Online Degrees and Certificates: What Instructional Designers Need to Know

By Lorna Collier

Monica Surrency graduated with a bachelor’s degree in classic civilizations—not your most marketable of degrees. Unsure what she wanted to do with her life, Surrency worked in various positions, from graphic designer to web instructor to education technology specialist, ultimately landing an instructional design position at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus helping subject-matter experts design online courses.

“I really enjoyed the work I was doing,” says Surrency. “I thought, ‘I’ve found what I want to do.’”

Surrency had been planning to get a master’s degree in something anyway; once she found a profession that clicked, she checked out instructional design programs, seeking one that was fully online so it wouldn’t interfere with her job. She settled on a master’s in instructional systems from her alma mater, Florida State University. Two years later—shortly before her graduation in December 2014—she accepted a promotion at Embry-Riddle to senior instructional designer.

“Without my master’s, I’m not sure if I would have gotten the promotion,” says Surrency. “Having that degree really helped.”

Educational Options Increasing in Number

Master’s degrees like the one Surrency earned are part of a growing array of educational options—often online—now available for those choosing to enter or advance within the instructional design field.

“I’m seeing a greater increase in instructional design programs,” says Phillip Harris, executive director of the 2,400-member Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). “We’re seeing a variety of initiatives at institutions big and small,” Harris says. This includes master’s degrees as well as certificate programs.

One reason for the growth in these programs: new technologies. As mobile devices, apps, and other new learning tools have become available, so has the demand for education to teach learning professionals how to use them. A survey of 1,100 instructional designers by the Association for Talent Development (ATD) in November 2014 found that 40 percent were concerned about lack of skilled staff in their organizations, while 29 percent expressed “difficulty keeping pace with new developments in learning technologies/media.” In response, ATD called for more ongoing education for designers.

At the same time, demand for designers by employers is up, especially as the recession eases, says Timothy W. Spannaus, PhD, coordinator of the instructional design program at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

“We’ve noticed a distinct increase since the worst of the recession five to seven years ago,” he says. “Over the long term, there’s been a steady increase in demand.”

So what should you know if you are interested in an online degree or certificate in instructional design? What are key trends in learning in this field, and what can you do to pick the right program for your needs? If an online degree or certificate in instructional design is not right for you, if you need more focused skill development, are there other options that require less time and lower investment?

(Editor’s Note: For an excellent review of the state of the Instructional Design profession today, including the skills and competencies employers want from instructional designers, see The eLearning Guild’s Research Report Today’s Instructional Designer: Competencies and Careers.)

What’s New in ID Education?

For Phillip Harris, one of the biggest factors affecting instructional design education today is brain science—that is, what researchers are finding out about how people learn. Developments in cognitive neuroscience are affecting learning theory, and this is trickling down to the way designers are being taught.

“We’re seeing more emphasis on learning theory in the training programs and a larger recognition of how the brain works in how instruction is designed,” Harris says. “The learning sciences are expanding and computer science is contracting. The designer needs to understand how learning theory drives their design of instruction.”

This doesn’t mean designers don’t also need to know some technology, though. Depending on the size and type of institution, the instructional designer could be one specialist among a team of highly specialized people—or he or she could be expected to handle several roles, especially for smaller organizations.

Wayne State looked at the kinds of jobs its grads were landing and decided three years ago to shift its specialized set of master’s programs into a single, more generalized degree, Spannaus says.

“We saw what was happening in the marketplace for grads was that they were being called on to be generalists—to be able to deal with performance technology, interactive technologies, and design,” he says. The university then created one master’s degree in performance and design.

Specialization also comes into play when looking at whether the design student will work in K-12, higher education, or the corporate sector. Some colleges and universities offer separate programs—particularly at the certificate level—that focus on those job areas.

The University of Georgia and the University of British Columbia, for instance, have graduate certificates specifically targeting teachers. Wayne State has a master’s degree in K-12 design. Spannaus says this is because “the context in which we are working can certainly make a difference in how we apply the learning tools we have.”

Other schools don’t separate K-12 from private-sector or adult learning design, letting students choose through electives to make that specialization if they decide to, while keeping core fundamentals the same.

