A teacher for more than 20 years, Debra Cahl understands the learning process and the importance of creating ways to actively engage students. Her experiences also further define what is instructional design.

"I'm a hands-on type of teacher, so I always take a more creative approach to delivering my lessons, never just in a classroom at a desk via lecture," she says. "Students need to experience learning to be successful."

Now a graduate enrollment counselor at Saint Leo University, Debra started her career teaching dance to middle school and high school students. Over time, she taught a variety of subjects at both the secondary and college levels. She earned a master of education degree specializing in curriculum and instruction and served as an administrator and school principal.

Currently Debra is enrolled in a doctoral program in curriculum and instruction, and she has just completed the online graduate certificate in instructional design through Saint Leo.

It's a natural fit, since one of the programs she counsels prospective students about is the online master's in instructional design program.

Here are some of Debra's answers to commonly asked questions about the field of instructional design.

What is instructional design?

Debra: Most people think that instructional design is solely the development of instructional materials and learning activities. It's also becoming synonymous with online learning. But it's really so much broader than that.

Instructional design is a career field, but it's also a process. It's a systematic approach used to design and implement instruction to resolve potential learning gaps for a better learning outcome.

And while instructional designers develop courses, manuals, lessons and presentations that employ the latest technologies, the focus is always the learner and what he or she needs in order to learn.

What do instructional designers do?

Debra: Instructional designers solve problems. They can work individually or within a team. They develop instructional experiences so that learners – whether they're adults in a corporate training course, military personnel, or middle schoolers taking an online math class – can be successful. Instructional designers work to improve understanding and learning outcomes, sometimes by filling learning gaps.

What do you mean by learning gaps?

Debra: In education, a learning gap is the disparity between what a student knows and what he or she is expected to know. In other settings, like corporations or government, it's a business problem that could be resolved or an organizational issue that may need to be addressed through training or learning.

What's the instructional design process like?

Debra: First, instructional designers assess curriculum needs. They analyze those needs and determine if the goals can even be met by training.

If training is the answer, then the instructional designer identifies the strategies, the tools and techniques – the content, resources and activities such as job aids, case studies or simulation exercises – to improve learning outcomes for the learner.

Planning is really important. Those tools need to improve the information that needs to be learned, provide clarity, and be meaningful while keeping the learner engaged and focused. This is where the latest technology and research into how the brain learns and, perhaps, adult learning theory, apply.

Instructional designers then implement the solution, and conduct formative and summative evaluations to make sure it works and revise it when necessary.

What are some common misconceptions about instructional design?

Debra: Good question. To really understand what instructional design is, it's just as important to know what it is not.

Instructional design is not computer science. It's not programming or coding. It's not one of the arts such as graphic design. Furthermore, a degree in instructional design is not an education degree like elementary or secondary education.

It's the systematic design of instruction – regardless of setting – that incorporates a wide skill set. These skills include knowledge about learning theories, the tools needed to develop educational media, the ability to assess learning outcomes, and more.

Why is instructional design a booming field?

Debra: In K-12 education, there's increasing emphasis on student assessment, evaluating teacher effectiveness and improving curriculums to meet state and federal mandates. Instructional designers have the skills to assist with those objectives.

In the corporate sector, with companies always looking for ways to trim budgets, gone are the days when flying employees around the country for training was the norm. Companies are relying more on online training for professional development and compliance and regulatory training.

And in higher education, online learning is at an all-time high with more and more colleges and universities offering online courses and online degree programs.

Clearly, there's a lot of opportunity in a wide variety of sectors and industries for qualified instructional designers.

Do you need to have a teaching background to be an instructional designer?

Debra: While it's not mandatory that you have a bachelor's degree in education, it is helpful to have experience as a teacher or trainer in either the military, corporate or education fields. Above all else, you must be passionate about learning!

Want to know more about instructional design and Saint Leo University's online master's program in instructional design? Contact Debra Cahl or Janelle LeMeur at 1-800-707-8846.

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