Career Spotlight: How to Become and Elearning Developer

If you like working with technology to create learning experiences then e-learning development might be just the thing you are looking for.  In this article, I’ll give you a real world view on how to become an E-learning Developer based on my many years of experience.

For information on a variety of learning and development roles, check out I Want To Be in L&D: Getting Started in Learning and Development

What is an E-Learning Developer?

In the strictest sense, an e-learning developer (or e-learning designer, or e-learning specialist) focuses on the creation of e-learning using a variety of software tools.  They may also be responsible for the instructional design, but not necessarily.  There are companies and projects where the e-learning developer is only doing that – the building/creating of the e-learning.  i.e. someone else (an instructional designer) creates the outline, objectives, storyboards, etc… and then hands that over to the e-learning developer who then builds it in whatever tool.

I think it’s important to understand that being an e-learning developer isn’t necessarily the same as being an instructional designer.  I mention this because I see people posting about wanting to get into “instructional design” when what they really want to do is focus on e-learning and building courses in something like Storyline or Captivate.  There is nothing wrong with that (wanting to build and create in these and other software products).  To be honest, my favorite part of an e-learning project is getting into the software and creating.  So, if that is what you truly want to focus on and not worry about all of the pesky up front analysis stuff that an instructional designer does, then I’d be looking more at “e-learning developer” type jobs.

Having said that, my personal experience has been that I have had to do both the instructional design and the e-learning development when creating e-learning, even when my title wasn’t specifically “Instructional Designer”.  As I mentioned in my ID Spotlight article, it gets really confusing as to what roles are responsible for what as there is a lot of cross over depending on where you work.  These articles are a good starting place to figure out the kind of work you want to do.  And then, rather than getting hung up on a particular job title, look at the job descriptions as you search and use that as your guide for whether or not you want to apply for that job.

What does an E-Learning Developer do?

As I mentioned above, the main task you would expect as an E-learning Developer is to develop the e-learning.  But what does that look like?  And, what do we mean by “e-learning”?  Most of the time, when people in the corporate world refer to “e-learning” they are referring to a course built in e-learning authoring software such as Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline or Lectora or iSpring or whatever other e-learning tool that company has.  I would also include things like “M-learning” (e-learning created for mobile devices), micro-learning (usually short, just in time videos) and learning podcasts.  And that’s just a few.  As you begin to look at various job postings, you’ll see other examples of what companies may expect from their e-learning developer.  Those are some of the most common types, though.

Instructional Design – “Hey, you just said an e-learning developer isn’t an instructional designer.  What gives?”  Yes, and I also said that oftentimes you do work on the instructional design.  When I held the title of “E-learning Specialist” I was a one person shop for my company’s e-learning.  I did all of the instructional design activities leading up to the building of the course and then I built it.  Now, as I said, there are positions where you don’t have to worry about the instructional design.  You just have to build the course from someone else’s design.  Actually, I did get to do that one time.  We hired a consultant to do the instructional design for a course that was on a specific topic (Labor Unions) which was this consultant’s expertise.  So, I was given an outline/storyboard and then I just had to build it in Captivate.  It was kind of a nice break but at the end of the day I actually prefer to do both.  For me, the instructional design work helps me to connect to the course better.  I also have more of a feeling of ownership.  I do understand the appeal of just jumping in and creating, though, vs. all of the up front analysis first.

Create in “E-Learning” Software – The two most popular brands of “e-learning” (I put it in quotes because, as I mentioned, e-learning encompasses more than just online courses) software are Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate.  Depending on who you follow, you may get the impression that one or the other is the only one to use and the other one stinks.  In my opinion, both are solid products and I enjoy working in either one.   I think Storyline is easier to jump into and has a more active community.  Captivate was the first e-learning authoring tool I learned so it holds a special place for me.  It also integrates really nicely with other Adobe products like Photoshop so that’s a plus if your company has some of those other products.  I should also mention that these aren’t the only two out there.  A couple of others I’ve used are Lectora (very briefly) and iSpring.  I didn’t use Lectora enough to form an opinion about it.  iSpring is a PowerPoint add in and I liked it because of how easy it was to get going with.  It was also an easy one to teach other people in the company who needed to create “e-learning” but whose primary jobs were not the creation of e-learning.

