Is Instructional Design Dead?

Hardly. Instead, instructional design now encompasses more than simply building courses.

Organizations struggle to deliver learning. Due to the scale and speed that are needed to skill up their current employees, companies often take the easy way out, usually with informal learning or pre-packaged courses. These practices challenge the implementation of disciplined, academic-based, and proven processes of instructional design.

Informal coaching

Chief Learning Officer and other community sites have pointed out that people still want to learn from others. This, coupled with the fact that high-performers tend to share their knowledge leads to a lot of informal learning taking place in the workplace. A manager will often ask a more junior staffer to simply pull up a chair to the desk of the subject matter expert on the team, and learn while watching. Or, remote employees may simply share screens and do quick how-to’s or demo’s of a program or process. However easy and agile this exercise may seem, ‘watch and learn’ training often fails.

Off-the-shelf learning

With ‘all-you-can-eat’ pricing and thousands of courses covering high demand skills, online universities have become a quick fix for companies wishing to provide employees with packaged learning. Such courses may work for basic skills in a particular software program, but as the nature of work becomes more complex and organizations create highly specialized products and processes, off-the-shelf learning becomes irrelevant. Additionally, the online university industry itself continues to face upheaval, so even if learning teams agree to an enterprise subscription to an online university, learning and development leaders will still need to fill in the gaps.

Another threat to the instructional designer’s work are the employees themselves. Oftentimes, employees simply remove the burden of seeking resources to learn on the job and instead decide to learn on their own. Consulting firm Bain & Co. uncovered that employees spent an average of $339 of their own money on career-related learning in 2015. This number can only be expected to increase for 2016 and beyond.

Instructional design

What is the beleaguered instructional designer to do?

In an article in Training Journal this year, training consultant Helen Blunden pointed out this shifting role of the instructional designer and the challenge to the very discipline of instructional design itself.

Today’s instructional designer may not necessarily on a daily basis be building courses from scratch using classic design principles like ADDIE.  Instead, learning leaders can be expected to wear many hats, and perform several functions to ensure that proper learning is delivered within their organizations. Here are some of these roles.

Problem Solver

First and foremost, the course designer needs to analyze and scope out learning needs. This can be two-way, and the most successful learning leaders study a situation and understand learning needs long before the business unit is even aware of the need.  Further, the L&D department can devise a range of solutions for the department or team that is need of the learning, providing context and analysis of the benefits for each.

Project Manager

Beyond designing the course and getting all of the stakeholders on board, the instructional designer must have superior project management skills to ensure project success.  Learning professionals need to encourage adherence to the plan, communicate effectively, and evaluate the production and delivery process in order to make adjustments and improvements along the way.


A lesser known responsibility of the learning manager is marketing: getting the word out across the organization that there are learning professionals ready, willing, and able to provide solutions. Given the matrixed nature of today’s organizations, many teams are unaware of the capabilities — or even the existence — of their in-house learning professionals. A bit of self-promotion is never a bad thing.

The list goes on. Clearly, instructional design is not dead, it has simply taken on new meaning. As an instructional designer, what tasks or responsibilities do you handle on a daily basis? Do you enjoy them?  Let us know!

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Is Instructional Design Dead?