Instructional Design is an exciting and growing field. If you have decided you are interested in getting into Instructional Design, you may be worried about your lack of experience. It can certainly be intimidating as you begin to look at job postings. You may even be tempted to give up on pursuing instructional design as a career. You might be surprised, though, about how much experience you already have and how you can take steps to gain more on your own.
I’ve been doing instructional design in some capacity for the past 20 years for companies big and small. In this article, I’ll share ideas and resources you can use to build up your own experience.
1. Take a skills inventory
One of the first things I recommend you do is to take an inventory of your existing skills. What do I mean by that? Basically, it’s a brainstorm where you write down skills that you have which are transferable to an instructional design job.
(By the way, if you aren’t sure what all an instructional designer does, be sure to check out my Career Spotlight: How to Become an Instructional Designer article.)
For example, one skill area that an instructional designer should have is the ability to create a training asset such as a PowerPoint presentation or a job aid. Chances are, you have done something similar as part of a past or current job or in some other capacity.
Often, we don’t even realize all of the skills and experience we already have. We fill ourselves with so much self-doubt that we can end up talking ourselves out of even pursuing something.
Now, I’m not saying that brainstorming on existing skills is going to magically make you fully qualified for every instructional design job out there. It won’t.
At a minimum, though, it should help you to see at least one or two (or more) things that you CAN use as examples of your experience in a resume or interview.
Oh, and guess what? I have created a FREE Resource to help you with this!
2. Your current job
One of the best opportunities to get experience is within your current job.
The reason I am such a fan of this method is because that is how I got my start.
My career path looks like this:
“Regular job” —-> Department Trainer —-> Full time Trainer —–> Trainer/Instructional Designer —-> Trainer/Instructional Designer/e-learning developer —-> Full Time Instructional Designer
My first “regular” jobs were at Walt Disney World and then CarMax. I was a department trainer in Character Entertainment and then at Disney Vacation Club. I also taught Walt Disney World Traditions (new employee orientation) a couple of times a month. At CarMax, I was in sales but then also mentored/helped train new sales people.
Initially, my main interest was in training and facilitation. That is why my path started there. The principle is the same, though, if you are mainly interested in instructional design.
Basically, you look for and/or create opportunities for yourself to get experience.
Let’s say you work at the front desk of a hotel. What is something you could create that would help others in your department? A job aid that goes through a new process? A quick video that explains how to check someone in? A training session with a customer service activity?
If you analyze what is needed and then you create something that addresses that need (e.g. job aid, video, training session) that’s instructional design!
If you aren’t sure where you should start, check with your boss. He or she will probably have lots of ideas for you. They will also appreciate your initiative for taking on this project.
3. Volunteer Organizations
Another great way to start getting experience is through organizations that you volunteer at. Your kids’ school your church, the local community theater, the zoo…. Any place that you or your family are involved with could be a candidate.
When my son was in Boy Scouts, I wanted to help out there. They needed a webmaster to run the Troop website. At the time, I had never had a website or been involved with any kind of website development but I volunteered anyway because I DID have an interest.
I taught myself WordPress and became the webmaster. It was a great learning experience for me and it helped the Troop. A true win/win.
Similarly, you can look for opportunities where you could create some training materials. Does the volunteer handbook need to be rewritten? Does the PTO need a refresher on some new COVID policies? Could the Little League team use a series of short video demos on how to pitch?
Check with the head of the organization and see what you can do to help.
4. Join a Professional Organization
There are several professional organizations that are learning and development focused. These can provide some good opportunities to learn more about the profession while also meeting and networking with people who are already in the profession.
There are also usually plenty of volunteer opportunities which could help with getting actual experience you can put on your resume’.
While watching a YouTube video isn’t going to give you actual experience, they can be good for learning some of the basics. This will then help you to “talk the talk” when you start interviewing. Of course, you have to be careful since not all YouTubers are created equally when it comes to quality of information. Here are a few instructional design focused channels (some are particularly heavy on e-learning but still have good general ID info as well) I follow where I believe the people actually know what they’re talking about:
Of course there are also all kinds of tutorials out there on different software that you might use as an instructional designer (e.g. PowerPoint, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, etc…). These can be helpful as well.