“Instructional design is instructional design is instructional design,” says Vanessa Dennen, PhD, program director at Florida State University. “People think K-12 must be so different from corporate, but teaching six-year-olds and adults is not that different. We’re trying to teach students to be flexible and assess any environment they enter and use their core instructional design skills.”

Beyond specialization, another trend affecting online instruction is the declining influence of for-profit online schools, says Harris. Though these schools made a big splash seven or eight years ago, “They are losing some of their luster. Their credibility is just not where they’d like them to be,” with students having trouble landing jobs and also experiencing higher student debt. “It looked like they were going to replace some of the brick and mortar institutions, but that’s just not happening.”

(Editor’s Note: For a discussion of which degrees and credentials are of most value for eLearning professionals, see The eLearning Guild’s Research Report Degrees for eLearning Professionals: What’s Needed?)

Integrating New Technologies

ATD’s recent survey found that many designers are aware of newer technologies and are preparing to use them in their jobs, but their use is not yet widespread.

Mobile learning is used by 25 percent, gamification by 16 percent, and MOOCs, only 10 by percent. But, as the ATD white paper about its research points out, “growth in the application of those methods is expected,” with higher numbers of designers considering expanding into those technologies.

At Florida State, new technology electives have been developed in such areas as MOOC design, using social media to support learning, and mobile learning; students learn to create learning experiences triggered off of QR codes, how to build interactive eBooks and how to design apps.

“It’s been very important to adjust our course offerings and be sure we have electives that reflect the kinds of things our students see happening in the marketplace—the types of skills that employers will be interested in,” Dennen says.

It’s also valuable for students to learn firsthand what it’s like to be an online student—since they likely will be designing online courses themselves—and to use various technologies, such as MOOCs, that they may be implementing in their jobs.

Surrency, for example, developed a MOOC as part of her job at Embry just a few months before taking a MOOC design course at FSU. “It was pretty cool, because my work experience helped with my class,” she says. She also learned new skills in her course, such as content creation, to take back to her job.

While instruction in specific technologies can be important, these also are likely to change. That’s why it’s key for programs to teach how to approach technology in general, Dennen says. This involves inculcating attitudes of fearlessness and a willingness to experiment, as well as an ability to “look at a program and figure out the metaphor on which it was designed” so that students can grasp the menu structure and underlying functionality. This way, she says, students can master any new technology.

Master’s vs. Certificate: Benefits for Each

About half (46 percent) of the 1,100 instructional designers surveyed by ATD in November 2014 have degrees in the field. That’s up slightly (by two percent) from a 2010 survey.

Of those with degrees, 87 percent held either master’s degrees or doctorates. About 16 percent of respondents had certificates (up from 14 percent in the 2010 survey).

The vast majority of design professionals surveyed viewed their education as valuable to their careers, with 43 percent saying it was very important and 39 percent saying it was somewhat important (only two percent said it was unimportant).

Indeed, no matter which credential you choose, you are likely to find benefits for your career. But of the two most common types available online—the master’s and the graduate certificate—what are the relative benefits?

Master’s degrees take about twice as long to earn as the certificate and usually involve earning 30 to 40 credit hours, depending on the program. “They hold greater currency in the job market,” Dennen says. “Master’s degrees are a really good step for people who want to be practitioners in the field.”

Certificate programs typically require 15 credit hours. They can be a good intro to the field for newbies—a way to see what it’s all about, while still earning a credential. Or, designers who want to update their skill sets can find value in specialty certifications.

The online PhD degree is more rare. Typically PhD programs are research-intensive and require at least some face-to-face presence, Dennen says.

David Berz, director of global learning products at Melcrum, an internal communications firm, says his online certificate in instructional design was more useful to his design work than his earlier master’s in education technology, which he earned partly online in 2007 from Northern Arizona University.

Berz, who has worked for LinkedIn, Mozilla, and Disney Interactive, says that many years ago, he applied for a job in instructional design at Bank of America and was rejected. He was told he didn’t know enough about instructional design and the science behind it. The interviewer advised Berz to get a certificate, which he did from Darryl Sink & Associates (DSA).

