Instructional designer (ID) is one of the trendiest positions in today’s job market. It’s rewarding, prestigious, and seems to be offering an ideal ratio of routine vs. creative tasks, along with a healthy work-life balance. With a steady shift to remote education and remote work, IDs are in high demand, and this trend will continue.
However, if you’re chasing a career in ID, it might be hard to figure out what you actually need to learn in order to land such a job. Moreover, for people who are not yet initiated into the mysteries of eLearning, it’s difficult to even guess what sort of tasks an ID carries out on a day-to-day basis.
In short, an instructional designer is someone who is competent in both teaching and creating digital training content. The former requires an understanding of the human psychology responsible for the learning process, while the authoring part might come in very different forms, e.g., knowing how to create a training video, a presentation, a mobile app, or anything that can be used as training material, for that matter.
Although there’s no consensus on whether becoming an ID requires formal training, it goes without saying that a prestigious certificate or even a degree in the field will drastically improve your chances of getting such a position. Thus, we present you with a list of the most popular instructional design programs – from free to degree.
Courses for Instructional Designers
This subset includes relatively short (< 10 hours) curricula that would be the perfect way to dip your toes in the waters of instructional design. They include both free and paid options.
These courses are completely free to enroll in and take, but there might be a fee if you’d like to get a printable certificate of completion at the end.
1. Instructional Design Video Series (YouTube)
Beginner / 8.5 hours / Free / No certification
In this series of YouTube videos, instructional systems Ph.D. Ray Pastore gives an introduction to all facets of ID, ranging from how online training strategies should be different from the traditional classroom-based approach to what software is used to create eLearning content. It also delves into a number of more specific topics like “how to create a style guide for your content” and “how to create 3D learning.” If you’re searching for a quick introduction to the profession with little or no commitment on your end, this would be a good place to start.
“I started my ID career in January and this is just what I was looking for! Thanks for ALL of your helpful videos.” (Alex)
2. Learning to Teach Online (Coursera)
Beginner / 18 hours / Free enrollment / Certificate – $49
This course from an Art & Design professor at the University of New South Wales is a 5-week curriculum with lots of video content, reading material, self-assessments, and graded assignments. Being largely focused on the theory of online education and explaining certain concepts like the “flipped classroom” and “blended learning,” it reportedly suffers from a lack of practical material, e.g., tutorials on how to work with the actual software used for content authoring.
But, if you’d like to get a nice certificate in ID for your LinkedIn profile and you’re interested in the theory of online learning, then you can’t go wrong with this course.
“It was an awesome experience for me in improving, especially my teaching skills to a new paradigm, I learned and benefited immensely from the course, as the course design is meticulously well planned.” (Rajeev R.)
3. Learning design basics: pedagogy into practice (OpenLearning)
Beginner / 15 hours / Free enrollment / Certificate – $40
This is another free-to-enroll training program that talks about the principles of learning design. By taking it, you will improve your understanding of the theory of teaching, e.g., what the most effective way to teach is and what can be done to boost material retention in digital training. The training content itself consists mostly of text with the occasional inclusion of a quiz or a video sample.
It’s important to note that the certificate given by OpenLearning does not have any international recognition, so it’s best to look for alternatives if you’re after a certificate that speaks for itself.
“Thank you for a great learning experience. I have a few more adjustments to make but I now have a design for consultation purposes and eventually, a final product. Good experience and well organized.” (Rebecca S)
4. Gamification (Coursera)
Intermediate / 17 hours / Free enrollment / Certificate – $95
This curriculum from Kevin Werbach of the University of Pennsylvania differs from the previous entries in our list. Instead of delving into all concepts and terminology of instructional design, it focuses on a single technique called gamification.
The course explores what gamification is by revealing the psychological mechanisms behind how and why games help people to learn new things. During this course, the student is taught about game design and becomes qualified to apply its principles to non-game contexts, like instructional design.
“Very structured and interesting class about gamification. Kevin is a very engaging teacher and this course was the perfect introduction to gamification. I highly recommend the course.” (Blanka M.)
The following are paid courses. Payment either takes the form of a monthly subscription, as is the case with the courses offered through LinkedIn Learning, or a per-course fee, as with Udemy.
5. Instructional Design for eLearning (Udemy)
Beginner / 4,5 hours / $95 / Certificate of completion
This is another short introductory course for ID newbies. Despite its length, the author manages to fit in quite a lot of theory, which comes at the expense of practice. Still, despite its flaws, it should be a good starting point for those who’d like to get acquainted with ID terminology and create their first digital training course.
