If I had a dollar for every time this question has been asked over the past 40 years, well, I’d have a lot of dollars. In 2004, I asked this question and, 13 years later, it persists. Time to ask again, because The eLearning Guild is taking a serious look at the changing nature and continuing relevance of instructional design (ID) in a new research report published June 28, Is Instructional Design a Dying Art?

Mark Twain once famously said, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The same can be said for instructional design. Despite constant talk about its demise, instructional design has been quite resilient. Those who point to its longevity in a positive way emphasize how well it works, while those who think instructional design’s best days are behind it suggest that the framework is inefficient and stymies new ideas and new ways of thinking.

To coincide with the release of the research report, I’d like to revisit the issue and propose some context for the current discussion. Instructional design is neither the great and unifying core of what we do, nor the bane of our existence; it’s just not that simple. Rather, it all depends on how you look at it. And you can look at it from four different points of view.

1. Are instructional design processes thriving or dying?

Instructional design processes are usually caught up in models and step-by-step approaches. Whether you use generic models like ADDIE, agile, SAM, and their infinite variations, or models based on a particular view of learning (behavioral, cognitive, constructivist), or models advocated by leading thinkers in the field over the years (including Gagné, Merrill, and Bloom), chances are you have a pretty strong loyalty to a particular way of doing things, and you’ve made it work for you.

You may also be working with models, procedures, guidelines, rules, etc., set forth by your organization. Many companies have tried to document all the steps and decisions in an instructional design process using flowcharts, decision trees, and standard operating procedures. Some of these have been torturously long and convoluted in an effort to make the process consistent and “foolproof.” Others have found this to be folly, as designing instruction has too many variables and is too situation specific—their approaches are likely to be more flexible.

However you’re doing instructional design, no doubt you have a process to follow, either written down or in your head, that provides some structure and guidance in the work. For you, the question “Is instructional design thriving or dying?” will tend to reference these processes more than your role or the overarching concept. Often, many people who suggest that ID is declining often look at poor process as their justification.

2. Is the instructional design profession thriving or dying?

This question has more to do with professional identity, i.e., as instructional designers. Over time, the instructional designer role has become quite common and accepted in most organizations, and it is supported by professional societies, publications, a robust consulting and vendor marketplace, various certification and accreditation efforts, and university degree affiliations.

Another part of this question is: Who actually is an instructional designer? Is it someone with an advanced degree in the field? Someone who took a few workshops at a conference? Someone who learned through experience? Someone who got their hands on a “simplified” tool and thought, “Gee, I can do this”? Someone who started out as an SME? Or perhaps an instructional designer is any number of unique combinations of the above. This goes to the issue of standards and certification, a 30-year-old nut we have yet to fully crack.

If you have a strong sense of being a part of a profession, the question “Is instructional design thriving or dying?” strikes at who you are, the career you have chosen, the skills and experiences you accumulated, and the value you assign to it. To you, the question can be interpreted as, “Are instructional designers (as a vocation) thriving or dying?” Now you have to look at career opportunities and professional growth, job security and mobility, and at whether or not there is enough interest and challenge in the field to make you—or anyone—want to stay.

3. Are instructional design work activities thriving or dying?

Perhaps you don’t look at this overall question from a process or a professional view, but rather from the perspective of the actual work you do and the things you create. For you, the question goes to activities such as needs analysis, eLearning development, testing and measurement, technology implementation, authoring, graphic design, and so on. It doesn’t matter as much what the activities are; it’s the doing that matters more. To get there, perhaps process is something to put up with so you can be creative, try new things, build interesting solutions, and, if we’re honest, play a little with the technology. For example, you may have keen interest in needs assessment, or testing and measurement, rather than the whole of ID. Or maybe video production, eLearning authoring, gaming, and simulation are what excite you. The question “Is instructional design thriving or dying?” might mean a lot less to you than the stability and opportunities within your specialty area of interest and skill.

Professionally, you might see yourself less as an instructional designer and more as a media developer, video producer, work analyst, performance technologist, evaluation specialist, social media developer, and more. Indeed, your professional identity in these fields may be stronger than your ID identity. For example, you’re a multimedia producer who just happens, for now, to work in training. If this is the case, the question “Is instructional design thriving or dying?” is of a transient concern, as your career aspirations lie elsewhere.

4. Is the current instructional design context thriving or dying?

A final way to view the question revolves around instructional design’s relative position in the broader ecosystem of learning and performance solutions, and perhaps in the even wider area of talent development. Maybe you see yourself as a learning solutions architect who employs approaches far beyond the boundaries of training. As such, you see training (and instructional design) as just one of many tools in your toolkit, no more or no less important than any other.

Instructional design may be dying to you only because you have evolved past it. You recognize its value, but it doesn’t really define you or what you do. So as a field of endeavor, it no long works because, while it serves a tactical purpose, it is far too limited strategically for the work you do, or want to do.

Evolution vs. extinction

Despite flaws that have been identified over the years, there’s a lot of science behind fundamental instructional design principles and practices. And while there have been numerous pseudo-scientific approaches that have gained popularity and then faded away only to be replaced by new frameworks and ideas, those that have proved their resilience, through evidence and practical application, have worked their way into the practice and profession. Maybe it is reinvention, not stagnation; evolution, not extinction.

See, it’s not so simple

Is instructional design thriving or dying (perhaps even dead)? No one can answer this question but you, as it depends so much on your situation, your career aspirations, your level of training and experience, and your organizational culture. Keep this in mind as you review the new research report.

So, the next time someone raises the question, consider where you’re starting from, where you are going, and where your personal values are. Is it about how you do your work, your professional identity, the actual products you produce, or the context of a bigger arena? In other words, not only what works in your organization, but what works for you. Then the answer to this question will become clearer, and real conversation can begin.