Is there a future for instructional designers?
Is there a future for instructional designers?

I hope all readers of this blog in the northern hemisphere had a good break and are looking forward to a new academic year. Your focus is going to be in getting down to work on reasonably well defined tasks, such as course design, or studying for a higher degree.

Building a career

Among you though will be a few who are wondering about your longer-term future. I am frequently asked for advice about ‘next career moves’ by people working in, or wanting to work in, the field of online learning. Here are some of the questions I get asked:

  • Where are the best jobs in online learning?
  • What qualifications do I need?
  • What should my next job be after this one?
  • My position has been terminated – what should I do next?
  • How do I move into a senior management position where I can make strategic decisions about learning technology?

The answer to these questions are usually very specific. They depend on a person’s personality, qualifications, and experience. But there are also some general issues regarding a career in online learning, educational technology or instructional design that are worth discussing and which may help people to make appropriate decisions about their future.

There is no (long-term) future in being an online learning specialist

This may come as a surprise, because online learning is booming, and there is currently great demand for people with experience in online learning. However, it is a mistake to think the future will be like the past or even the present. In particular, it would be a mistake to think that online learning will be some esoteric branch of teaching and learning requiring specialism. What is happening is that, while the proportion of online learning compared to face-to-face teaching is increasing, and will vary according to context, online learning is becoming increasingly an integral part of teaching and learning. Thus, in the future, online learning will not be a separate activity, but one component within a wide range of decisions about teaching and learning.

A second reason is only just surfacing, but we have seen in recent weeks concern being expressed about the decreasing amount of resources being spent on faculty and instructors, and in turn a greater proportion of expenditure going into ‘administration’. Part of this concern is due to the growth of specialty learning technology units, which are usually staffed mainly by non-academic categories of staff, such as managers/directors, instructional designers, web designers, media specialists, student advisors, etc. Some of these units have over 60 staff and a budget of more than $10 million a year.

This is part of a much larger problem, which is the relatively low number of tenured faculty who spend increasingly smaller amounts of time teaching, and their replacement by short-term, contract or adjunct instructors. Neither type of instructors are trained or qualified as ‘teachers’ but as subject experts, which in turn has resulted in more and more non-academic support staff being hired to support them as more and more teaching moves online.

However, the dynamic of post-secondary institutions is such that this direction could and probably will change dramatically. In the future, we will need instructors who have the skills to decide when and how to use online learning as part of their jobs, and not see online learning as a specialty of someone else.

We are still a long way from that, and over the next few years there will still be demand for specialists in online learning, and there will always be a need for a much smaller number of specialists doing research and development on new technologies, but these will be relatively few in numbers. More importantly it would be a mistake to think that you can in future build a lifelong career just specialising in online learning. It will be just one of several ways of delivering teaching.

The lack of a career path

Ah, you may say, but even if online learning becomes an integral part of regular teaching, will there not still be a need for instructional designers, educational technologists and media specialists? Probably, but given that they will need to be funded from within the overall academic budget for teaching and learning, there is likely to be continuous pressure, especially from faculty, to keep the numbers of such supporting staff down. In particular, there is unlikely to be a clear career path for such support staff.

I had an enormous battle at one university to get a reclassification of instructional designers. Instructional designers did not fit into any of the HR classification systems. I wanted them classified as academic staff – because most had Ph.D.s and all had master degrees – and I wanted a career structure, so that there was an entry level (apprentice), a career level (the majority) and at least one senior level position, so that there was a chance of promotion and some opportunity for training and mentoring less experienced staff. I did not succeed in shifting the HR system which was, as so often, rigid and unyielding to changing conditions. The instructional designers remained categorised as general administrative staff, even though they were critical to the institution’s long term teaching and learning strategy (and are now being lumped in with all the other administrative costs that faculty are complaining about).

Perhaps of even greater concern is that it is extremely difficult for an instructional designer to end up as a senior manager making decisions about long-term strategies for the use of learning technologies in an institution. These positions – associate vice-presidents or deans responsible for teaching and learning – almost always go to mainline academics who may have no knowledge or experience in the use of learning technologies. The likelihood therefore of someone who is a specialist in digital learning technologies ending up as a university or college president is remote, although there are one or two exceptions.

What to do, then?

For the next five to ten years, there should be plenty of jobs for highly skilled instructional designers, but sooner rather than later institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology. It will be a core part of their work, and as a result the demand for specialist learning technology support will decrease. The main role then will be providing some of the initial training for post-secondary instructors.

