My umpteenth career-change question
December 1, 2012 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Instructional design: I have some questions about career prospects, the nature of the work, and whether it would be a good fit for me.

In general, I was wondering if you or someone you know is an instructional designer, and if you/they enjoy the work. What qualities are important? Are there ample job opportunities in non-coastal cities? Is it common to go freelance? And finally (this is my special quirk) would it be frowned upon to request or provide my own standing desk?*

More specifics about me: I have a bachelor in English and music, and a master of library science. I’ve been a public reference librarian for 10+ years. I’m looking to get into a field with relatively plentiful opportunities, where I can change jobs more easily if I need to. And I would really like something stable that’s decently compensated, as low-stress as possible, with a great work-life balance (40-45 hours a week max).

My strengths: I’m a good writer, and enjoy crafting a narrative or taking a big jumble of information and breaking it down into components that fit together neatly. I’m not the greatest at teaching and training groups of people, but can handle it ok when working one-on-one. I prefer to do things in writing rather than in person. I’ve had a month or so of experience working with Moodle to make online learning modules. I love reading about and thinking about human psychology and behavior.

My weaknesses: I’m pretty awful at organizing information for storage/access--it's one of the big reasons I’m looking to flee librarianship rather than shifting into, say, digital librarianship. I’ve never had the slightest interest in computers. I can learn just about anything new if needed for my job, but some areas are definitely more difficult than others (computers/electronics and so forth are a struggle). I don't have a dynamic personality and have difficulty thinking on my feet.

Based on all of this, does it seem that instructional design would be a good fit? I’ve had a series of medical scares over the last few months that have decimated my savings, and underscored the importance of going into a field that will have good, well-paying, long-term prospects.

Thanks all!

*The standing desk thing is because I cannot handle sitting for eight to ten hours a day. I would go berserk.
posted by indognito to Work & Money (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
First things first: What background do you have in teaching and learning? What kinds of in-person experience do you have? What pedagogies do you espouse? Instructional design is teaching first and foremost.

Not being so great at groups, but better with one-on-one suggests you might want to look into online learning design, however not having the slightest interest in computers (as you say) will not help; you'd have to be fine with keeping up with new LMSs (learning management systems) and evolving tech. (Unless you go in with one of the monolithic ed publishers, because they can't seem to keep up with ed tech to save their lives.)
posted by smirkette at 9:38 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, smirkette. My background in teaching and learning is that I really don't have one outside of reference librarianship--i.e. basic computer classes, one-on-one reference interactions where I help people figure out what they want and then find it for them, teaching people how to attach a file to an email or what-have-you.

The tech component does scare me a bit. I can learn, but have difficulty mustering enthusiasm for it.
posted by indognito at 9:43 AM on December 1, 2012

I do some instructional design as part of my work as a freelance copywriter. I enjoy it quite a bit -- it's among the funnest kinds of writing that I get to do. I like the process of analysis, and the emphasis on evaluation (rather than just throwing stuff at the wall, which is typical of a lot of marketing copywriting).

Qualities that are needed: the ability to rapidly absorb and become proficient in new domains (frequently specialized/technical); strong ability to analyze and organize information; imagination, empathy, and the ability to figure out what the audience knows and needs; knowledge of principles behind adult learning; ability to think in pictures and interaction, not just words; and of course good clear writing skills.

You sound fairly introverted, which is not a deal-breaker for IDs, as not all IDs need to do stand-up training.

The main concern I see is your struggles with computers and electronics. Not only does ID nowadays involve working all day every day on computers with software tools, but the domains you would be writing about frequently involve technology. So lack of willingness or capacity to wrap your mind around computer technology would really be a problem, I think.

As far as the standing desk goes, it varies by company. Most places I've worked (software companies, marketing/ad/interactive agencies) are willing to make ergonomic accommodations; however, they may or may not have budget for a special fancy desk. But if you're willing to MacGyver one together, or to furnish your own, I doubt there would be any problem. And of course, as a freelancer, you can set up our desk however you like.

My sense is that it's a viable specialty for a freelancer, at least in Portland OR.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:47 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I made the jump from working in a library to Instructional Designer this past February and I have loved it. It definitely pays better than my librarian position! Before I was a librarian I was a teacher, so the jump might have been easier for me, though. I work for a contract technical writing firm, so my projects are diverse - our clients are all over the map with their subject matter. So the fact that I get to learn something new every day, and turn around and figure out how to teach it, has been the best part of my job.

I will agree with ottereroticist that technology is a huge part of what I do. Keeping up with the latest in online and mobile learning tools and techniques is critical to doing well in the Instructional Design field.
posted by Revie1 at 11:49 AM on December 1, 2012

I'm an instructional designer.

I’m a good writer, and enjoy crafting a narrative or taking a big jumble of information and breaking it down into components that fit together neatly.
Absolutely critical to success.

I love reading about and thinking about human psychology and behavior.
Good! Can't hurt!

I’m pretty awful at organizing information for storage/access
If you work for a company, they will probably have a system in place that you just need to follow. This could be more tough if you want to work for yourself. There is also a segment of instructional design focused on performance support, which is basically content curation to support people doing their jobs. Not all ID jobs require this.

I’ve never had the slightest interest in computers.
This might be a dealbreaker. As smirkette mentions, online learning design sounds like a good fit for you in terms of your personality, but you've got to have an ease with computers. Online learning is based on web technology and therefore moves at a web technology pace.

However, there are several relatively easy-to-use tools to develop online learning. You don't have to know how to hand-code HTML or use jQuery to do online learning. If you can deveop good skills with PowerPoint, there are several software products that will add some quizzing functions and convert that to an online learning course. You can make great online learning with these programs, but you can also make ghastly crap. The difference is usually a result of ID and graphic design skills and creativity.

In some segments of the field, there is an elitism about knowing the tech stuff - that you're not a *real* ID or whatever unless you know all about HTML5 or the Experience API. But there are plenty of people who make a living without knowing all the tech stuff.

Some larger companies have people who just do instructional design, and then pass off their work to developers or trainers. Everywhere I've worked, I have been expected to be more of a jack-of-all-trades - I teach classes, develop online learning, and do the instructional design for both. I have always worked in hospitals, so YMM obviously V.

I think there's a difference in approach between K-12 instructional design and corporate/business/staff development instructional design. I work in the latter, and nobody talks about espousing pedogogies. We do talk about adult learning principles quite a bit (but you have to keep in mind a lot of that is more traditional than scientific). Ottereroticist really makes a good point about the importance of empathy.

You can definitely freelance as an instructional designer, but you'll need to build a portfolio, and if you only want to do ID (not teach, not develop online learning) then you will probably need to work with others.

Feel free to memail me if you have specific questions.
posted by jeoc at 11:54 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. I should clarify that I'm not totally hapless when it comes to computers or new software. I've never considered it a strength, but I can learn the stuff when I need to, albeit with a sense of weariness about the whole thing. I worry that this would put me at a disadvantage if others in this field held a burning passion for new technology.

At any rate, I appreciate your thoughtful answers! They give me a much better sense of things.
posted by indognito at 1:13 PM on December 1, 2012

I'd attend a meeting of your local ASTD chapter and see if you can connect with local folks for informational interviews. ASTD also offers certificate programs if you want or need to display competency to potential employers.

That said, I think that going freelance, either in ID or anything else, would be at odds with your desire for low stress and work-life balance. As an instructional designer who's been working independently for the better part of a decade, that's definitely not how I'd describe my job!
posted by evoque at 5:38 PM on December 1, 2012

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