If you are worried about which one you should learn first, don’t be.  Most have free trial versions so you can check them out and see which one appeals to you.  Or, if you know the jobs you are interested in are looking for experience with one over the other then use that as your guide.  From what I’ve seen, a lot of the job postings mention more than one so you should be ok with whichever one you ultimately go with initially.

As a side note, the first real “e-learning” job I applied for (which was actually a hybrid role that included training facilitation as well) had a requirement of using Captivate.  I had never touched Captivate prior to interviewing there and I told them that.   I downloaded the trial version and learned just enough to be able to produce a mini lesson that I threw the company’s logo into.  When they called me in for the second interview I showed them  that and guess what?  I got the job and stayed there for nine years.  I tell you that because it can be overwhelming and intimidating when you look at all the requirements sometimes.  But, remember, at the end of the day, they are hiring YOU.  Let your personality shine and if they like you enough, they aren’t going to worry as much if you aren’t the preeminent expert in one of the job requirements.

Audio/Video Editing – When you begin creating your e-learning, more than likely, you will want to include some multimedia elements such as video or audio.  As such, you will probably be doing a good bit of video and audio editing either within the e-learning software or with something else.  Or, outside of the e-learning course, you might be creating mini videos or audio podcasts that will be their own learning assets.  Some popular choices for audio editing are Audacity (free) and Adobe Audition (NOT free).

For video editing, Camtasia and Adobe Premiere Pro are pretty common. Some others you may work in for creating short whiteboard style explainer videos are Videoscribe and Vyond.  I haven’t used Vyond yet myself but I notice it a lot lately in job postings.  I have used Videoscribe and it is easy and fun to use.

Graphic Design – Another aspect of building an e-learning course is the visual design.  Unless you’re going to just have a bunch of text on screen after screen (in which case, this really isn’t the role for you) you’re going to need some graphics.  There are a lot of resources where you can find various graphics and pictures to use in your e-learning.  Sometimes, though, you may need to modify them or create your own.  That’s why it’s good to have some familiarity with graphic design and graphic design tools like Photoshop or Illustrator.  You don’t need to be an expert in these.  Most of the time, I’m able to find what I want/need using the built in resources within the e-learning software or from various image and graphic sites.  Every once in awhile, though, I do find it necessary to make some kind of custom edit which is where a Photoshop or Illustrator can be very helpful.  And truth be told, a lot of the time I will do the edits in PowerPoint if it’s something simple like a crop or adding transparency or something like that.

Project Management – Unless your department has a separate person to handle this, you will most likely be the project manager for any e-learning project you are working on.  That means setting up any interviews that need to occur, setting a timeline for the project, communicating to the stakeholders, etc…  As a right brained, big picture thinking, creative type, this is probably the most challenging aspect for me.  You have to stay organized and you have to stay on top of the other people on the project.  For example, the subject matter experts who might be helping you with content.  They are likely busy people who don’t necessarily prioritize the training at the same level as you.  Sometimes it feels like they are ignoring you or that they don’t care.  That may or may not be true but most of the time it’s just because they are very busy just like you.  At any rate, you’ll have to manage them as well as the overall project.

LMS Administration – This is my LEAST favorite part of e-learning.  It is a necessary evil, though.  Once you build your e-learning, it’s gotta live somewhere and that somewhere is usually a Learning Management System (LMS).  Why do I have such disdain for LMS’s?  I find them to be mostly cumbersome and user unfriendly.  Even if they LOOK user friendly on the front end, if you work with them long enough, you’ll discover it’s all a scam.  Yeah, I’ve been burned many a time by LMS’s.

