Instructional Design Isn't Dying. It's Evolving.

Instructional design is not dead or dying. That’s clickbait. Instructional design isn’t dying; it’s evolving.

You may have read dire predictions that instructional design is dead. The eLearning Guild just published a report titled “Is instructional design a dying art?” One of the guild’s recent surveys asked participants if ID is a dying field. Is it really?

Instructional Design isn't dying; it's evolving (butterfly hanging on a stem)

No, It’s Not Dying; It’s Evolving

Instructional design is not dead or dying. That’s clickbait. This is a perennial hand wringing exercise. Marc Rosenberg wrote about it in 2004, and even 13 years ago he mentioned that this pops up every few years.
Instructional design isn’t dying; it’s evolving. Instructional design previously evolved from only classroom training to classroom plus online training. Now the field continues to evolve and expand. In fact, in the Guild report mentioned above, all 13 industry thought leaders agreed that instructional design is changing rather than dying.
As the field evolves, the name may change from instructional design to learning design, learning experience design or something else. I now call myself a “learning design consultant” rather than instructional designer. Regardless of the name, the core skills of instructional design will continue to be valuable and needed in the workplace.

Fragmentation and Diversification

I think instructional design will continue to fragment and diversify. Formal training isn’t disappearing; workers have too many skills they need and switch careers too often. In fact, I think ongoing formal training may even increase. Formal training will be accompanied by more informal training and performance support.
We will continue to have more potential skills than any single person can learn, so we will work more often in teams with specialists in particular skills.

New Technology and More Options

New technologies will give IDs new options. New technology often won’t completely replace old technology, but old and new will exist side-by-side. Sometimes how we use older technology will change. When TV became prevalent, radio didn’t disappear, but we listen in our cars now. Physical books haven’t vanished due to ebooks, but how we buy them has changed. Our future will likely include computers, mobile, AR, and VR. VR will be fantastic in certain situations, but it’s not going to be the right solution for every learning need.
Karl Kapp has noted that new technology is one reason the job outlook for instructional designers is still good.

Google Trends

Google Trends for "instructional design" 2004-2017
Google trend comparing "instructional design" and "learning design"
Google trends showing elearning increasing

One reason for the concern about instructional design dying is that it has been trending down on Google for a number of years. The trend has mostly flattened out, but it is much lower than it was in 2004. Brent Schlenker observed this trend in 2016.

If you compare instructional design and learning design (the red line), you’ll see that learning design is now searched more often than instructional design. Learning design has also trended down, but not quite as far as instructional design.

While instructional design and learning design have trended down, elearning is trending up. I don’t believe the interest in online learning overall is likely to diminish, although it will evolve. Traditional self-paced elearning may decrease, but not all online learning.

Looking Ahead

I see a fairly rosy future for instructional designers and learning designers, especially those who focus on lifelong learning and reflective practice. We will have to evolve to continue to be successful, but that need to constantly learn is part of what makes this field so rewarding. We will have to give up some of our old ways, but we can learn to change and be amazing.

“How does one become a butterfly?” she asked.
“You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”
—Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers

What do you think? Is instructional design doomed, or will we survive in a changed form?

19 thoughts on “Instructional Design Isn't Dying. It's Evolving.

  1. Well, good – So with your help perhaps I can finally get ID work there in Raleigh-Durham-RTP after 4-and-a-half years of seeking it. My conclusion is that it’s very hard to get ID work there today how many years after The Great Recession ended.

  2. Christy, what is for real is that there have never been fewer people keywording-along and then contacting me to fill some ID or Storyline or Captivate contractor order that someone with a budget has placed than right now in the summer of 2017. The last time I was contacted by a HR person at a company (not another government contractor) was January of last year when a HR in San Diego contacted me on LinkedIN about an ID position with her company (I’m not living in California again). So I just see it as something very hard to get today because the training world has shrunk so much in this country since that recession hit in 2000.

    1. That’s not a systemic problem with the field of training. Just today, two prospective clients contacted me, one of whom has already responded to my screening questions and confirmed that she has an actual budget. Those are my 9th and 10th leads so far this year. I had 20 prospects contact me last year. I’ve been consulting for almost 6 years, and I still have recruiters contact me about full time positions several times a year. There are slow periods (May and June were very slow for my business), but that’s the normal up and down cycle in a short term.
      If you’re not getting contacted about full time positions, I would look at a couple of things. First, how is your portfolio looking? Second, you mentioned government contracts. Are you getting pigeonholed into government work because of your work history, when you want to be doing corporate work instead? Third, you don’t want to live in California, which is fine–I don’t either. Are you living in an area where there are jobs? My husband and I moved to the Research Triangle area partly because the job market is good here. Some areas of the country or world are more challenging.
      One other note: if the email address you used with your comment is what you use for job searching, that’s one thing holding you back. It may be petty, but recruiters and employers are biased against some email domains. That’s especially true for people doing any sort of technology work. Gmail or Outlook addresses are fine, but Yahoo, AOL, and Hotmail addresses are all seen as dated.

  3. Great article, Christy. I’m currently teaching a certificate program for instructional designers. This is our first week and everyone is discussing how they’re coming to the field from different areas (librarian, LMS admin, K12 educator, faculty, etc.). Each has a wonderful, unique spin on what it means to be an instructional designer. I love how this field just changes and evolves – staying fresh and relevant!

