August 3, 2022

A starter kit for instructional designers

A 2016 report funded by the Gates Foundation found that in the United States alone there are 13,000 instructional designers. Yet when I graduated from university in 2008, I had no idea this field existed. Many things have certainly changed!

Instructional design is experiencing a renaissance. As online course platforms proliferate, institutions of all shapes and sizes realize that they will need to translate content into digital forms. Designing e-learning experiences is key to training employees, engaging customers, serving students, creating marketing channels, and supporting business models.

The field has deep roots in distance education, human-computer interaction, and visual design. But I’ve come to believe that contemporary instructional design sits at the intersection of three core disciplines: science learning, human-centered design, and digital marketing. This requires a deep respect for pedagogical practices that teachers have honed over decades, balanced with mastering today’s digital tools.

Most people with a job title of “Instructional Design” are involved in converting a “traditional” written program or in-person instruction to an online course. But they can also create learning apps, museum exhibits, or the latest educational toy. My classmates from Stanford’s Learning Design and Technology master’s program went on to work for big brands like Airbnb and Google, as well as edtech startups like African Leadership University, General Assembly, Osmo, and Udacity.

Over the past few years, we’ve exchanged resources, articles, and work samples as we try to create our own starter kit for this rapidly evolving field. Below are some of the lessons and resources I wish I had known when entering the workforce – a combination of the academic texts you read in school with practical tools that have been essential to the practice of instructional design in the real world. It’s not a complete or evergreen list, but I hope it’s a useful start.

Lesson 1: Start with a deep understanding of your learners.

No matter what kind of learning experience you’re building, it’s always a good idea to start getting to know the people you’re designing for. To conduct learner research, it is useful to combine the practices of design thinking with those of participatory research or teacher action research that educators have been practicing for many years.

I usually start by developing an empathy guide like the one put together by the Stanford or by reviewing Giff Constable’s free book, “Talking to Humans” to structure productive conversations. After conducting observations and interviews with target learners, I synthesize my findings into learner archetypes.

Then, I test instructional concepts and product ideas by building rough prototypes that I submit to learners for quick feedback. The has a great prototyping dashboard that you can use to organize what-if. If you’re looking for a crash course in the whole process of design thinking, you can check out the free course offered by or the free resources from IDEO’s Teachers Guild.

Lesson 2: Ground yourself in the fundamentals of science learning.

Teachers have spent decades learning how to reliably help students master new skills, debunk misconceptions, and connect their prior knowledge with new concepts. To be a good instructional designer, you need to immerse yourself in learning and teaching research. The best and most digestible books I have found are “The ABCS of How We Learn”, a 2016 book by Daniel Schwartz and “How People Learn”, the seminal 1999 text edited by John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking. If you’re specifically looking for a crash course in digital education, recordings of Stanford’s lecture series on the digital future of education are all available free online.

Lesson 3: Determine the “powerful ideas” you want to teach and build your program using backwards design.

To take education technology seriously, you need to read Seymour Papert. His “Mindstorms: Children, Computer and Powerful Ideas” is a classic that’s key to helping you realize that all of the ideas about edtech that we think are so novel have actually been brainstormed for decades. Pay particular attention to his chapter on “Powerful Ideas” where he describes how critical it is to find the enduring and transformative concepts you want to teach and put them at the forefront of your design approach.

Once you have read Papert, use the Understanding By Design framework to structure your program. This approach helps you clarify your target outcomes and how you will collect “evidence of learning”. This curriculum design approach is used by teachers who work in traditional classrooms, but holds up just as well in the digital realm.

Lesson 4: Go study other great teachers and other great learning experiences.

Before you become too indebted to the particular characteristics (or limitations) of a technology platform, try to think bigger and more creatively about how you can meet the needs of your learners. One of the best ways to do this is to seek inspiration from other learning designers. For example, look at Airbnb’s host training examples. Watch the altMBA program that Seth Godin runs with Slack. Watch how Angela Duckworth delivers messages to the camera. Discover the beautiful animations produced by Amnesty International or the interactive lessons produced on Oppia. And look at examples of tangible rather than screen-based technologies that have been produced by groups like Paulo Blikstein’s Transformative Learning Technologies Lab.

Rather than limiting yourself to looking at educational resources produced by schools or universities, find examples of educational materials from other sectors to give you ideas. The field is so new that there are no definitive ways to do it “correctly” and there are many approaches worth learning.

Lesson 5. Get insight into the technology landscape, but don’t let your LMS hold you hostage.

If you’re an instructional designer specializing in online courses, you should familiarize yourself with your platform’s options and be prepared to talk about the pros and cons of each. Start with the “big four” most people have heard of: Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, and EdX. Check out the list of global MOOC platforms curated by Class Central, but realize that there are entirely different ecosystems of platforms specializing in corporate training or adaptive learning. Then also read some critical viewpoints from Digital Pedagogy Lab or MIT Media Lab.

No current online education platform is perfect, but focus on being able to talk about the distinctions between them and make a recommendation based on learning goals. You don’t need to master all the options, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for the main players. Perhaps most importantly, design content and learning experiences that are “platform independent”, meaning you can easily transport them to another platform. Finally, check out the blogs of e-learning pioneers like Connie Malmud who have been chronicling the field for many years and who have helpfully compiled a glossary of common terms.

Lesson 6. Don’t try to migrate an in-person experience to an online format.

One of the biggest mistakes newcomers to instructional design make is trying to replicate or simply migrate an offline experience to an online platform. Instead, the best approach is to think about what technology can uniquely do, and then design your experience to take advantage of those possibilities. Allan Collins and Richard Halverson’s book, “Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology,” is a useful starting point, along with insights and research from Mitch Resnick and the late Edith Ackermann of the MIT Media Lab. .

Lesson 7: If you build it, they won’t come. Understand the fundamentals of digital marketing.

People won’t automatically show up for your online class unless you work for a big institution like Y Combinator or Harvard University. As online courses have proliferated, the student market has also fragmented. To be an effective instructional designer, you also need to know the basics of digital marketing and know how to write compelling copy to get someone to click, sign up, and stick with your course.

A helpful article on strategies to boost online course enrollment and sales has been produced by the founders of Groove. Udemy has also created a great toolkit to help online course instructors market their learning experience. These strategies may seem distasteful to people whose primary focus is learning outcomes, but the reality is that if you don’t attract the right student population to your courses (even if they’re free), your whole hard work and your instructional design is questionable.

Lesson 8: Collect student feedback. Repeat. Share what you learned.

Finally, perhaps one of the most important lessons is to get out from behind your computer and meet the learners who are taking your courses, apps, or experiments. Arrange Skype calls to interview them. Look through the comments they submit on polls.

Some of their contributions will inevitably sting, especially when you’ve spent months creating a course and someone only watches two videos before leaving a scathing review. But listen to the underlying pain points. Carefully synthesize your feedback and make changes, but avoid designing in committee. Finally, share your data, lessons, and failures with the wider learning design community when possible.

The field is changing rapidly but still has a lot to understand. The more creative pioneers we have pushing the boundaries of designing compelling and thoughtful learning experiences in new formats, the better.