Instructional Designer Competencies

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Timothy W. Spannaus, Instructional Technology, Wayne State University

Instructional design is a key component of the field of Instructional Technology, and defining the competencies of an instructional designer[1] has been a long-running effort of the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi®)[2] along with efforts by the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) [3]and American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) [4] for related roles in human performance technology [5] and workplace learning and performance[6] respectively.

This chapter is written (2009, with revisions in 2011) as ibstpi is revising and updating its Instructional Designer Competencies. While the revised competencies cannot be included here yet, the discussion is certainly relevant to that effort. Note that while I worked on previous versions, I am not involved with the revision except as one of many reviewers of the draft competencies.

The changes are a response to changes in the context in which the competencies are used. These changes include technologies, our understanding of the role of an instructional designer vis-a-vis other actors in the learning space, and changes in the learners themselves. Others, including ASTD[7], recognize these changes and respond similarly.

This chapter will discuss the background and recent history of designer competencies, changes in the environment, and finally offer some recommendations for future competency studies.

Background of Instructional Designer Competencies

This section offers key definitions, differentiates between instructional designers and related roles, including that of the learner and instructor, and includes examples of competencies from the most recent ibstpi definition while establishing the ibstpi competency model.

First, we must define our terms. These are based on those in Richey, Fields & Foxon (2001).

Competency: "A knowledge, skill or attitude that enables one to effectively perform the activities of a given occupation or function to the standards expected in employment (p. 31)."

One such competency is the following: 1. Communicate effectively in visual, oral and written form. (Essential)[8]

Instructional designer: "Those persons who demonstrate design competencies on the job regardless of their job title or training (p. 36)." Further, note that, "Few instructional designers, regardless of their levels of expertise, are able to successfully demonstrate all ID competencies (p. 40)."

Note that the competency statement quoted above includes the notation (Essential). Some other competencies are tagged as (Advanced), such as the following:

4. Apply fundamental research skills to instructional design projects. (Advanced)[9]

Ibstpi does not expect that all designers would apply this Advanced competency, though those who do not would still be considered to be Instructional Designers, by the definition above. Further, ibstpi recognizes specializations among designers, such as e-learning specialist or analyst/evaluator, whose sets of competencies would not be the same, would not include all of the ibstpi competencies, and yet are still Instructional Designers.

The instructional designer is one actor among many in the learning or instructional context. Paquette (2004) identified five actors or roles in learning, including learner, trainer, manager, designer, and content expert. Each has a particular function in learning and all are essential and interdependent. More than one person may serve in a role in a given learning system and conversely, one person may take on more than one role. Nor are the roles static. Sims and Koszalka (2008) and Dela Teja & Spannaus (2008) agreed with Paquette that the learner may take on more of the instructor/trainer or designer's decisions in the web-based learning environment, selecting and organizing learning resources to suit individual objectives and preferences. Yet even in this expanded learner role, the learner is not considered to be an instructional designer, in the sense of the definition, because the role of designer is incidental to the primary function of learning.

Other related roles include, among others, performance technologists or performance improvement professionals (Guerra, 2003) and workplace learning professional (Bernthal et al., 2004), evaluator, training manager, and instructor. Among these, the distinctive feature of the instructional designer, and hence of instructional designer competencies, is the emphasis on analyzing a situation, learners or context, selecting instructional strategies and media, developing instructional content and materials, bringing them to use by the target population and evaluating their effectiveness. While instructional designers also design and develop non-instructional performance improvement interventions, the focus is on instructional and learning interventions.


The International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi) has defined competencies for instructional designers, evaluators, instructors, and training managers. For the 2000 ID Competencies, ibstpi used a competency model beginning with the job role. It then proceeded to identify job behaviors, accepted standards and a vision of the future, to validated knowledge, skills and attitudes. The result was four domains, comprising 23 competencies, each supported by up to nine performance statements (Richey, Fields & Foxon, 2001). A key differentiator of the ibstpi process from others is the validation step. Draft competencies, prepared by the board and reviewed and revised by an expert panel, are then reviewed and revised by hundreds of designers, recruited worldwide, using a web survey.

The domains are broad categories of competencies, and include Professional Foundations, Planning and Analysis, Design and Development, and Implementation and Management.

The 2000 ID Competencies further identify specializations within the ID role, of Analyst/Evaluator, E-Learning Specialist, and Project Management Specialist (Richey, Fields & Foxon, 2001). Ibstpi later defined Evaluator as its own role in a separate set of competencies (Russ-Eft et al., 2008).

The Analyst/Evaluator specialization sets the standards for those who define the instructional or performance problem, analyze the context, content and audience, so that the instructional intervention which will be developed is solidly grounded in data. As the intervention is under development and comes into use, persons in this specialization evaluate it, first to identify improvements and later to measure effectiveness.

The e-Learning specialization identifies those with specific technical and design skills for creation of web-based or other technology-based instruction and learning tools, such as web development or programming skills.