6. Take Online Courses
The internet is a gold mine for people who enjoy self-paced learning. There are quite a few instructional design related courses you can take through sites like Udemy, SkillShare and LinkedIn Learning.
You do have to pay for these, though. With Udemy, you pay for each individual class. Prices can go up to a couple hundred dollars but Udemy has sales all the time where you can buy just about any class for a lot less. Usually $10 – $13.
Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning have an “all you can eat” approach where you pay a monthly or annual fee and then you have access to all the courses.
I have not taken instructional design courses specifically on these platforms but I have taken/purchased several other types of classes like various software courses and some related to blogging, for example.
The quality varies but you are able to preview courses on Udemy before you buy. With Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning, you already have access to everything if you got the subscription so if you don’t like a course you’ve started, you can move on.
If cost is an issue, be sure to check out your local library’s website. Many libraries offer LinkedIn Learning access for FREE! Here is an example from a library near me: https://www.hcpl.net/services/digital-media
All you need is your library card and you are able to access all of the courses at NO COST. Pretty sweet!
7. Build a Mock Portfolio
Nowadays, it’s pretty much expected that you have some kind of a portfolio when you apply for instructional design jobs. (For more information on portfolios, see my Ultimate Guide to Getting a Learning and Development Job)
This being the case, you might as well start creating some things that you can use for it. You don’t have to get all fancy. Just start creating some assets that could be used in a portfolio.
Examples could include a PowerPoint presentation for an instructor-led course, a needs analysis worksheet, an e-learning course built in Adobe Captivate or a short explainer video built in Vyond.
If you need inspiration, go look at some job postings to see what employers are looking for. Then, get a free trial of a software you want to learn and build something. (Speaking of free software, check out my How to Get Adobe Captivate for Free article)
Worst case, if something doesn’t turn out good enough to use, at least you’ve built up your experience. As you get better, though, you will probably end up with at least a few things you can use in an actual portfolio. If you’ve also been creating things at your job or a place you volunteer at, you can use those too.
8. Certificate Programs
If you are looking for a little more formal option to get some experience, there are several certificate programs available through various organizations.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when looking at certificate programs.
First, is it from a reputable source? If I were looking for a certificate program, I’d start with some known entities.
ATD, for example, has an Instructional Design Certificate. Most hiring managers in a training or learning department will know who ATD is so when you list that certificate on your resume’, they will recognize it.
Similarly, many colleges and universities offer certificate programs in instructional design. Seeing a certificate from a higher education institute can also resonate well with an employer.
I’ve also seen different individuals and businesses offer up their own certificate programs for instructional designers.
I don’t necessarily have anything against these. I think many of them probably have some really good information that would be helpful. I would just make sure to research them and make sure they are going to meet your needs.
If your main goal is to get some specific knowledge or learn a specific skill and they can do that with their program, great. If you are expecting their certificate to be instantly recognizable on your resume, I’d maybe rethink that aspect. I wouldn’t assume that employers know all about “Bob’s ID School”. Not to say Bob’s program isn’t a good one. Just that it may or may not be the resume’ gold you think it is (or that they say it is).
9. Degree Programs
If you want to go the really formal route, there are degrees you can get in Instructional Design. Do you need a specific degree to get an instructional design job? No, not usually. Can they help? Sure.
I talk more about degrees in Do You Need a Masters Degree to be an Instructional Designer?
Personally, I got a Bachelor’s in Advertising when I graduated from college. And then proceeded to never work in Advertising.
Point being, I’ve had many instructional design jobs and my degree was never an issue. A lot of ID jobs do like to see a college degree of some sort but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in Instructional Design.
Later in my career, I got a Masters Degree in Educational Technology (which had a heavy emphasis on instructional design). This was a personal choice, though, and was not required by my employer. I noticed, though, that when I started applying to more Senior level positions, they listed Masters degree as either a requirement or a preference. That is something to keep in mind for future but I wouldn’t worry about it at this point.
If you have the desire, time and means to get a degree, there are definite benefits. You get a really good foundation and you will likely have several pieces you could use in a portfolio. I also think it could give you the edge against another candidate who has a more general degree, all other things being equal.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways for you to gain experience with instructional design. If you think instructional design is the right career path for you then I would definitely encourage you to start taking steps toward getting more experience.
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