20 Years as an Instructional Designer

This month marks 20 years since I started at my first instructional design job. It feels like a good time to pause and reflect on that first ID role, how my journey started, and how that shaped my experiences now. I’ll also share a few slides from the first branching scenario I wrote.

20 Years as an Instructional Designer

Old style CRT monitor, keyboard, mouse, and computer tower

Searching for a job

I had been working as a corporate software trainer for about 2 years when I was laid off in July, 2003. The office I had been working out of closed, and I was suddenly out of a job. I decided I missed the curriculum planning side of teaching, and I was looking for something that didn’t require being “on stage” as much as another trainer role. In my research on related careers, I discovered instructional design and started reading everything I could find online.

It took me a year of searching to get that job and transition from training to instructional design. I had to track all of my job applications, interviews, and follow ups to receive unemployment. That tracking spreadsheet had over 200 rows of entries in it by the time I started work. I worked as a substitute teacher for a while, and then I worked for $7.50/hour scoring writing samples with rubrics for a test company.

I made plenty of mistakes in my job search. One of my biggest errors was not being clear that I was open to relocating at my own expense. At that point in my life, I was explicitly looking for a big change and to move away from central Illinois. I applied to lots of jobs in other parts of the country and assumed people knew I’d relocate. Nope–people can’t read my mind, and I didn’t tell them. I didn’t have a portfolio either. Between my lack of instructional design experience, no portfolio, and unclear goals, I made my job search harder than it needed to be.

Getting my first instructional design job

But eventually, I got an interview with Career Education Corporation for an instructional designer role with American InterContinental University, working with their online learning group. I was lucky; I was able to get that first interview because I went to the same university as the then-director of the team. The hiring managers assured me later that everything after that was based on my own skills and performance, but I’d be lying if I pretended there wasn’t that element of luck at the start.

After the first interview, I created a storyboard using their PowerPoint template as a skills test. I have mixed feelings about asking candidates to spend time creating free samples, but they can be effective for situations like mine. I didn’t have a portfolio, and I’d never worked in online learning before. The sample let me show that I’d be able to do the job.

As part of the second round interview, I had the opportunity to speak with the other two instructional designers on the AIU team. I don’t remember too much about those interviews, but I do remember that I asked the other IDs what the hardest part of the job was. One of the answers has stuck with me after all this time: “Knowing when to let go of a course.” He shared how he always wanted his courses to be perfect, and he’s always tempted to keep tweaking and revising it over and over. But at some point, it has to be “good enough” and you have to let it go so it can be published.

Working with SMEs

As instructional designers, we worked with SMEs to write presentation scripts, Q&A, and other content. The SMEs did most of the writing, and the IDs mostly acted as coaches and guides, similar to many higher ed ID jobs today. AIU focused on authentic assessment rather than traditional academic outputs like essays and multiple choice quizzes. A lot of the ID job was helping SMEs understand that model.

One of the biggest shifts for me coming from teaching and training was that change from being a SME in my content to working with other SMEs. Prior to this role, I’d relied on my own knowledge of music and band as a teacher and my software skills as a corporate software trainer. I was used to planning only for my own facilitation. As long as I had a rough outline, I could teach from that and fill in the gaps because I knew enough to do so.

But working with SMEs meant I needed to focus more on interviewing, listening, and researching. I had to build the skills of getting what I needed from others rather than just from my own brain. I also needed to learn how to document everything. A voice over script or storyboard had to be explicit enough for others to understand easily, not just a few notes in an outline that made no sense to anyone else.

Collaborating with Flash developers

Back in 2004, authoring tools weren’t widespread or as easy to use. There was a clear divide between instructional designers and multimedia developers. At CEC, nearly everything was built as custom Flash development. While the SMEs wrote many components of the online courses, the IDs wrote the storyboards for the interactive activities. After a review by the editing team, the storyboards went to the Flash development team for building. It was so cool to see those storyboards come to life once the multimedia developers got their hands on them.

That’s certainly one of the big differences in instructional design jobs now. Twenty years ago, there was no real expectation that IDs could do multimedia and visual design. The learning curve for Flash was significant; I tried and failed to learn it myself later in my career. It wasn’t really feasible to do both. Now, it’s harder to find teams with those separate roles. The tools are so much easier now though. You really can learn authoring tools and at least basic visual communication principles as an ID. The job has expanded to include more skills, but the tools truly are easier now.