The Project Management specialization identifies those with particular competence in planning and executing design and development projects, including developing and maintaining work breakdown structures, schedules, reports, and budgets (Richey, Fields & Foxon, 2001).

Typical of the ibstpi ID competencies is this one, previously quoted above, from the Professional Foundations domain:

Competency: 1. Communicate effectively in visual, oral and written form. (Essential)

Performance Statements: a) Create messages that accommodate learner needs and characteristics, content and objectives. (Essential) b) Write and edit text to produce messages that are clear, concise, and grammatically correct. (Essential) ... i) Facilitate meetings effectively. (Essential) (Richey, Fields & Foxon, 2001; p. 46-47)

Note some key features in this example. There is a three level structure of domain, competency and performance statement, at increasing levels of detail. The competencies and performance statements are indicated as to whether each is Essential or Advanced, though in this particular example none are Advanced.

Performance statements are written with the same structure as the competency, but are more detailed. They are intended to list the behaviors that a competent person (based on the competency) would display (Richey, Fields & Foxon, 2001).

Other definitions

While any discussion of instructional designer competencies must deal with those prepared by ibstpi, others have defined competencies or standards that are related. The structure and coverage of these other sets of competencies vary. This section will deal with prominent standards from other professional associations.

The standards or competencies from the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) and American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) overlap those from ibstpi. With somewhat different job roles in mind, the competencies serve different purposes.

With fewer statements covering a broader field ISPI's Standards for Performance Technologists (2002) are necessarily more general than ibstpi's. For example, ibstpi's performance statement, "Recommend and advocate non-instructional solutions when appropriate (Richey, Fields & Foxon, 2001, p. 48)" is considered to be Advanced, and many performance statements and competencies related to instructional solutions are rated Essential. While the instructional designer role is concerned primarily with instruction, the role of the performance technologist would include other kinds of interventions as well as identifying a cause so that the practitioner can select interventions and strategies.

The ISPI structure is in three levels, including the Standard, Performance, and Criteria (ISPI, 2002). They are phrased, like ibstpi's, as imperatives, such as "Add value (p. 9)." Six of the ten standards begin with "Be systematic (p. 15)" followed by the name of a phase or task, "Be Systematic-Needs or Opportunity Analysis (p. 15)." Each such standard includes examples of how practitioners might demonstrate achievement of the standard.

The ASTD competencies (Bernthal, et al. 2004) offer a different structure, with Roles, Areas of Responsibility, and Foundational Competencies. The competencies are fairly general, but viewed through a specific role or area of responsibility, become applicable to a particular person and context. One of the four roles, Learning Strategist, would include instructional designers, among others. Any individual may play different roles depending on the situation. The other roles include Professional Specialist, Business Partner, and Project Manager. ASTD competencies are brief gerund phrases, such as, "Communicating effectively (Bernthal, et al., 2004, p.9)."

Guerra (2003) identified and validated 58 competencies for performance improvement professionals, finding a disparity between what respondents said they did with what they said they ought to do for the overwhelming majority of the competencies. This finding suggests that competencies may be seen as an ideal, which a practitioner rarely achieves. Richey, Fields & Foxon (2001) explicitly deal with the tension between what is compared with what ought to be by assuming that the ibstpi competencies define how ID ought to be practiced.

New technologies, new opportunities, new job roles

Standards and competencies are products of their time and context. The 2000 ID Competencies (Richey, Fields, & Foxon, 2001) attempted to look forward and incorporate trends in the field, notably growth of ID practice in the private sector, cognitive theory, globalization, technology, and the influence of performance technology. In their recent chapter, Sims and Koszalka (2008) cite technological changes, changes in learners and increased attention to constructivism[10].

Some of these relate to each other, particularly technological advances and changes in how we think about learning. This linkage of technology and design is explained well by Petroski (1992), who though he wrote about design in an engineering context, can be understood to be about design in a general sense, as solving problems within constraints (Petroski, 1992). In many situations, designers create new products about which there is as yet inadequate theory and research to conclusively predict that the design will work. In the context of an instructional designer, the advent of the World Wide Web, for example, offered new capabilities and resources to the designer, and designers rushed to exploit them. Later, researchers study the innovations to find out if and how they work (Friesen, 2009).

In another take on the relationship between technology and learning theory, Friesen (2009) wrote about the relationship of mind and machine. Just as behaviorism brought about the teaching machine, and the computer and information processing fostered the cognitive revolution, constructivism, to some extent, is facilitated by the abilities of the computer to support the construction and testing of knowledge, through "representation, mapping, and verification (p. 83)."

It is not necessary for the purposes of this chapter to sort out contemporary learning theories and philosophies. What is important is to create and use instructional designer competencies that are current in terms of the theories designers can be expected to know and use in their work.

The current (2000) ibstpi competencies, for example, are grounded in behaviorist and cognitivist thinking (Sims and Koszalka, 2008). That orientation would be supported by, among others, Mayer, (2004) and Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006). In support of a broader perspective, Spiro and DeShryver (2009) wrote that cognitivist approaches are best suited for well-structured domains (WSD) and that constructivism is the approach to take for ill-structured domains (ISD).