People come to learning technologies through many routes. Some are teachers or instructors who have become interested in the the use of technology for teaching. Others are web designers or print editors who have drifted into education. Some are computer scientists who started as software developers. In the future though, most teachers and instructors will need to be experts in subject areas, pedagogy, and learning technologies. These will all be integral parts of their jobs. We need to train post-graduates from the start in these areas, and to provide a two or three year probation period where they are monitored and supervised by more experienced teachers and instructors.

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, one of my professors asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. ‘I want to do research in education’, I said, expecting him to be pleased that I was going to do a post-graduate degree. ‘You’d better get some experience then in teaching first’, he said. ‘Take a post-graduate certificate in education, and get three years teaching experience before even beginning to think of research.’ It was excellent advice. I would give the same advice to young students thinking of becoming learning technology specialists.

Get subject expertise and learn about pedagogy and learning technologies, then teach for a few years, then decide whether or not you want to specialise. For those already started on a learning technology or instructional design career, strengthen your subject matter expertise so you can move (back) into teaching if necessary, because that may well be the future.

Above all, stay flexible and continue to learn, adding new skills and knowledge as the field develops. Develop excellent inter-personal and communication skills; these will be as important in the future as subject expertise and specialist knowledge.

Over to you

Predicting the future is always hazardous. I could be totally wrong. So I would really like to hear from others as to what they think the future is for instructional designers, learning technology and online learning specialists. What advice would you give to someone starting out in these areas? Or to someone more experienced looking to their next steps in their career?



  1. Hi Tony! Very thought provoking if not “alarming” post for some of us 😉 I wonder what you think are the possibilities of such jobs outside of post-secondary education. Many other sectors are not adding online learning as part of their learning/training efforts. Will the changes you mention here apply to those sectors as well?
    Kind regards,

    • Thanks, Stella

      Sorry to cause alarm. It’s more likely to be a long-term rather than a short-term issue, and as Maynard Keynes said, in the long term we’re all dead.

      I think there will still be specialists in the corporate training market, because many companies outsource their training these days, so will be looking for contractors with specialist knowledge, but again the focus will be on training for productivity gains rather than just looking at online learning in isolation, although that may well end up as a major delivery component, because the cost benefits of online learning are much clearer in this sector.

      Outsourcing is also happening to some extent in the post-secondary sector, with institutions outsourcing elements of online learning to companies such as Pearson and Academic Partnerships, but again, these companies will increasingly need to focus on supporting teaching in general rather than just online learning if they are to keep their clients.

      The key strategic question is really institutional. How much is teaching and learning a core function of the institution and if it is, what’s the best way to ensure quality? I think most institutions will in the end answer yes, teaching is a core function, and thus we need to ensure our faculty and instructors have the necessary skills. However, not all institutions may feel they want to go through the very heavy expense of doing this themselves, so outsourcing faculty training and development might be seen as the most cost-effective solution. Either way, those doing the training will need a wide range of skill and expertise in teaching.

      • Thanks, Tony.
        I agree with your outsourcing perspective. I don’t see it as a bad thing either. I really don’t envision those who teach doing it all… You still want people who know the subject matter very well, and that is still their focus. At least when speaking to people who want to work in this field, I would not disregard the potential of working in the companies that do the outsourced work. At IDB, for example, which has a unit that is small, and is not a university and cannot count of graduate students for anything, we outsource many of the pieces. Instructional designers that are multilingual are in high demand; companies that produce educational videos, graphics, etc., are also essential. We conduct the entire ‘project management’ of the learning ‘products’. I see someone in this field really being helpful in the strategic plans as well, knowing what types of learning strategies should be used, how to mix-and-match them and re-use what has been built.

  2. Dr. Bates,

    Thank you for this post. I think many of us in distance education are preoccupied by what is coming next so that we can prepare ourselves adequately. I also think that your advice is spot on.

    As for potential career paths, I think that there are at least two career paths that may emerge in the next few years. One path is for quality assurance specialists, that can certify or recommend improvements to the content being created by those who are getting started in distance education. This will be important, as there are still many critics of the efficacy of e-learning. Another area, for lack of a better term, is ‘evergreeners’ for learning content. Much like the way custodians in wikipedia monitor the content in various articles and make additions or revisions to the content, I hope that a similar effort will be invested in maintaining distance education content so that it doesn’t go stale/past its expiry date. Now that I think of it, perhaps educational institutions could also spring for Accessibility experts so that all learners can benefit from the explosion of new educational material on the Internet.

    Thanks again for this post, and I’d also like to say thank you for publishing Teaching in a Digital Age, which I am slowly making my way through!