Forgive the rant.  You may or may not be heavily involved in the actual administration of the LMS.  You may only have to upload your course to it. Or, if you’re lucky, you won’t have to deal with it at all.  Maybe there is a dedicated LMS Administrator and all you have to do is send the files to them. At the very least, though, you will need to know how to publish to an LMS and you will need to go in and test within the LMS to make sure everything works as planned.  You’ll also need to learn about SCORM, AICC and  xAPI which are all different standards that your course can be published for.

 

What skills/qualities Do You need?

Creative – Just like instructional design, e-learning development is a very creative role.  As technology gets better and easier to use, the creative possibilities continue to improve for people developing e-learning.  With each course or learning asset, you will most likely be doing a wide variety of creative activities including writing, graphic selection/design, audio editing and video editing.  I would venture to guess this is why most of us wanted to get into it in the first place.  It is very gratifying to see your vision come to life from storyboard to the final version.  It almost makes it worth dealing with the LMS!

Tech Savvy – If you’re the person who says “I’m TERRIBLE with computers!” this probably ain’t the gig for you.  You are going to be working on a computer every day using a variety of software.  Most likely, you will  be working with e-learning software such as the aforementioned Adobe Captivate and Articulate Storyline.  Most companies I’ve worked for have also had the Adobe creative suite of software (e.g. Photoshop, Illustrator, Audition, etc…) so you might be working in some of those too.  On top of that, there are always new trends in learning that you will want to stay on top of.  Mobile learning, for example, is a hot topic.  So are VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality).  You don’t have to be an expert in everything so don’t worry about that.  Also, your company may not be ready for the most cutting edge stuff yet.  You should still stay current, though, with what’s going on in the industry.

Oh, and did I mention the LMS (Learning Management System)? You will need to get very familiar with whichever one your company uses.  There is always testing and troubleshooting that has to be done every time you launch something.  This will vary depending on where you work but when I was heavily e-learning focused I also ended up being the “go to” person for the LMS.  Sometimes it felt like I spent more time troubleshooting LMS issues for other people than I did creating things for my own projects. Don’t let my negativity toward LMS’s scare you.  It’s not that bad.  I just got a little burnt out on them after awhile.  Even if it isn’t the most fun part of the job, it is still a very valuable skill to know your way around an LMS.

Project Manager – I mentioned project management earlier.  In my experience with both small, non-profit companies as well as huge Fortune 10 companies that I’ve worked for, there is a strong project management element with being an e-learning designer/developer.  Every project will have different components and people to keep track of and you will most likely be responsible for that.

 

How much does an e-learning Developer make?

It’s a couple of years old but a salary report from what used to be the “Elearning Guild” (now just Learning Guild)  showed the average salary as around $79k.  That first e-learning job I mentioned (which was actually a hybrid) was right around that.  Bear in mind, though, I had a good 10 years of overall Learning and Development experience prior to that job so I wouldn’t expect that in an entry level position.  With some time and experience though, you could definitely be making that $80k and more.  Of course, there are many other factors to consider like the industry you are in and where you are located.

 

How do i get started?

Degree and Certificate Programs

One way to get started is through a degree or certification program.  There are quite a few out there and I think this can be a great way to get started with e-learning design and development.  You get the fundamentals while also (typically) working on projects and getting exposure to the different types of tools and software you would use as an e-learning developer.

When I began to realize that I wanted to be more focused on instructional design and e-learning, I opted to get a Masters in Educational Technology. My company had a tuition reimbursement program so I took advantage of that.  The reimbursement was only $2500 a year so I had to do a good bit of research to find a program that was both quality and affordable.  I ended up finding an online program through the University of Texas, Brownsville (now University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley).  Since I live in Texas, I was eligible for an in state scholarship that gave me three free credit hours each semester which helped too.  I think, out of pocket, I maybe paid $400 or so total.  That ain’t too bad! I really liked the program.  It covered instructional design fundamentals as well as the EdTech stuff.  I found it to be a very good balance.

