The industry of knowledge management is an evolving field of study, which includes not only teaching content but designing the way that content is taught. Specializing in what content is included, and how that content is presented, is called instructional design. This is not related to the design of a specific field of content, say for example business or biology, but instead how all information transfer from the medium to the student is structured and delivered.
A master’s in instructional designer will therefore equip students with the tools and theory necessary to bring together course design, communication of content, and the student being taught. In the 21st century, this also means technology. Millions of students opt to learn online, which has translated into business needs pertaining to the delivery of content through digital mediums. This comes with a range of pros and cons, and the instructional designer is tasked with maximizing the former and minimizing the latter.
With that in mind, an online master’s degree offers two interesting opportunities. The first is the acquisition of critical curriculum design and delivery skills. This includes the ability to research and distill knowledge, integrate subject matter expertise, produce meaningful student engagement, and evaluate student outcomes. Courses focus on pedagogy, educational theories, student psychology, research, analytics, and course delivery. It’s interesting stuff.
The second opportunity offered by pursuing a master’s in instructional design online is experiencing a virtual learning environment for yourself. By taking this type of degree online, you’ll be exposed to the type of education technology you’ll be designing yourself once you begin using your master’s degree out in the field.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into some of the pros and cons of obtaining a master’s degree in instructional design online, and list some popular universities that offer this program.
Online Master’s in Instructional Design
Studying online isn’t for everyone, as it has some distinct advantages and disadvantages when compared to traditional onsite coursework. Many of these are fairly intuitive, with flexibility and affordability being in the online corner, and in-person networking and collaboration on the traditional learning side of the ledger. However, there is a bit more to it than that.
Online coursework is innovative and adaptable, integrating the latest and greatest both in the discipline being studied and the technological framework with which it’s delivered. It’s still in the early adopter phase, which is to say it’s generally populated with risk-takers, trend-setters, and innovative types of people (both students and teachers). Technology keeps improving, and the benefits of this can be unpredictable and unique. This means differentiation in the skills you acquire.
Of course, new technology is always rife with risk. Online learning can be hindered both by limited social interactions and technological frustrations. While some online programs will be able to simulate a genuine social environment, most will be less effective in terms of strong relationship building. The technology can be a frustration as well, particularly if you have relatively slow internet speeds or poor computer hardware. These are your access keys, in a sense, and they can either help or hinder depending on your personal circumstances.
For those interested in online instructional design programs at the graduate level, let’s outline a few options to get your research started:
- Indiana University (Bloomington): A top-rated online program in instructional design with a focus on technology, the M.S.Ed. in Instructional Systems Technology can be taken either online or onsite. Tuition comes in at $615 per credit, which is an excellent price point for the reputation this program has in education.
- Florida State University: Another highly reputable program is the M.S.Ed. in Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies at FSU, which is a great deal at $444 for Florida residents ($1,076 for out-of-state students).
- Penn State – World Campus: Penn State has a fairly mature online education platform called World Campus, which includes a graduate-level degree program in Learning, Design, and Technology. This program can be completed in just one year (30 credits), and the cost per credit is $1,007.
- Arizona State University: Last but not least, we’ll touch briefly on ASU’s online Master of Education in Learning Design and Technologies program. State residents enjoy the low price of $400 per credit hour, with a required 30 credits total to complete the program. That’s a seriously good bargain for Arizonians!
There are tons more options to consider, and as you can see it’s always smart to go in-state if you can (even for an online course, strangely enough!). Most of these degrees take only one year, assuming you have a bachelor’s under your belt already, and should serve to position you well in the growing job market of education design and technology. Of course, you’ll need to consider the coursework that you’ll take and the entry requirements. Let’s dive in.
Instructional Design Courses and Competencies
Step one is, of course, getting accepted into a program. A graduate degree in instructional design will typically require a bachelor’s in a related field, either technology-related or in education. Application procedures differ from institution to institution, but there will typically be GPA requirements from your undergraduate program, test scores (such as the GRE), and prerequisites to ensure you can keep pace with the upcoming coursework.
Speaking of the coursework, a master’s in instructional design is going to be a synthesis of both technology, pedagogy, and design thinking. Let’s explore each one briefly:
- Technology: Courses such as education technology integration, gamification, and elearning will be the focal point here. Understanding how education gets embedded with a CMS (content management system), and the way that students interface with that technology (UX/UI) are useful skills in this field.
- Pedagogy: Of course, instructional designers are still designing academic coursework. This means mastering the existing literature in how students engage with materials (digital or otherwise). This is a huge topic, and undergraduate coursework is very helpful here.
- Design thinking: Last but not least is design thinking. This integrates the previous two, with an eye for architectural efficacy and conceptual flow. How much content to introduce, when, and in what way will have a significant impact on drop-off rates. Move too fast and students may lose confidence, too slow and they may get bored and see it is unhelpful. Design thinking is all about maintaining engagement while achieving learning objectives.