  3. “In the future though, most teachers and instructors will need to be experts in subject areas, pedagogy, and learning technologies””Institutions will be forced to ensure that their instructors are trained and qualified to teach effectively with technology”

    I think that these generalizations are what, in some ways, give me hope that learning technology specialists will exist far into the future, much longer than 5-10 years. Technology is such a broad term that it is impossible for an instructor to become an expert in all things learning technologies. Do we mean they need to know how to create instructional videos? Use an LMS? Design a class wiki? Make really nice PowerPoints? What exactly are learning technologies? Plus learning technology specialists specialize in certain technologies and have deep knowledge in those technologies. If an instructor has to learn how to teach using learning technologies on top of all their other educational needs, they likely will have breadth of knowledge, not depth, and if they do have depth, it will only be in certain technologies (unless they spend more time in graduate school than they already do). Either way, there will still be need of specialists to fill the knowledge gaps instructors have.

    Also, I don’t think that teachers learning how to use these technologies will make learning technology specialists obsolete, because there will always be a new learning technologies to be used. Even at the rate that online learning has changed over the past 5 years, it’s difficult for a teacher at a university to keep up with the latest on their subject area, pedagogy in their subject area, and technology, all while actually having to teach their classes, support their students, and if they have to, publish their own research. This is exactly why the specialists exist to begin with, instructors can’t learn it all. It’s because of this that, though yes, instructors will have to learn how to use the current generation of online learning technologies, learning technology specialists will continue to do their jobs in improving learning by working with instructors to use next generation learning technologies (think mobile learning, virtual reality learning, augmented reality classrooms, simulations, social learning environments, etc. and all of the iterations of these technologies that will be released by dozens of different companies).

    Just the hopeful thoughts of a learning technologist.

    • Thanks, Mark

      Yes, I think there will always be specialists. I did say that there will always be a need for those doing R&D, and looking at the new technologies coming in.

      The issue though is the number that will be needed. If instructors are well trained, then they will need ‘educational technologists’ and in particular instructional designers much less than they do now, and the job of specialists will be different from what it is now. So I think we are going two ways – to more ‘generalist’ instructors with a wider range of skills and knowledge than at present; and a much smaller number of highly specialised R&D educational technologists focused more on assessing new technologies than on providing broad advice such as course design.

      But I could be wrong of course!

  4. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Thought provoking as always! 🙂

    I have a question for you: How many of the teaching staff at your university (or other universities that you know of) have a teaching qualification? And/Or how many regularly participate in meaningful, practical professional development programmes focused on learning and teaching theory and practice?

    And what does this mean for higher-ed institutions?

    • Hi, Matt

      I don’t have reliable data on the questions you ask but talking to faculty development offices here in Canada I would say no tenured faculty and very few adjunct faculty have any pre-service formal qualifications in teaching. There are some exceptions such as some ex-teachers in Faculties of Education and health sciences faculty who have done continuing education programs, but these would constitute less than 5% of all faculty. In two year colleges the situation is somewhat different in that most newly hired instructors are expected to take the provincial instructor diploma (at least here in British Columbia).

      There has been some research done on those taking faculty development programs in North American universities. In general less than 10% take any faculty development program in any one year, and those that do are often already highly ranked as teachers.

      The issue here is that in universities, training in teaching is entirely voluntary, those that need it the most do not participate, and there is no clearly linked benefits or rewards for those that do try to take any form of formal training.

      Will this change? I think it will as funding agencies (government and students) increasingly start to use data on performance of graduates in terms of learning outcomes and after graduation incomes as a basis for future funding and enrolments. However the shift will be slow but nevertheless those institutions that start pushing more strongly for better qualified instructors, in teaching terms, are likely, at least eventually, to start winning the battle for enrolments and funding.

  5. Tony – A few comments, but first, I should mention that I am an instructional designer for a continuing education college in NH (UG, Master’s, Bost-Bacc) where >70% of our enrollment credits are online. My official title is Rich Media Specialist, which was an ID position created with the forethought that online teaching and learning will be something more than a forklifted set of hourlong lectures and online submission assignments.

    Having worked in TV commercial and broadcast post-production for about 20 years prior to my ID career, I am seeing an emerging pattern in higher education teaching that might follow in the same footsteps as post-production.

    For example, up until about 2002, post-production video editors used proprietary editing systems (both mechanical and computer-based) that no one else had any clue as to how they worked. We pretty much could charge whatever rate we wanted because we were the voodoo masters. But in the year 2002 or so — known as the DV Revolution — everyone had the ability to shoot video, hook it up via firewire to a laptop, use cheap editing tools (iMovie or Final Cut Pro), and suddenly EVERYONE was an editor and producer.

    The result was that the means of production for the vast majority of decent paying work went “in-house” and to freelancers (“adjunct”, if you will), and boutique editors no longer held the leverage in the market they once enjoyed. Thus, the editors who only knew how to do simple cuts and dissolves were muscled out of the remaining market by younger editors who learned how to use advanced titling tools, Photoshop, AfterEffects animation, compositing, sound design, color correction, music editing, and final mastering/digital output.

