Why I Got My Degree in Instructional Design (And You Should Too!)

Why I Got My Degree in Instructional Design (And You Should Too!)

I have a B.A. in English and a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS). Later on I earned a Master of Education in EduTech/Instructional Design.

Every now and then I get asked why I got this second masters, and here’s the answer(s)!

The Short Answer

I spent years applying for librarian positions without having any luck. The jobs I held in the interim didn’t cover my bills. Since I did finally land a library staff position at a university, I was able to go back to school (again) for another degree. On the advice of my mentor, I went the instructional design route for two reasons: 1) to be more marketable as an academic librarian, 2) to be able to pursue ID/eLearning jobs in the corporate sector.

The second degree paid off: I landed a tenure-track Instructional Design Librarian position in southern California that pays my bills, lets me actually save money, and has a ton of vacation time and other awesome benefits, like health insurance(!).* None of the corporate/id staff jobs ever called back.

Beyond my own personal welfare, my instructional design studies did nothing less than completely transform how I see the world, and I really love making a difference, so let’s move on to:

The Long Answer

It is really hard to learn from a lecture. Students are not blank slates inherently capable of absorbing their professors’ brilliance through osmosis.

Also, learning styles are Not A Thing.

And yet, professors continue to lecture. Academics continue to spout off about “learning styles.”


Actually I don’t have an answer for this.

However! I feel like a radical working in academia. I know the secrets of student-centered learning. I can tell you why student engagement is key to learning success (hint: if students aren’t engaged, they are not learning!).

I know the basics of neuroscience – the human brain develops back to front, and is 90%-ish done developing in the first five years. A child’s first few years shape her brain for the rest of her life. Yet the brain doesn’t finish developing until a human’s mid-twenties!  Do you know what develops last? The front lobe, which is responsible for higher-order executive thinking (i.e. good judgment).

Not coincidentally, rental cars suddenly become much cheaper when you turn 25!

I know that including everything AND the kitchen sink in a given learning experience does not lead to greater learning, it leads to less! The content that is left out of a learning experience is probably more important than what is kept in – the human brain is easily overwhelmed by Too Much Information, plus the extraneous details keep learners from focusing on what’s most important.

I know that experts on a given subject need to receive different instruction than amateurs!

I know that while learning styles are Not A Thing, learning and physical disabilities are, and students also face a number of challenges including often trying to learn something in English when it’s not their native language. Therefore, the principles of Universal Design for Learning are critical to take into account when developing a learning experience. That means: including Closed Captions on videos, presenting material in a variety of formats (e.g. video transcripts!), allowing students to download your PowerPoint slides for review, and ensuring that your materials are completely compatible with screen readers, just to start!

I know that design really really matters, and if you want your design to be successful, it needs to take into account how people actually are, not how you’d like them to be.

My Advice for Librarians Considering This Path

Do you love to teach? Do you want to be better at it? Are you passionate about good design?

First, a primer on design and learning. I highly recommend beginning your journey by reading The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. After reading this book years ago, I suddenly realized that it’s not my fault if I push instead of pull a badly-designed door.

And then! Move on to Moonwalking With Einstein, by Joshua Foer. You will not believe what each and every human brain is capable of in this fast-paced, real life tale of a journalist that dives into a world he never knew existed, and then accomplishes incredible things.

Next, dive into applied design with Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug. While this slim volume is focused on web usability principles, you’ll get a crash course in how people actually interact with multimedia technologies.

Finally, finish off with Design for How People Learn, by Julie Dirksen. Using simple illustrations, this very accessible text will teach you, ahem, how people learn, and how you can design learning experiences for real people.

Thus ends your crash course in design thinking/instructional design. Still interested?

Then I highly recommend getting a second masters, or a certificate, in instructional design/edutech as a librarian, if it’s free/cheap (i.e., if you’re working as staff at a university that offers discounted tuition as a benefit, or are closely related to someone that is).

Getting my degree completely transformed how I approach teaching and learning. I most value what I learned about educational psychology. Technologies change so quickly, but if you understand how people learn, you’ll understand how to employ edutech as a mere means to designing effective learning experiences.

You’ll also be much more employable/marketable. And if you tire of academia, you can run your own business developing eLearning, or consulting on instructional design. Options are a beautiful thing.

But librarian jobs in general just don’t pay a whole lot, so watch out for taking on too much debt. Just assume it will be difficult to pay back.

Bottom Line: Instructional design is awesome! Change your life, and come be a radical with me, transforming academia from the inside.


*I spent a good chunk of my 20s without health insurance, so this continues to be a big deal for me. As is being able to have my own place with no roommates, and with my own kitchen/bathroom, because Yosemite employee housing has none of those benefits.

One Response

  1. […] Technically, you don’t have to get an instructional design certificate/degree to be an ID Librarian, but it really really helps. Many instructional design/elearning librarians are hired without additional education in these areas, but I strongly recommend either formally studying instructional design or doing a lot of self-study. For more on this, see my post Why I Got My Degree in Instructional Design (And You Should Too!). […]