For the competent instructional designer, it is required to be adaptable, fluent in behaviorist, cognitivist and constructivist strategies, and knowing when each is appropriate.

Instructional-Design Theory

(Comment: At present this section has little direct connection with ID competencies. These need to be added.)

For the instructional designer, it is not enough to understand learning theory. Snellbecker (1974) argued that educators need, in addition to learning theory, instructional theories that integrate and synthesize learning theories. Later, Reigeluth (1999) described instructional-design theory, with these characteristics:

  • It is design oriented, "focusing on means to attain given goals for learning and development (p. 6)," rather than describing what happens in particular cases.
  • It identifies methods of instruction and how the designer would know when to use specific methods.
  • The methods can be further analyzed to specify more detailed methods
  • The methods are probabilistic, meaning that they "increase the odds of attaining the goals (p. 7)" rather than, in the manner of Newtonian physics, predicting exactly what will occur given specific methods and learning context.

There are challenges in moving from learning theory to instructional theory or instructional-design theory. Clark (2009a) observes that research findings on learning do not necessarily transfer easily into practice. In particular, constructivism as a theory of learning provides little guidance for the design of instruction (Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005; Mayer, 2009; Clark, 2009b). Indeed, from the radical constructivist perspective, design activities center around the environment and providing a rich set of tools, rather than specifying instructional scope and sequence (Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005).

Designers following Gagne (Gagne & Briggs, 1979; Gagne, 1977) or other cognitivists analyze the learning tasks, subdividing objectives into more detailed objectives and identifying prerequisite knowledge and skill, classify them according to Gagne's categories and hierarchy, then specify learning activities for each, based on internal and external conditions and Gagne's Events of Instruction. [I acknowledge simplifying Gagne and Briggs in this description, but even the simplified version will serve for the current purpose.]

In contrast to the design and development activities and decisions described here, even the notion of pre-defined objectives and goals is foreign to the constructivist developer (Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005). Constructivists see the creation of a rich learning environment, including tools, resources, scaffolding, and collaboration as the goal. As seen in the prior discussion, the learning theory behind that design does not lend itself to theory-building of the sort set out by Reigeluth and Snellbecker.

New Directions

As noted above, competencies are a product of the time and context. Over the past thirty years, the lists of schools of thought in educational psychology texts have gone from a dozen or so (Hilgard & Bower, 1975) to more than thirty (Woolfolk, 2009). This explosion reflects a huge broadening of thinking about learning and instruction over that period, implying demands for a much broader range of competencies of instructional designers. The 1986 instructional designer competencies reflected the understandings of design from behaviorism. The 2000 ID competencies were derived from the rise of cognitivism, among other things (Richey, et al., 2001). The Sims and Koszalka chapter (2008) strongly argues for a shift to constructivism and an acknowledgment of the changes on the learner population.

The second change is rise of constructivism. The Tobias and Duffy (2009) volume brings together a collection of chapters from some of the best researchers in the field of learning and instruction, from all sides of the constructivism discussion. Particularly strong are the chapters by Mayer (2009) and Spiro and Deschryver (2009). These chapters, from opposing points of view, acknowledge the strengths of the other position and the limitations of their own positions.

For the competent instructional designer, the challenge is to remain current in the research and thinking about learning and instruction. Referring again to Petroski's understanding of design (1992), designers and developers as practitioners are often working beyond the empirical data. Technologies, contexts, goals and objectives, and audiences provide opportunities and make demands on designers for which there is no conclusive research guidance. Yes, we may be able to draw analogies to previous technologies and contexts, as we did when the World Wide Web became available to us and we drew on our understanding of computer-based training. We experiment with new designs, agreeing with Petrosky (1992) that each new design is a hypothesis about what will work.

How do we write ID competencies in this changing environment? We acknowledge that competencies are dated as soon as they are published. We specify that designers stay current with research and design according to the best evidence available at the time, and extend their designs beyond the evidence, extrapolating with caution. Unlike Petrosky's subjects, as instructional designers we aren't always creating structures in which failure may result in death. We are creating learning systems on which accurate performance depends, occasionally in life-threatening situations. In low criticality situations, we may be able to push the boundaries. In high-criticality settings, we will want to stay closer to the empirical evidence. Competencies should reflect these critical differences in the stakes.


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About the author

Timothy W. Spannaus, PhD is Program Coordinator and Senior Lecturer in the Instructional Technology program at Wayne State University, Detroit, USA. He served as director of the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi) from 1995 to 2004, and was president from 1999 to 2003. He was elected ibstpi Fellow in 2006. While on the ibstpi board, Tim contributed to the 2000 ID Competencies project and book, and was co-author of the Training Manager book. Recent related work has focused on identifying competencies for online learning, resulting in a book chapter with Ileana de la Teja.