    By 2007, the effects of this turbulence (and a Screen Actors Guild strike, and 9/11) caused nearly every facility I had worked at to go out of business, and many of the foundation editing companies in NYC closed. It was total bloodshed.

    **And yet there has never been more post-production happening now than in the history of humanity.**

    What this all means in terms of the future of the “online specialist” and instructional designers is that there will always be a need for teaching professionals in all modes of engagement. However, there will be a shift in the amount of work available, with jobs moving towards individuals who more are able to apply multiple skill sets to the process. This shift will be driven by a combination a market forces, access to cheap/free technology, and the emergence of a new generation of teachers who have been using advanced communication tools and methods since they came of age.

    I can’t say which facet will be the leading force in this, but from the perspective of one who works directly with new instructors in designing their online courses, there are more today who walk in the door with advanced communication skills than ever before. It is only a matter of attrition before those who limit themselves to only traditional methods of engagement will be trapped in an evaporating pond.

    My prediction of the future will be that there will be more online learning channels available to people than ever before, more teachers available to teach them, less centralized quality control (“good enough is good enough”), and more fragmentation in the process of conferring a degree. There will be more work for teachers than ever before, it will be easier to facilitate at one’s convenience, but for less and less pay.

    The only people, IMHO, who will emerge unscathed in this will be the people who have the talent to comprehend the changing landscape of communication and how it can be soundly employed in a teaching and learning context. Those people will be the ones who “read the manuals”, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various tools, and can teach instructors on using them well.

    Those people will be instructional designers.

  6. Hi Tony,

    I see a parallel with the state of web design in the early days of the internet: anyone with a modicum of web design knowledge could become a web designer. Over time, basic webpages were provided in a more automated fashion. The best web designers continue to prosper, because of their expert knowledge, design eye, and ability to produce websites which surpass the offerings of templated solutions.

    Instructional design may become more settled, with set patterns of technological use and ‘known good’ solutions being accessible to technology literate teaching staff, but it seems this is only factoring in what tools and technologies and designs work now. New technologies and ways of combining them will always arrive to disrupt the scene, needing those with a focus on using them to embrace and test them first. Teachers and lecturers wishing to maintain a focus on their subjects will simply not be able to devote the time and focus to do this.

    The best solutions, the ones that provide the next developmental steps in the use of technology, the most polished and effective media use, by necessity will always be provided by designers who are looking two steps ahead, and by their creative training and expertise, taking the leap to that next stage.

    Instructional design is more akin to architecture, taking into account a range of disciplines: web design, storytelling, film direction and storyboarding, sociology, animation, audio production, editing … understanding how these all work individually and their strengths, then how they work together to produce a coherent, well-paced whole to engage students and support teachers and lecturers (and not detract from them), and marshalling these resources is where the strength of the instructional designer/architect lies.

    In short, I think that as with web designers, the real experts will continue and flourish, as they will be able to provide ‘beyond the template’, which will work to a point for some institutions, but not the ones looking to recruit substantially more students in a competitive sector and be more ‘cutting edge’.

  7. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your article “Is there a future in online learning?” I agree with you that most colleges and universities are integrating online learning as part of the curriculum and that faculty will have to be versed in technology in order to facilitate the new technological innovation in education. However, I feel that there will always be a need for instructional designers since their expertise is needed to make DE a success; and hopefully, they will be considered as part of the academic staff.

  8. Dear, Tony.
    I agree on a lot of things in your text. I’ve been working as a ICT Educational Developer for 20 years. From my point of view I don’t see the relationship between me and the teachers over when they can do online-education by them self. It just goes into another second stage. That means that the form of support, or as I like to call it, collaboration, changes to another kind. It becomes more complicated and more time dependent. They have ongoing live courses with pressure from students, and they have to make it work. That means that both the educator and I have a new set of challenges. And as times are changing there’s new tech coming, and new things to learn. It never stops, so the collaboration has to continue. And so are our partnership.
    /Peter Carlsson, Linnaeus University, Kalmar-Växjö, Sweden.

  9. Hello everyone. I understand and support your theme! Online teaching – is a special kind of training, that not exists in all countries and is not suitable for everyone. But there are some who need to distance learning. These are people with some disabilities. On the Internet a lot of stories about how students with some disabilities receive higher education and prestigious job like here . But I want to tell about my friend with the DCB and he physically could not study all normal student. Nevertheless, he finished university through online training system and became a programmer. Despite of everything, he is very smart. Even helped me with my Thesis a variety of useful tips and articles like this about thesis writing, and others. I think that online education system needs to be expanded,that it is available to everyone and in every country!


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