Hiring an instructional designer

With all those new training delivery methods, what should the ideal millennium instructional designer be? Katy Yocom went to the experts to find out the tricks of the trade in hiring an instructional designer.

As training options diversify, this may be the year that you begin using methods beyond classroom training. If so, this may also be the year that you find yourself deciding to hire someone who can design instructional materials for those new delivery methods.

We were curious as to what you might look for when filling this position, so we contacted three experts: Ruth Clark, an instructional psychologist and principal of Clark Training & Consulting in Cortez, CO; Eric Parks, president and CEO of ASK International in Fair Oaks, CA; and Bryan Carter, principal of Learning at Play, a Dayton, OH, independent consulting firm specializing in instructional design. All three are current or past presenters at the NewMedia Instructional Design Symposium . Beyond the obvious—such as looking for relevant experience—here’s what they told us.

Bryan Carter: Diversity, flexibility, and creativity
So you want someone to design computer-based training, but what sort of computer-based training? Before you start interviewing, Carter advised, first decide what you’re looking for in a trainer. Do you want this person to create traditional training in the “present, demonstrate, practice, and test” model, or something newer, such as the constructivist approach that immerses students in an environment and then lets them construct their own learning experience—much like a game?

Once you’ve considered that question, let the interviewing begin. According to Carter, a good designer for computer-based training—be it via the Web or CD-ROMs—has probably played with many different types of software. Broad exposure—everything from productivity tools to games to Web-based applications—is important. It gets a designer thinking about why a particular approach works. That, in turn, will help him or her create better designs.

Look for diversity. “If they have a very diverse portfolio, that’s an indicator that they may be creative and innovative and flexible in their designs and in the roles they play,” he said. And get into their heads: “Talk with them about the types of things they’d really like to be doing, where they’d like to be taking their development.”

Ask them to analyze past projects. Are they defensive? That’s a big warning bell. “In an online environment, you do prototyping, and you can’t have so much ownership in your design that you can’t let it change.”

Finally, think teamwork. Team dynamics are huge, and if your new player doesn’t work well with the team, there’ll be trouble.

Ruth Clark: Concentrate on theory
Clark, a psychologist, focuses on the way people learn. Her advice is to look for candidates who can train people both on procedures and on more complex, case-based types of learning. A good candidate should be able to train fast-food employees to build a hamburger, but he or she should also be able to train sales reps to handle calls no matter what the variables—product, customer, relationship, or whatever.

Ask candidates to bring in samples of their work; then, Clark said, focus on the “whys” and “hows” behind it. Find out “why they produced something, how it met an organizational need, why they chose that particular media, and what instructional methods they used for that audience and that goal, and why.” You’ll quickly learn whether candidates understand the demands of the situation—and whether they can choose the best media and best instructional methodology to meet those demands.

If you’re hiring someone to design Web-based training, she said, of course experience is important. But beyond that, make sure the candidate understands the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. Someone who, Clark said, looks at tech trends with a skeptical eye. “The latest technology is what everybody gets hyped up about,” she said. “But in the end, the research shows us that it’s not the media, it’s the instructional methodologies that cause learning.”

Eric Parks: Storytelling, motivation, and productivity
The biggest hurdle in noninstructor-based training, Parks said, is keeping the student motivated and engaged. Parks’ solution is to involve trainees in a story—an imaginary context that motivates them to learn the material quickly, so they can solve whatever problem the story presents. (If that sounds like Nintendo to you, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Games are excellent motivators!) So, Parks said, hire an instructional designer who’s a good storyteller in real life as well as in his training. Use your ears during the interview. Ask what went right, and what didn’t, with his or her latest project. If the answers bore you, watch out.

“Ask them, how do they motivate the learner?” Parks advised. In past projects, how have they encouraged engagement with the material? You want to hear creative approaches; you want to know they listened to students’ likes and dislikes.

Creativity is crucial, but so is productivity. With computer-based training, Parks said, a designer can spend anywhere from 80 hours (for a simple course) to 250 hours (for a simulation) designing the first hour of courseware. After that first hour, productivity should roughly double. Ask for times on past projects. Or, talk about a project you’re considering and ask how many hours the candidate might spend designing the courseware.

Some background considerations: Does the candidate have an instructional design degree? If not, does he or she have solid experience in the field? Parks observed that people with degrees in psychology or journalism tend to pick up instructional design quickly. Another suggestion: Hire a designer who has worked for an organization that makes money by selling training to customers. “You know they’re the best designers,” Parks said, “because what they design, people buy!”
If you’re in the process of filling an instructional designer position, let us know what you look for during the interview. Are you interested in learning more about another training position? Follow this link if you would like to comment on this article or write to Katy .

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