A work portfolio can provide examples of your creativity, problem-solving abilities, and work philosophy to potential employers. By clearly demonstrating what they can expect from your work if you’re hired, portfolios act as a strong complement to resumé, particularly in fields like instructional design. In the learning design industry, your ability to create engaging, effective learning materials will be essential throughout your career, and there’s no better way to demonstrate your skills than through previous experience.
Gaining experience in instructional design, and using that experience to create finished products, can help you fill your portfolio with impressive examples of your work. The following four ways to get instructional design experience will help you expand your abilities and your sample projects, helping you become a competitive job applicant and land a job in instructional design.
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How to Get Instructional Design Experience
1. Formal Classes
Many colleges and universities understand the importance of experience-based learning when it comes to instructional design. As such, these institutions weave projects into their courses, allowing students to gain real-world experience while putting their classroom learning into practice.
“The signature assignments for my courses are really the work of doing instructional design,” says Gail Matthews-DeNatale, senior associate director at Northeastern’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research and instructor in the University’s Master of Professional Studies in Learning Experience Design and Technology (LXDT) program. “The courses are designed to equip participants with knowledge and skills, but as they are developing those abilities they are also being guided and supported through the process of doing the actual work of an instructional designer.”
As students explore and discuss learning science research, effective practices, and resources, they also apply those findings to projects that address current learning needs in a range of organizations, from elementary school classrooms to corporate human resources trainings.
In one of Matthews-DeNatale’s classes, for example, students produce a two-week, online mini-course as their final project, then make them available online as open educational resources for the public. In addition to supporting the instructional needs of their chosen organization, these projects also give students a concrete example of their ability to solve problems creatively and design effective learning experiences.
Instructional design lends itself easily to freelance and consulting work, as many organizations may need assistance with one-time help in creating learning experiences that don’t always justify hiring a full-time employee.
“The demand for instructional designers is through the roof because so many institutions are expanding their online offerings, from K-12 and higher education coursework to corporate training,” Matthews-DeNatale says.
Working as a consultant on individual projects can be an excellent way to gain more experience and create high-quality examples for your portfolio. By identifying organizations in transition and showing how you can help them create robust instructional programs, you can engage in a wide range of instructional design experiences that will expand your skillset and portfolio.
3. Volunteering in Your Workplace
Similarly, you may find ample opportunity to gain instructional design experience through volunteering to take on a project for your own workplace. In Matthews-DeNatale’s courses, students often choose to focus their projects on challenges found within their own organizations. For example, a student who worked in financial aid at a university noticed that, while incoming students received extensive information on how to manage their financial aid, graduating students would benefit from more support and information when it came time to begin their loan repayment plans.
“My student developed a two-week module, and then all of the financial advisors took that course,” Matthews-DeNatale says. “She was able to turn around and make a significant contribution to her organization.”
The ability to not only create an effective program, but then to successfully implement it and demonstrate its value, illustrates your ability to develop learning experiences that have a positive impact. Real-world implementation of your work is, therefore, a key way to gain instructional design experience that gives you the opportunity to develop your skills and also helps you stand out among competition when applying for jobs.
In a field dedicated to making learning effective and accessible for all, there’s no shortage of new ideas, resources, experiences, and mentors. That’s why Matthews-DeNatale recommends constant networking as a way to gain additional experience and add unique strategies to your toolkit. Soliciting feedback on your work can be an easy first step.
“There’s tremendous power in peer feedback,” Matthews-DeNatale says. “With that, you’re not only learning and getting feedback from faculty, but you’re also learning how to look for quality in each others’ work. I think it giving feedback to someone else also helps you consider what you’re doing well, and areas where you can improve your own work.”
Networking and peer feedback enable students to think strategically and identify experiences that will help them further develop the skills they need most. Matthews-DeNatale also points to networking as a way to collect new resources, many of which are free and available online. She recommends choosing those that are peer-reviewed and backed by learning science to ensure their quality.
Learning Design at Northeastern
Students in Northeastern’s LXDT program constantly engage in design experience. Most classes require the completion of an instructional design project and along the way, students gather and reflect on the work they create in a learning portfolio. According to Matthews-DeNatale, “the learning portfolio helps students think about what kinds of projects or courses will give them more experience in key areas.” The university’s Experiential Network also connects students with consulting opportunities for real-world businesses to address actual training and learning needs.
“In the program’s capstone course, students are prompted to reflect on their program’s outcomes and their classwork to identify where they’re doing well and where they may have some gaps,” Matthews-DeNatale says. They create a polished online portfolio that is a professional, public-facing site designed to explain and showcase their work experiences for potential employers. The portfolio also contains an educational philosophy statement, in which the student discusses their approach to instructional design.
“I find that that really grounds you in being able to speak more holistically to your values and your outlook towards work,” Matthews-DeNatale says.
If you’re interested in advancing in this rapidly growing field, explore the program page below to learn how Northeastern’s MPS in Learning Experience Design and Technology can help.
This article was originally published in May 2020. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.