, with the SME still doing a lot of the development heavy lifting. An instructional designer with a technical background doesn’t have that limitation.

At McGladrey, we are moving more to a model of using designers with a background in the content area, the logic being that it is easier to teach someone about the principles of instructional design and adult learning than it is to turn an instructional designer into a CPA. That isn’t too say that the field of instructional design is easier than the field of accounting, but a designer of a course on, say, auditing employee benefit plans, needs a lot of technical background knowledge to even get started designing the course. A content expert, on the other hand, armed with just a couple of instructional design principles can potentially design a reasonable class, especially with the help of a more experienced designer, and work to improve from there. And besides, whereas an instructional designer may be starting from ground zero when it comes to accounting, everyone has experienced good and bad courses; every new designer can at least leverage those experiences.

I’ve been challenged, though, on whether technical experts who transition to instructional design can keep current enough in the content to remain effective for very long as an instructional designer. Won’t their expertise go stale?

I think this problem is faced by anyone who drops out of practice to become a consultant and is surmountable. Keeping up with professional literature, taking classes, interacting with and shadowing practitioners, serving on process committees, engaging with the professional community, and so on can keep one’s sword sharp. In fact, from the perspective of staying current, instructional designers will have the advantage of working frequently with SMEs, so they will constantly be exposed to new ideas. The key is that the content-aware instructional designer isn’t playing the role of SME; he or she is merely enabling the SME to fill the role of SME instead of having to be both the SME and the course developer.

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