Instructional Designer vs. eLearning Developer

Published on 
February 4, 2020
Updated on 
June 4, 2020
Instructional designer vs. eLearning developer cover photo

In the current Learning and Development (L&D) climate, there is somewhat of a title crisis. People use the same title to mean different things and different titles to mean the same thing.

This article provides clarity around two popular titles in the L&D space: "instructional designer" and "eLearning developer." While some people use these titles interchangeably, each title corresponds to a host of unique skills.

We'll use the ADDIE Model to ground our definitions and refer to the training development process as a whole, so you may choose to familiarize yourself with that model before proceeding.

What is an Instructional Designer?

In the strict sense, an instructional designer is someone who designs an instructional experience. They spend their time writing learning objectives, interviewing Subject Matter Experts, and writing the content that will be included in facilitator guides, eLearning courses, or instructional videos.

In the context of eLearning, the instructional designer typically creates a script or production-ready storyboard. They may write programming notes to describe how they expect certain interactions to function, and they may work with a graphic designer to curate visuals that will be used in the end-product.

Therefore, traditional instructional designers do not develop the eLearning end product themselves. They write the content and provide notes about how the end product will be structured, but then they hand things over to an eLearning developer to create the end product.

Traditional Instructional Designer Skillset

Traditional instructional design are often proficient in:

  • Writing learning objectives
  • Writing instructional content
  • Interviewing Subject Matter Experts
  • Researching instructional content
  • Writing test questions
  • Selecting practice activities
  • Justifying design decisions with learning science

What is an eLearning Developer?

The eLearning developer's work typically begins once the instructional designer finishes with the script or storyboard. At this point, the instructional designer gives the eLearning developer all of the content and assets that they need for creating the final product.

The first thing a good eLearning developer would do is inspect the storyboard to see if there are any red flags for development. For example, since traditional instructional designers often do not spend much time in eLearning authoring tools, they do not know exactly what these tools are and are not capable of.

It's common for traditional instructional designers to request interactions that would be easy to implement in a face-to-face session, but that would take massive budgets and extensive custom programming to function appropriately in an eLearning environment.

It's up to the eLearning developer to identify these red flags and collaborate with the instructional designer to identify the best way to resolve them.

Once the storyboard is free of potential issues, the eLearning developer will likely build a prototype in a rapid eLearning authoring tool, such as Articulate Storyline 360 or Adobe Captivate.

The eLearning developer incorporates all of the assets that they received from the instructional designer, and they implement all of the necessary programming and animation to make the end product function as desired.

From here, the instructional designer and eLearning developer work together to respond to client feedback — the eLearning developer handles any functionality changes whereas the instructional designer handles changes to the instructional content itself.

eLearning Developer Skillset

Great eLearning developers excel at:

  • Developing interactive eLearning with rapid eLearning authoring tools
  • Using custom web development skills as needed (HTML, CSS, JavaScript)
  • Programming complex branching scenarios, interactions, and gamified courses
  • Editing photos, vectors, and videos as needed
  • Adhering to visual design principles, multimedia learning principles, and user experience design best practices

Instructional Design and eLearning Development?

In most corporate instructional design positions, instructional designers are expected to handle traditional instructional design tasks — but they're also expected to handle eLearning development (and possibly the other pieces of the ADDIE model, such as analysis, implementation, and evaluation).

eLearning developers are typically expected to handle only the eLearning development, just as defined in this article. However, some eLearning developers may create the look-and-feel of eLearning courses from scratch (requiring a solid visual design skillset), whereas others may only work from templates or pre-made slides with all assets provided (requiring only a programming skillset).

As you can imagine, the end product suffers when a traditional instructional designer is overextended. They're forced to spend less time on what they excel at — the instructional design — and more time on tasks that they may not be very skilled in, such as graphic design, programming, and animation.

Custom eLearning development agencies often recognize this shortcoming and segment the tasks because of it: they have instructional designers write the content and eLearning developers develop the end products, just as we discussed in this article.

However, there are a small number of instructional designers who are just as skilled with instructional design as they are with eLearning development. Due to the efficiencies that they can bring to a project and their handle on the full spectrum of eLearning design and development, these professionals are in high demand.

Fortunately for me, the opportunity to write, learn new technology, and help others learn is exactly what drew me to this field in the first place. By providing clients the full suite of instructional design and eLearning development services, I've been able to grow my business much more quickly than if I had only done one or the other.

If you'd like my assistance on an instructional design or eLearning development project, please contact me and we can hop on a call.

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