“I’m a novice in ID. This course did give an insight into what ID is all about. It is a good course for beginners.” (John D.)
6. Instructional Design Essentials: Models of ID (LinkedIn Learning)
Intermediate / 45 minutes / ~$25 or free with LinkedIn Learning subscription / Certificate of completion
A very quick video-based course in which the author talks about certain methodologies like ADDIE that are used by instructional designers in order to create engaging training content. Recommended for intermediate level learners that already have experience in authoring eLearning content.
Unfortunately, there are no user reviews for courses on LinkedIn Learning, but, since its initial release in 2019, this curriculum has received over 2,000 likes from the 24,000 students who took it.
7. Become an L&D Professional: Learning Path (LinkedIn Learning)
Intermediate / ~12 hours / free with LinkedIn Learning subscription / Certificate of completion
Unlike all other curricula in this subcategory, this one is a Learning Path that comprises 11 video courses from 9 authors with information on several distinct directions of learning and development (L&D). The lessons included in each course encompass instructions on how to measure learning effectiveness, increase learner engagement, and gamify training experience.
Given the course’s rating, it could be seen as a good continuation for instructional designers who are fairly comfortable creating simple online training and want to improve their theoretical knowledge of ID principles.
8. Instructional Design Pro: Parts 1,2,3 (Udemy)
Intermediate / ~21 hours / ~$150 per part / Certificate of completion
Jason Teteak, the creator of this 3-part course, claims to be an in-the-trenches trainer who knows how ID works from hands-on experience as opposed to “theorists” who lecture on training methods that they have never implemented.
It comprises 54 training videos, 18 practical assignments, and 18 quizzes, plus some additional material like a 405-page-long learner workbook, so it seems to be a pretty solid curriculum. However, some user reviews point out that the author often fails to deliver an engaging learning experience while using slightly outdated material.
“Finally I have taken an instructional design course that includes practical examples, basically, it includes the what, how, and why.” (Rowan L.)
Programs for Instructional Designers
Programs take much more time and effort to complete than courses. More importantly, finishing an academic program will earn you a degree, which will make you a much more valuable hire in the eyes of potential employers and greatly increase your chances of landing your dream job.
This little section is for courses that take over 1 month to complete, but are not provided by an academic institution.
The sole entry in the nonacademic subcategory, this is an online training program on instructional design that works as cohort-based learning, with supervision and assistance from the creator of this curriculum, Dr. Robin Sargent. The course promises to provide learners with an adequate amount of theory, stressing the practical application of the acquired knowledge. For example, it should teach you how to record and animate quality training videos.
The program appears to have a strong social learning element with former graduates and fellow matter experts all taking part in reviewing finished projects, providing feedback on them, and answering questions from students.
“I really enjoyed the IDOL Academy. I have been an Instructional Designer & eLearning Developer for 7 years, but I found the IDOL Academy to be endlessly helpful even this far into my career.” (Sherisse G.)
These are academic programs that take less than two years to complete and can’t offer as much depth as a bachelor’s or a master’s, yet are still highly valuable for employers. It needs to be mentioned here that academic institutions don’t really bother putting reviews of their alumni on display.
2. Instructional Design Certificate – 4 courses (University of Wisconsin-Stout)
Any level / 9 months / $5,592
A highly praised and extremely popular certificate program that consists of 4 courses, each encompassing a big topic, such as “trends and issues in instructional design,” “instructional strategies,” “designing computer-based training,” and “project management for ID.”
These courses are not informal introductory lectures like the ones that can be found on Coursera or Skillshare. Taking an academic certificate program like this one is a legitimate way to become a high-value asset on the ID job market, beating applicants who can’t boast such accomplishments to the punch.
3. Learning Design and Technology Graduate Certificate (Harvard Extension School)
Any level / 1,5 years / $11,600
Like the previous program, this one also consists of 4 large curriculums that last well over 12 months. Upon successful completion, which requires you to get at least a “B” in each of the courses, you will receive a professional graduate certificate in “learning design and technology.”
The material included in this program teaches a broad range of topics, e.g., “project planning,” “creating and editing interactive training content,” and even “website development.” A great choice if studying at Harvard was always your ultimate dream.