My first branching scenario

I designed my first branching scenario in my first six months as an instructional designer. This was an activity for a course on social and organizational psychology. The structure was very basic: just four questions in a gauntlet or constrained branching structure. As you can see, I mapped the branching structure out in PowerPoint; I didn’t use any specialized tools until much later in my career.

Branching scenario structure in PowerPoint

The graphics for the characters had been designed for another course. I think that previous conversation didn’t include even this limited branching though. The template was called “linear nodes,” and I think the original was truly linear. I remember the director of multimedia development asking me not to write anything this complex in the future.

Screenshot from a storyboard with an image of an older white man and a younger Black woman talking in an office.

Looking back at my writing from 20 years ago, I can certainly see plenty that I’d do differently now. Each of the three decision points is phrased more as a question than an action. Tanisha, the main character, is giving advice to Andrew, but Andrew is the one actually taking action. Here’s the first decision point as an example. Click the image to view it full size if it’s too small to read.

Decision point in the storyboard:

Here’s my problem. I am trying to get the salespeople that I supervise to attend a big conference. I think it would be really helpful for them, but it will require them to work some evening hours. This is only a one-time event, but I haven’t had much luck convincing anyone to sign up so far.

What should Tanisha suggest for Andrew to try?

1.  Offer a small reward for attending
2.  Just keep reminding them and eventually they’ll change their minds
3.  Offer a large reward for attending

Parts of this scenario have actually held up pretty well over time though. I showed the consequences of the choices through their conversation rather than explicit correct/incorrect feedback. I also did a time jump in the feedback, so you see both Andrew’s initial reaction plus a long-term consequence. The storyboard shows the script all on the screen, but the finished activity used conversation bubbles with the two characters going back and forth.

Storyboard with dialogue

A small reward? That sounds good for my budget, but why?
Small rewards can actually be more motivating than large rewards, especially for changing attitudes in the long term.
Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that. Well, I’m not sure if I really need any long term effect, but I’ll try your suggestion.
LATER
Hey, Tanisha. You remember that conference I was trying to convince my salespeople to attend? Offering a small reward wasn’t actually very effective. The few people who did go said they really enjoyed the conference, but I wish more had taken the opportunity.
I’ve been thinking about what you said about changing attitudes though, and I was wondering if you’d help me out with another issue.
Sure, I’m willing to try again.

Obviously, I didn’t know at the time that this branching scenario was the start of something larger. I was proud of this activity–that’s why I saved a copy of the storyboard! Looking back now, I recognize that this activity was a critical step on my journey. I can be known as the go-to person for branching scenarios now because I’ve literally been creating them for 20 years.

Challenges and successes

My first ID job had plenty of challenges, too. I caught one of my first SMEs plagiarizing shortly after we started working together. That was a huge issue for the university, and the SME was fired. AIU was put on probation with its accrediting body. The SEC and other organizations conducted investigations. There was plenty of dysfunction and stress.

Despite all of the problems with the organization as a whole, I worked with so many wonderful people at CEC. The online education group grew from about 8 to 30 people, so we hired a lot of people. That team provided a ton of support to new instructional designers to help them ramp up their skills and be successful. I had some amazing managers and colleagues.

I got my first promotion after six months in that instructional design job. My new title was Curriculum Specialist. In that role, I did more high level planning, writing course descriptions and learning objectives for new and revised programs. That role involved coordinating with other campuses and departments. Six months after that, I got my second promotion to Assistant Director of Course Development. I shifted into more project management and supporting other IDs on the team, although I continued with the curriculum design work too.

That last role also helped me realize how draining it is being a people manager. I’m much happier as an individual contributor. So, after two years at CEC, I left and moved back into an instructional designer role, this time in workplace training rather than a university.

I think it’s important to take time to reflect in our careers, especially when we hit these big milestones. I can celebrate what I’ve accomplished and how far I’ve come in 20 years. Even if you’re not as far into your instructional design career as I am, take a look at some of your old work sometime and see how much you’ve improved.

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