Instructional Design Means Advocating for Learners

People often ask me what an instructional designer is. And, because instructional design is a weirdly broad, eclectic, applied field, it’s often hard to figure out what to say. How is an instructional designer different from a teacher, different from a tutor, different from a subject matter expert (SME)? I’ve started thinking of it this way:

Instructional designers are there to advocate for the learners, always.

When there’s a conflict between the needs of the learners and the needs of the content, our job is to find a way to make sure the learners get what they need. It’s the domain of the SMEs to decide which topics matter and what’s on the table for content, but then it’s our job to fight for the learners, using all we know about memory and cognition, instructional strategies and technology. We need to make sure that it’s possible for actual humans to take in, assimilate, and use all the information and experiences we’re providing.

It’s our job to fight against adding one more module to the lecture, to always place ourselves in the learners’ shoes. To find ways of helping them learn the content, not just “get through it” or “cover it”. To propose ideas for different teaching strategies, to suggest ways of using technology and multimedia to assist with high cognitive-load topics, to ask “how can we make this better?”.

We’re there to build bridges between subject matter experts and learners, and to make sure the bridges are wide and strong enough for the learners to safely walk.

We’re the ones who are supposed to notice what’s unclear, to see which topics clash and are likely to cause cognitive interference, to notice the assumptions underpinning instruction, and to patch the holes. It’s our job to find assessment and evaluation strategies that check what learners can actually do and that provide honest measures—and, in doing so, encourage people to really learn.

We share many of these jobs with other professionals. But I think the relentless focus on the learners is a primary thing that defines good instructional design. Unlike teachers, we aren’t usually delivering instruction directly; we’re navigators, making sure the ship is pointed the right way.

We’re experts in how people learn. We may not know the subject area, but we know learners—and like the Lorax who speaks for the trees, it’s our duty to speak for the learners. 

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