The final consideration here is going to be the possibility of internships and career services. As a remote learner, how much time and effort you invest in pursuing employment will be more on your shoulders than traditional education programs. The key here is easy: don’t be shy. Reach out to the career services professionals. Most of the programs we discussed in the previous section have mature career services programs, including the possibility for internships, interview preparation, and networking, which will get you the biggest return on investment.
Programs do differ on overall credit requirements as well, so it’s well worth researching before you enroll. 30 credits, which can be achieved within one year of full-time study, is increasingly the norm within most graduate programs. This will play an important role in the next topic: cost.
The Cost of a Game Design Degree
The overall cost of a graduate degree will vary quite widely, typically ranging from as low as $250 per credit hour all the way up to $2,000 per credit hour. Using some of the top online MS.Ed programs listed above, a reasonable expectation would be as low as $400 per credit hour at state schools like Arizona State University and Florida State University, with a requirement of 30 credit hours. That means getting a degree for as low as $12,000, which is not a bad deal.
Of course, more expensive institutions such as out-of-state schools and private universities often come in around $1,000 per credit hour (such as Penn State discussed above). This means budgeting a total of $30,000 total for your degree, and in both cases there will be some amount of secondary cost such as program fees.
Keep in mind that you may qualify for a variety of government sponsored financial aid. These options are typically divided into two categories: financial aid based on need and financial aid based on high performance in some way (i.e. high school GPA, test scores, or other metrics). A good starting point is FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application will check your circumstances against a federal database of scholarships and financial aid, and deliver which ones that student is viable for.
Another option to consider is scholarship aggregators, which can do the heavy lifting of sorting and sifting through the endless sea of private and public educational funding. As instructional design in technology is quite specific, it’s worthwhile to consider broader education scholarships (of which there are many). Write a great essay, be proactive, and you may have a decent shot of getting a free ride. Couldn’t hurt to ask, right?
As a final note, if you are currently employed full-time it may be worthwhile to ask your employer. Employers are willing to sponsor job-related education in some cases, which is a great way to pay your way through school. Speaking of job opportunities, let’s wrap up with a quick tour of the types of jobs instructional designers can aspire towards.
Jobs and Salaries in Instructional Design
Right out of the gates, the search term ‘instructional design’ wins well over ten thousand results on Indeed alone. This is a job with growing demand, as education is going to be a main staple of the economy for the foreseeable future. Professionals who can design digital coursework that’s effective and engaging are highly prized. There are a few specific roles to consider, outlined below:
- Instructional Designer: Starting with the broadest category, an instructional designer is essentially a generalist in the field. In this role, professionals focus on outlining coursework for any organization, from corporate training to university classes, and can expect an average salary around $67,000/year.
- Instructional Technology Specialist: If technology is more your speed than academic design principles, this would be the role for you. A technology specialist should have some basic coding capabilities, and will help devise and implement the content management system. Salary comes in around $51,000/year.
- Instructional Design Manager: If you have a background in management (or a knack for leadership) you may want to consider managing the instructional design team. This means linking the subject matter experts with designers and writers to produce the final product. Salary clocks in around $113k/year.
Roles may vary and evolve alongside the technology, and other opportunities that relate to this role include lesson writers, programmers, and subject matter experts. It’s always a good idea to know what you’re aiming for before enrolling, and the basic consideration will be whether you are a generalist, tech specialist, or managerial type of personality. A graduate degree is particularly for advancing your career to the managerial level, and directing the broader development and design of educational content. Ready to learn how people learn in the 21st century?
The easy answer is that they are increasingly common. Technology has largely been integrated within the education industry, and most universities find the switching costs to remote learning to be quite low. The primary challenge will be for smaller institutions that may lack the technical infrastructure to support online learning programs.
The curriculum will strike a balance between technical capabilities, such as content management systems, and pedagogy (the science of learning and knowledge). Combining these two things into an aesthetically pleasing and effective design will be the final piece of the puzzle.
Salaries will range from around $50,000 per year all the way up into the six-figure range, depending on your leadership experience. A good media estimate will be around $70,000 per year.
Instructional designers should consider the following three job types: curriculum design, technological integration, and educational team leadership. Most jobs will fall into one of these three categories. If you are a teacher at heart, consider the curriculum-side of the equation. If you are a computer nerd, there will always be a demand for great developers. Leaders tend to work as project managers and directors within education technology companies.
Find the latest interviews with subject matter experts and people working at the forefront of their field and get advice on Master’s in Instructional Design directly from some of the world’s leading authorities. Learn more about all the different pathways and opportunities available in tech today.
- How did you first get into (Online) Instructional Designing (what kind of degree or work experience led you to the field)?
- What do you think are the most important qualities or qualifications needed to be successful as an Instructional Designer?
- What are some of the reasons people become a Instructional Designer?
- What should students expect when choosing an Instructional Design internship?
- What are employers generally looking for when hiring an entry-level Instructional Designer?
- Do you find that people that train as Instructional Designer stay in the field, or are they finding other, relevant work opportunities?