4. MicroMasters Program in Instructional Design and Technology (University of Maryland)
Any level / 8 months / $1,196
Another ID program from an online branch of a traditional university, this time labeled as MicroMasters, which is supposed to reflect the comprehensiveness and quality of the material. It promises to teach you the theory and practice of ID, plus additional competencies like data analytics. With an emphasis on preparing students for the challenges of the mobile-oriented learning world, this program should be worth your while.
Bachelor’s and master’s
The longest, most expensive, and demanding types of programs are bachelor’s and master’s. However, they are usually the ones that give the highest return on your investments.
5. Bachelor of Arts in Instructional Design (University of Arizona / Ashford)
Any level / 2 years / Price not displayed
A bachelor’s program in ID from a credible online university is a great starting point for a distinguished career. It will teach you how to apply core principles of learning in practice, create digital training content, use methodologies to successfully manage course development processes in a team, and overcome issues that exist in today’s online education.
6. Online Master’s Degree in eLearning & Instructional Design (Northeastern University)
Any level / 2 years / $27.9K
According to the program overview, an online master’s from Northeastern University would be a strong next step for someone who already works in a higher education, corporate, or non-profit setting. The authors put an emphasis on the importance of practice and creating ID projects for your ePortfolio during the entire length of the program. They highlight that enrolling in this degree program should make you a qualified professional in “next-generation and mobile learning.”It is also the most expensive one on this list.
7. Master of Education in Learning, Design & Technology, Instructional Design & Development (University of Georgia)
Any level / 3 years / $26,226
With 6 semesters of material, this online program is the longest one on our list. The website states that, after completing it, the student will be prepared not just to apply some learning theory to creating Computer-Based Training (CBT), but will have enough hands-on experience to tackle any real-life instructional design challenge. Additional topics include video production, project management, and analytics in ID, as well as learning the ropes of team-based project design.
Tips on Choosing the Instructional Design Program That’s Best for You
Here are a few valuable tips to help you select the ideal Instructional Design course or program:
- Know your goals. A master’s degree in instructional design should allow you to land a lucrative job in the field. However, getting a degree requires time, money, and effort that can be spent elsewhere if all you’re looking for is an introduction to the instructional designer position. In this case, it would be best to go with a 5-hour course that you can drop at any time.
Alternately, if your dream is to become a high-level specialist in ID, don’t waste your time on free online courses with outdated material, but invest in a good degree program instead.
- Plan your budget. Good education gets costly – that’s just how it is. Don’t be afraid to tighten your belt temporarily if the tuition you’re saving for promises a thousandfold return on your investments.
- Get practical. The rule of thumb is that you should go for the program that offers the most hands-on approach to ID. The job of instructional design involves coming up with course scenarios, getting information from subject matter experts (SMEs) and putting it all together using a variety of authoring tools in a way that is both engaging and challenging for learners. Sure, it’s always good to be well-versed in training theory, psychology behind the process of learning, etc., but in the end, you will need actual authoring experience most, not abstract knowledge.
- Check reviews from alumni. Feedback from former students can provide a lot of insight into the actual qualities of the program you’re about to enroll in. Always be skeptical about too much praise or extreme negativity and expect the truth to be somewhere in the middle.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Why is instructional design important?
Creating digital training takes a lot of knowledge, skill, and taste. In order to create an effective eLearning course, you need to understand how learners think, what tricks can help keep them engaged in the training process, what colors can be combined so that the course looks professional, etc. These skills need to be taught and developed, because otherwise, all online training will be no more than a pile of unpleasant PowerPoint presentations.
What are the stages of instructional design?
According to one of the most popular ID methodologies called ADDIE, there are 5 stages: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. It’s important to note that this is not an axiom, just one of the generally accepted models that you can dynamically adjust depending on project needs. If you’d like to find out more about the theory of learning, read this article from our blog.
What is course authoring software?
It’s a range of computer programs and apps that instructional designers use to create digital training. Some of them are “one-trick ponies” that can only be utilized for a certain task, like screen recorders or video editors. More advanced tools like iSpring Suite combine dozens of authoring features under one roof, allowing instructional designers to create presentations, narrated video, quizzes, and many other types of content, all in the same application.
Generally speaking, if software can be used to create and distribute something educational via computer, then it can be considered authoring software.
There are plenty of instructional design programs today. They vary according to their duration, cost, purpose, and material depth. So, whatever your goals in ID might be, you should be able to find one that is right for you. I hope this article helps you get into instructional design if you’re a complete beginner. And, if you’re already working in the field, it will allow you to further hone your ID skills to help online education reach new heights of quality and efficiency.