    1. My first team of IDs included an Asian studies major, a math teacher, a creative writing teacher, a missionary, and an IT support analyst. Every one of those people contributed something unique to the team.

  4. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.
    The same hand-wringing was going on when I got into the field in the mid-1980’s. Remember Dave Merrill’s infamous “line in the sand” paper or the Kozma-Clark debate? What makes us relevant (and why we will remain relevant) – regardless of what we have on our business cards – is that we are a) constantly evolving as tools change while b) remaining rooted in important, unchanging principles.
    The challenge is, as it has always been, is to make sure that The Powers That Be a) understand the value of those core principles and b) appreciate the vision that we bring as we see new uses for these new tools.
    Back in 2001 I gave a presentation on technology adoption. I noted that every new communications technology follows the same arc: first you use it to replicate the old way of doing things (e.g., early filmed stage plays), then you do something you couldn’t do before just for the sake of novelty (e.g. Georges Méliès), and finally someone figures out a new and powerful way of communicating with that technology (Hitchcock).
    The issue today is that the changes are coming almost too fast for anyone to keep up with. (And some people and institutions change very slowly – some professors are proud that they’ve finally switched from transparencies and 35mm carousels to Powerpoint!) And some things that at first look like the Next Greatest Thing fizzle out. (*koff* SecondLife *koff*)
    Which is precisely why we need to keep remind TPTB that First Principles Matter. Technology changes. People and people’s needs don’t. People still learn they way we have always learned – experience, stories, demonstration, explanation, practice, feedback. The tools used for those things only matter to the extent that they matter (e.g., it’s hard to teach animation techniques with just text or audio).
    So stay relevant, keep up. But stay grounded.
    –Corrie Bergeron
    Blackboard MVP
    (NB: My wordpress blog “Bardlog” is for my main hobby – storytelling in the context of historical re-enactment)

    1. In the 1980s, I was in elementary school, so some of those debates you mention predate my experience. I’m not surprised that we’re having the same discussions now as decades ago.
      However, it does surprise me how poor instructional designers are at explaining their value to TPTB. We’re good at making the complex easy to understand, but somehow we rarely manage to make our own value clear. I’m guilty of it myself too, sometimes, although I feel more comfortable doing so as a consultant than I did as an employee.
      You’re absolutely right about the core principles still being relevant. I focus on storytelling in my own elearning because it’s one of the techniques we’ve used effectively for centuries. Technology gives us new tools for storytelling, but it’s still fundamentally about the story and connecting to people.

  5. It does seem like we keep having this conversation, doesn’t it? I totally agree that it’s an ever-evolving field. We’re just seeing more shades of instructional design being thrown into the mix!

  6. Thank you, Christy so much for providing a little perspective in the fear-mongering. To say that our field is going away is to say that people have stopped learning. I echo your points about the many names for our field and the ever-changing skill sets needed. Moving forward, I would like us all to come to consensus on what to call ourselves. Much more importantly, I hope for more clarity around how to develop ourselves to meet the niches created by the fragmentation. *Cough* *cough* Christy blog post idea *cough* *cough* 😀

    1. I don’t know that consensus on what we call ourselves is a realistic goal, to be honest. I think the fragmentation and specialization means we will need more variety in job titles, not less. That said, we have mostly shifted from ISD to ID; maybe we will now switch to LD or LxD.
      Cammy Bean’s model of T-shaped expertise is useful here. Everyone needs some broad, core skills. Most people have one or two areas where they are especially strong. That’s your niche.
      How to develop your skills and find a niche would be an interesting follow up post. I’m adding it to my list now. Thanks for the suggestion!

  7. I agree and would add that there is still a place and a need for “traditional” paper and pen instructional design. No matter what you call it, there will ALWAYS be a need for a person who can analyze and synthesize information and make it teachable and learnable. Great article, Christy! I don’t often comment but I always read! Keep up the good work

    1. When you say “paper and pen,” do you literally mean paper and pen? Other than sketching out layouts or visual design, I don’t know any IDs who are doing analog work regularly. Every team I have worked with uses Word, PowerPoint, Google Docs, etc., even for developing classroom training.
      Thinking about paper and pen for ID reminds me of the graphic designer Wendy Wickham described in One Letter of ADDIE. That original conversation and post is now 10 years old, but still relevant here and now. I agree with you that there will always be a need for people who can make the complex simple and learnable. I also think we will have to adapt as the field continues to evolve.

  8. Wonderful article Christy. I agree instructional designers and their way of thinking will be required in the education of the future and in other sectors. We will specialise in specific parts of the design process and technology.

  9. Totally agree Christy. As our learning platforms and technology evolve, the need to ISDs to evolve with it will certainly change.
    Who knows, in the not so distant future, ISDs may be required to create courses in Social Media/networking sites (Oops! already there). did you see this coming 5 years ago?
    Maybe ISDs will need to design lessons focused on the learners actual interaction with the real-world subject matter… Darn already there to using AR.
    Heck, today, the ISDs resume, competencies and achievements has to really look different than that of 5 years past – huh?

    1. It’s been almost 10 years since I wrote a post on Facebook as an LMS and a follow up on Social Networking as LMS. That was all very preliminary and not well thought out, but we’ve been talking about using social media for learning as long as social media has existed.
      I am looking forward to AR becoming more widespread. I think that really will be a significant change. But many of the core skills of analyzing learner needs, writing objectives, and assessing performance will still be relevant regardless of the technology or other changes.

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