What should you look for in an online master's program in instructional design? Here are five critical features that will help prepare you for a career in this dynamic field.

Are you a reading coach in an elementary school who would like to help students district-wide be successful?

Maybe you're a service member getting ready to transition to civilian life and you want to leverage the training skills you acquired during your military career.

Or perhaps you've been a corporate trainer and would like to take your career to the next level.

The field of instructional design is a great choice, a career path ripe with opportunity.

But instructional design has evolved tremendously in recent years and continues to grow. How do you prepare for a career in a field that expands and changes so rapidly – particularly if you already have a bachelor's degree in another discipline?

What should you look for in an online master's program in instructional design?

A program that provides a competitive edge

Assistant Professor Dr. Keya Mukherjee is the program administrator for Saint Leo University's online master's degree program in instructional design (MSID). She helped develop the online MSID program more than eight years ago and leads efforts to keep it current with changing technology and market needs.

"Just as the field of instructional design continues to evolve, so must any college degree program in instructional design keep pace with changes in the industry," she says. "Only by continually fine-tuning the curriculum – redesigning current courses and adding new electives – can a program equip students with in-demand skills and knowledge for successful careers."

Here are five elements Dr. Mukherjee says are critical for a quality instructional design master's program.

1.  Adheres to rigorous industry-proven standards

In 2013, Saint Leo made one of the most important changes to its MSID program when it adopted newly revised standards set forth by the International Board for Training, Performance and Instruction (IBSTPI). IBSTPI was established in 1977 and has been developing and promoting rigorous international standards for course content that have been used to guide the practices of instructional designers for more than three decades.

"IBSTPI's standards are the result of a rigorous research process, development, international validation and publication," says Dr. Mukherjee. "Adopting IBSTPI standards enables a program to structure courses around a set of specific competencies and skills. It also assures hiring managers that graduates have the skills and knowledge needed for success."

2.  Provides an international perspective

Instructional designers work in a wide variety of fields – corporations, non-profits, government, higher education and the military. And in today's global economy that work could be for organizations located just about anywhere in the world. Look for a degree program that adheres to IBSTPI standards and includes both national and international perspectives. It will better prepare you for global career opportunities and increase your marketability on a global scale.

3.  Balances theoretical knowledge with practical skill development

Instructional designers are practitioners who must also understand pedagogy and learning theories. Courses need to balance theory and hands-on learning. Does the program focus on the development of knowledge in instructional strategies, learning theory, and project management, as well as provide opportunities to connect the classroom to real-world applications? It should include activities such as analyzing case studies, building prototypes, performing simulations, conducting interviews and gathering data.

4.  Enables you to start building a portfolio

Employers want to know if you can apply your knowledge in the real world. A robust portfolio showcasing your work can make a strong case in your favor. Look for a program that enables you to progress through a sequence of courses that build a strong knowledge base and also gives you opportunities to practice learned skills and prepares you to become a well-rounded instructional designer.

For example, at Saint Leo, students begin working on their portfolios through project-based assignments from day one. In addition, the final course in the program provides an opportunity for students to work pro-bono on real-world business projects as an ID specialist with a non-profit organization.

5.  Offers opportunities for meaningful connections

Look for an online program that offers a student-center environment – one that builds community within the online classroom by providing opportunities for close interaction among students and among students and faculty. Instructional designers must know how to connect with their audience, as well as work creatively with subject matter experts and team members. A program that encourages collaboration provides opportunities to develop leadership and team-building skills.

Focus on your goals

Above all else, when looking for a master's program in instructional design, Dr. Mukherjee says students should have clearly defined career goals.

"You really need to know what industry you would like to work in and, ideally, the type of work you would like to do."

For example, is your ideal job to teach, develop curriculum or design courses? Some programs are more practical and hands-on and others take a theory-based approach.

Discuss your goals with the program's enrollment counselor. Ask specific questions about courses and the type of design theory the program teaches. Look at the syllabus.

"Above all, do some research and careful reflection first," says Dr. Mukherjee. "That will make it easier to know if the program is the right fit for you.

Would you like more information on Saint Leo's master's program in instructional design?

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