Depending on your situation, going back to school may not be feasible or desirable for you.  Many of the colleges also offer certifications.  That may be a better option for some.  You can still get some focused experience but without the time/cost involved with a degree. The Elearning Certificate from UTRGV, for example, only requires you to take four classes for a total of 12 credit hours.

For more info about getting a Masters Degree, check out Do You Need a Masters Degree to be an Instructional Designer?

On the Job Experience

If you’ve read some of my other articles (you HAVE read some of my other articles…haven’t you???) then you know I am a big proponent of getting experience where you already work.  The reason is because IT WORKS!  That is how I initially got experience and was able to build a very successful 20+ year career.

If you are already in some sort of a training role, getting experience with e-learning is pretty easy.  Since it is something that is more and more in demand, there should be plenty of opportunities within any training department to get involved.  Even if you are just reviewing content that someone else is building, it can be a good way to start getting your feet wet.

What if you aren’t in a full time training role?  Can you still build up experience?  Of course!  I don’t have any official stats but I can tell you anecdotally that LOTS of people who are full time e-learning developers didn’t start out that way.  They may not have even known what an e-learning developer was.  They were in whatever job they were in (Nurse, Accountant, Financial Advisor, Sales…) and got asked to help with training.  When I developed e-learning for a hospital system, that is how many of the Nurse Educators there got started with e-learning.  They wanted to have some of their lessons and tests available online so they ended up building various e-learning courses using iSpring.

If you haven’t been asked to help with training yet, don’t worry.  That’s where a little initiative comes in.  No matter where you work, there is something that people need help with.  I’d start within my department and think about what you may have heard your boss say they wish people knew how to do.  Or you can ask your boss.  Once you do that little informal needs analysis, offer to create something.  Let’s say you work in a call center and the department uses software to record and track the calls that come in.  Maybe people aren’t consistently using the software the right way.  That’s where you come in.  Maybe you create a quick video that you distribute to the team.  Or a short self-paced course you build in whatever e-learning authoring software your company uses. You probably have a good idea of what will be the most effective method for your team and if not, you can talk to your boss.  Whatever you end up creating, you now have experience that you can put on your resume’.  Will that one thing get you an e-learning job?  Probably not, but it’s a start.  And the more of these types of opportunities you explore, the more experience you will gain.

Off” the Job Experience

In addition to gaining experience at work, you can build things outside of work too.  One of the things you will need to have when you apply for e-learning jobs is a portfolio with samples of your work.  Up until recently, all my work samples were files on my computer or printed examples that I only shared in interviews.  I think that can still work depending on the employer.  What I am seeing more and more, though, are employers wanting to see that stuff even before the interview.  In those cases, you may be expected to provide a link to a website or some other place where you have stored your examples.

What examples, you might be wondering? Where am I going to get examples when I’m not an e-learning developer yet?  Good question!  You might have some examples if you took my advice for voluntarily creating some things at work. Another consideration, though, is to create some samples outside of work.  There are a couple of approaches you can take for creating samples outside of work.  You can create something just for fun on any topic which showcases your skill.  Another idea is to volunteer to create something for your favorite non-profit or charitable organization.

The kinds of samples you create will depend on what kind of work you want to do.  If you are interested in creating e-learning courses, for example, you would definitely want to get yourself up to speed with at least one of the big e-learning authoring tools. You might also want to show off your video creation skills by including an explainer video. Regardless of what you end up creating, you’ll kill two birds with one stone.  You will be honing your ID skills while also building up your portfolio.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of what to expect and how to get into elearning development. It’s a great field with a lot of growth.  Good luck!

Resources

Books

The eLearning Designer’s Handbook by Tim Slade
The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (no, not THAT Robin Williams…)

Websites and Articles

Learning Guild
Adobe E-learning Community
Articulate E-learning Community
Rapid E-learning Blog

 

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