When I began working on my master's degree two years ago, the first question I was often asked was, "What are you majoring in?" The inevitable follow-up question was, "What is that exactly?" The person asking wanted a simple answer; they did not realize that no simple answer exists. What EXACTLY is instructional design and development? Well, now, that depends on whom you ask. I'll try to explain it to you as clearly as possible. We will look at it at three levels (you can stop reading whenever you feel you've had enough. Think of it as a choose your own adventure).
Level 1: Good for parties
The most basic (although not complete) answer that will avoid glazed-over stares and dismissive gestures is that instructional design involves developing training for an organization. Instructional designers create training programs, curricula, courses, and lessons for new employees and existing employees. They can also work to mass produce instructional technology (training videos for example). But, the field of instructional design is far more than that.
Level 2: Good for interviews
The deeper answer is that instructional design involves analyzing employees in an organization in order to identify "opportunities for improvement" (in tech speak, performance gaps) and develop ways to help them perform better. Usually, they do this by finding ways to help employees increase knowledge. Ok, this answer will give you slightly more eye-glazing, but it is closer to the truth (in the same idea that Jupiter is closer to the sun than Pluto).
Level 3: No good can come of this
The no-holds-barred, guaranteed glaze, but more accurate definition is that instructional design is the systematic application of analysis and learning principles in order to improve employee performance, ultimately helping an organization reach its target goals. Instructional designers analyze performance to determine gaps and design, develop, implement, evaluate, and maintain solution systems to specific organizational problems. This definition has more of a human performance technology slant, but I believe this is where instructional design should eventually head. While instructional designers have a specific knowledge of learning principles, we also have a systems view of organizations, which means that we focus on whole problems, not just knowledge problems.
Where does all the confusion originate?
The field and its definition have evolved over the past 50 years. Several organizations and governmental departments have tried to successfully define instructional design. The latest definition (which is also the fifth official definition) was issued by AECT (Association for Educational Communication and Technology...one of THE organizations for instructional design) in 2006. Even this definition has had its opposition (especially for using the word "create," as if we are Harry Potter-like people casting spells to pull things out of thin air on a whim).
SO, some of the confusion is a result of our own inability to agree on how we define ourselves. Some of the confusion comes as the field continues to evolve. Some of the confusion comes from an innate difficulty in trying to describe parts of a system that can only be fully understood as a whole.
Thanks for stopping by. Next time, I will discuss the agreed upon components of instructional design (also known as ADDIE), and comment on why I would change it to ADDIEM (although that is more difficult to pronounce). Please leave me feedback and subscribe. I promise to post at least twice a week (until I don't).