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What Is the Value of a Degree in Instructional Design?

By and

Mon Mar 28 2016


Whether you are thinking of adding a degree to your current instructional design skill set or learning a new skill set for a career change, the options for online training abound. One option is to obtain a formal degree, such as a master’s in instructional design (ID); another is to enter a certificate program. However, before investing in what may be a costly program, ask yourself if it would really provide the career and skill benefit you are looking for. This blog post will provide a little insight on the issue with advice from graduates and ID professionals. 

At first, the lead author, Vincent Glaeser Jr., considered using only his own experience as the focus for the post, because he’d just completed a master’s degree in instructional design and technology at California State University Fullerton. However, one of the most valuable things that the program taught him was to never make a claim without backing it up with research and to check data carefully before drawing any conclusions. Therefore, he called on various ID contacts to get their opinions on this issue. A more robust study group would have been ideal, but it was beyond the scope and timeframe allowed for preparing this post. Keeping that in mind, the informal conversations provided much-needed information, from a variety of perspectives, that was surprisingly contrary to Vincent’s expectations. 


The main assumption Vincent had was that the majority of professionals in the field received formal certificate training to become instructional designers. Since he had worked for 12 years in extended education specializing in certification preparation, this was a logical assumption, and such specialized programs do exist. But he was completely wrong. None of those people he spoke to entered the ID field in this way. Most fell into doing design work as an offshoot of their regular jobs, whether it was in training or teaching. It seemed that to them, the ID field is like a secret society: You don’t know it exists until you stumble upon it and find others who are happily doing it for a living. Indeed, when Vincent tried to research the field, he could find nothing substantial about it using the search term instructional design. This difficulty with nomenclature was reflected in an informal survey Vincent and co-author Barbara Glaeser conducted with ID personnel from a local university system. When ID professionals were asked to give their formal title, the answers were quite varied. In fact, one person thought that the most frequently used title, ID consultant, implied that they had in-depth ID skills, but in many cases these professionals did not, so the title was misleading.

So how did ID people enter the field? Those on the front lines, teachers or curriculum developers for children or adults, wanted to design learning and training more effectively. Those who were a step removed from the front lines, working at the school-district level or supporting formal corporate trainers, wanted to improve training tools for others to present. They all, however, had an interest in effectively disseminating knowledge to an audience. 

For them to obtain formal training, there were two options. One option would have been the aforementioned certificate programs. It would have been quicker and cheaper to do this, but the programs may have addressed only the mechanics of using specific software, which is not uncommon at that level. Perhaps there are people who have taken this approach, or companies that have supported this approach for employees designated to advance into these roles, but that was not the experience of those interviewed. 

Vincent’s master’s degree program had a heavy emphasis on the theoretical basis of learning, specifically adult learning. The program was designed to do much more than just teach software skills. It taught multiple ways to address learning so that the appropriate method can be deployed in a wide variety of situations. That way the ID professional knows not only what to do, but also why. 

This focus on adults is appropriate because most training in this country is geared toward adults. Adults face a constant barrage of things they have to learn: licenses, certificates, job skills, household budgeting, taxes, child rearing, basic medical first aid knowledge, voting issues, retirement planning. At a higher level there are requirements for updating and maintaining licenses and certificates through continuing education, and choices to be made regarding career advancement or career change. And then there are the subjects we study voluntarily, such as arts and crafts, languages and culture, religious topics, and self-improvement. Even recreational reading can be thought of as learning. 


Vincent found a more pragmatic outlook among the interviewees. Each of them already held BA degrees in non-ID fields and had some skill with various software products that were used in their existing organizations. Money was generally not a motivating factor, since all except teachers reported little or no salary bump upon graduation. Teachers do move to a new column on the salary scale and so a master’s degree, in any subject, is financially motivating. But a good percentage reported that their primary motivation was that a master’s degree brings new and significant opportunities for advancement. 

According to those interviewed, an advanced degree gets you noticed and it gives you credibility. It provides you with a key you can use to open new doors. These doors lead, presumably, to various levels within management, although the degree alone is not sufficient to assure upward mobility. Experience, leadership skills, and performance on the job are also factors, but earning the degree is a precipitating event. Interviewees pointed out that a certain amount of experience was still necessary for advancement, but the acquisition of an advanced degree shortened the minimum time required. 

Even in the absence of an immediate reward, no one reported regret for the time and effort spent to acquire this knowledge. For those involved in training functions, even this minimal, intangible benefit is food for thought.

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