Bank of America later hired Berz as a lead instructional designer. Berz went on to hold a variety of instructional design jobs for different companies, which he thinks he landed in part due to having a master’s degree. Yet he credits what he learned in his certificate program with helping him do the actual work.

“As far as being a better instructional designer, I think the certificate was super-important because of learning the fundamentals of instructional design, adult learning principles, the theories, and gaining an understanding that there is a science around that,” he says.

On the other hand, he says, as someone who hires instructional designers, he looks for candidates with master’s degrees, which he believes give a good background and understanding of the profession. “I think it matters. I think it’s important to have.”

Certificates, too, can be a plus when it comes to getting hired, says Stephanie Taitano, associate director of faculty professional and leadership development at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where she designs eLearning courses.

Taitano has earned several online certificates over the years in instructional design, primarily in new-tech areas such as mobile learning, social media, and gamification. She finds certificates “tremendously beneficial,” noting that they can be developed more quickly than degree programs and thus respond more rapidly to tech trends.

“They can keep us current in a way that is more credible and reliable (and vetted) than a conference program,” she says.

When she evaluates designers for eLearning positions, Taitano says she looks “for some indication of currency—and certificate programs and other one-up online offerings are one way to show this.”

(Editor’s Note: The eLearning Guild’s 2015 Global eLearning Salary & Compensation Report analyzes how education level affects compensation worldwide.)

Tips for Picking a Program

  • Find out what’s required in the job you want to hold (look at job ads or ask potential employers and people who work in that position) and then find programs that fill those requirements.
  • Evaluate the program’s emphasis. “Often there are career areas that different programs end up being feeders for,” says Dennen. For example, some might focus on K-12; if you want a corporate job, this program might not be right for you.
  • Take a close look at the curriculum to see whether it provides both a strong foundation as well as electives in the areas that meet your goals. Not only should you look at the range of courses offered, but also the course of study and how flexible it is, says Spannaus. If everybody has to take the same courses in the same sequence, this may not give you the options you need.
  • Check out the credentials of the professors who are teaching the courses (the university website should have a faculty page listing their books, articles, conference presentations, and awards; if not, try Google Scholar to see what papers they have published, suggests Spannaus).
  • How is the program taught? Is it synchronous, asynchronous, or a mix? If your job requires lots of travel across time zones, a heavily synchronous program may not work for you. Also, is the program taught with the kinds of interactive elements you want to learn to incorporate into your own ID work? In other words, does it practice what it preaches?
  • What do people on Twitter say about it? Taitano says online courses she’s taken sometimes have a specific Twitter hashtag assigned for student discussion and collaboration. Or students may come up with a hashtag on their own and talk about the course. Search for the program and you are likely to find feedback to help you with your decision.

See the sidebar at the end of this article for a list of the top online education programs.

Guild Academy

The eLearning Guild Academy provides professional development opportunities for anyone involved in the management, design, development, and implementation of learning solutions. Courses across a broad range of skills are designed to lead to mastery and to make a difference in your career.

The Academy offers live online and blended courses in:

  • Tools and Technologies; online now (April 2015) are:
    • Adobe Captivate (basic and advanced)
    • Articulate Storyline 2 (basic and advanced)
    • Articulate Studio ‘13
    • xAPI (introductory for designers)
  • Instructional Design and Development; online now:
    • Creative instructional design
    • Designing interaction
    • The A.G.I.L.E. approach to ID
    • Designing learning ecosystems
    • Sketching and prototyping design
  • Virtual Classroom Design; online now:
    • Coaching others for virtual classroom success
    • Facilitation skills for virtual trainers
    • Producing virtual classroom training
    • Design and development of virtual classroom training (basic and advanced)
    • Design and deployment of virtual instructor-led training for mobile
  • Content Creation; online now:
    • Game design
    • Scriptwriting and audio production for eLearning
  • Business and Leadership; online now:
    • Agile project management for eLearning
    • Project leadership for instructional designers

Complete information about the courses, their schedules, and registration details are available here.

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

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