Top 5 skills and abilities to fast-track your career in Instructional Design and Online Learning


If e-learning has to catch up fast with the rapid developments in technology and psychology of learning, then Instructional Designers have to learn, unlearn and relearn a few things. This Skill Talk by Purnima Valiathan, co-founder and consultant at ID Mentors, captures the essence of Instructional Design (ID) as she discusses key skills and knowledge for a successful and sustained career in designing effective learning experiences.

Appreciating and coping with the changes

Instructional designers (IDs) have exciting times ahead! Online learning is the most happening space now – look at the popularity of MOOCs as a disruptive concept, the ease of mobile learning and of course, the influence of social media on learning. New technology comes with new challenges – suppose, you are learning from a mobile device, you have many distractions, so how do you make the content engaging? Or, how do you adopt principles of heutagogy for self-determined lifelong learning? Perhaps, we should seek inspiration from creating impactful advertisements, how they manage to catch your attention in a few seconds and sustain till the end and play on all your senses. We really need to think of new ways to present content in playful and infotainment ways.

Instructional Design Skills

You need to re-think design for making it responsive to different devices. Responsive design needs a different approach from analysis to design, IDs need to think small, learning has to be byte-sized, focused, disseminating a specific knowledge chunk, a skill or a micro skill. The challenge is to make courses device-agnostic that provide the same learning experience irrespective of a desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile phone or any handheld device. Page-turners don’t work any more! Let’s look at top five skills and abilities that are essential for your career growth, addition to other skills like instructional writing, editing, simplification, team work and so on :

Comprehension skills

This is a basic skill that’s needed to read and understand volumes multimedia content, often jargon-ridden, from different disciplines. You can devise your own smart ways of understanding the content to the extent that you are able to have a conversation with the subject matter expert (SME). You don’t need to achieve expertise but be able to collaborate with the SME for coming up with a design strategy.

Continuous learning skills

The best way to facilitate learning is to be a learner yourself! Cultivate the enthusiasm and curiosity to learn new stuff. Keep learning about things that interest you, understand and train yourself like how you do physical exercise to gain stamina and keep fit. This way, you will not get intimidated with new content and it helps you face the challenges of ID confidently.

Meta-cognition skills

One of the key tasks for IDs is to come up with an instructional strategy by understanding the content, the context and the learners. This also calls for your skills in structuring and chunking the content by deconstructing information and analyzing it. If you are able to reflect on what motivated you to learn, it will definitely help you in designing for your learner. Remember, you need to keep in mind your learner’s profile and preferences too.

Questioning skills

While interacting with the SME you need to ask right questions, especially when the content is complex and highly specialized. In your dialogue it’s better to have close-ended questions to optimize the time you get with SMEs. It’s advisable for you to do all the groundwork, be prepared and wherever you don’t understand, you can ask the expert. If you can think of analogies and examples to simplify the content, the SME can validate them.

Digital skills

This is absolutely mandatory. Though it is assumed that most IDs are comfortable using the computer and digital technologies since they design for online medium, it is necessary for them upgrade their skills. Ability to work remotely using various online communication apps, working with new content authoring media – this calls for continuous self-learning and exploration of trendy tools.

Insights from neuroscience and gamification

Other than these five skills, I would also recommend IDs to follow recent trends in the field of neuroscience and understand its application in designing online learning. This will help you answer the learner’s question: “how do you make me feel important as a learner?” Earlier, e-learning courses are designed according to behaviourist and constructivist principles.

It’s essential to understand  the basics of neuroscience. Especially, look at the way it works for social media like Facebook and how it leverages our emotions and social behavior. Along with it, I would suggest using ideas from gamification to bring in the much-needed avenue for announcing our accomplishments. This helps in motivating the learners and keeping them engaged in taking up higher challenges in learning.

Instructional design for MOOCs

Actually, in MOOCs, while listening to experts or watching them, there’s an immediate emotional connection. In a typical e-learning course, this is missing. According to neuroscience there is no cognition without emotion. This is the real strength of the MOOCs. But they miss the rigour of instructional design. The way the knowledge is organized in an expert’s brain is very different from the way it is organized in a novice. When you are passionate about the subject, you are intrinsically motivated to go through it. So, unless the learner is really motivated, he or she may lose track. This is where Instructional Design comes in.

For example, in one instance I saw that the assessment questions were of very low level for MCQ format and it was obvious that they were not designed by taking into consideration all the challenges of MCQs. The entire analysis, planning, designing process could have been missed. The expert’s knowledge is less structured, it needs to be simplified and made cohesive with the help of ID principles.

Today, the boundaries between school learning, higher education, adult learning and corporate learning have almost blurred. On the internet, it’s all about self-determined learning or heutagogy. It’s all about videos, how they have proliferated through their multi-sensory appeal. If your content is designed well, it will certainly be picked up, retained and used by the learners.

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