Instructional Technologist, Explained

I bill myself as an instructional technologist, which means I’m often met with blank or puzzled stares. I thought it might be useful to explain my rational for using this title.

Warning: this post may bore you to death, or cause you to get caught up in a tangled web of semantics.

In my opinion, an instructional technologist is a person who specializes in utilizing technology for instructional purposes. (Duh!) It’s a very broad title that can cover many different and often only tangentially-related duties.

When I was younger (so much younger than today), I worked in a number of educational and non-profit organizations in a technology support capacity, including print production, radio broadcasting, audio engineering and video production. With the dawn of the internet, I expanded my skill set to include web development. I relished working in a variety of mediums, and began to think of myself as a media generalist. Being a jack of all trades* was fun, and it felt good to know that most of my projects were educational or somehow helped the community.

When I decided to go to grad school, San Francisco State University’s Instructional Technologies (ITEC) program seemed like a perfect fit. I assumed that the program’s title meant that we would learn how to use technology in an educational capacity. Turns out I was only half right — technology was definitely involved, but I was also informed that “technologies” sometimes referred to adult learning theories and principles, not just just tools. Instructional design, which is completely independent from common notions of technology, was the primary focus of the program. I learned a lot about educational psychology and learning theories while in the ITEC program, and oddly didn’t really learn much about technology as I had traditionally defined it.

Once I graduated from the ITEC program, I jumped right into e-learning development, as both a content author, a course developer, and a course delivery systems programmer (SCORM, course development tools, etc… probably what pipwerks.com is most associated with).

As a content author, I often performed instructional design tasks, including needs assessments, research, writing, and content sequencing. For these tasks, instructional designer seemed most appropriate. However, because I also handled the media authoring and programming side of the courses, many people thought of me as a programmer, web developer or e-learning developer — all of which I felt were also too restrictive. I don’t want to be stereotyped or painted into a corner.

What to do? Well, I hearkened back to my grad school days and copped the title instructional technologist. It felt flexible enough to work for my needs, while still being accurate and even a tad mysterious. Mystery is fun, especially when most of your co-workers have bland titles like “analyst.”

Instructional technologist is also portable. Last week I left my old job and started a new one. While I used to focus on e-learning development and LMS administration, I now work with classroom support in a university setting, with a focus on administering a lecture capture system. Although I’m working in a completely different environment with very different technology, I’m still working with technology in an instructional or educational capacity. I was able to retain my working title of instructional technologist (kudos to my new bosses for agreeing to it).

Many people in universities use a title such as educational technology specialist. That’s a nice title, and very fitting for what they do. However, it also has the connotation of educational institution, such as university or even high school. Since my work has spanned corporate training as well as community and university work, I prefer the word instructional over educational.

So there you have it. Instructional technologist, explained. Think it’s great? Ridiculous? Have a better idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”
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11 Replies to “Instructional Technologist, Explained”

  1. I think Instructional Technologist is appropriate for what you do, although the abbreviation will associate you with THOSE guys working on servers in the back room. 🙂 … This makes me think about what the best description for what I do is – I run the corporate training function at a company, but I’m not a Corporate Trainer because I don’t do much of the training, I’m not really an Instructional Designer even though I do a lot of that as a part of my job, I’m not an Instructional Technologist because that’s only a part of what I do. Training Director sounds so lofty. Still not sure, but thanks for making me think a little about it!

  2. Hi Philip,

    Interesting post. As a fellow ITEC grad, I have been wrestling with the correct term to use for what I do also. I have worked at Universities for many years with titles such as Audio-Visual Technician (pre-LMS days), Instructional Media Specialist (pre-LMS), Instructional Technologist and Educational Technologist. I notice that Stanford often uses the term Technology Integration Specialist for similar positions, which carries a slightly different connotation. UCSF seems to like Learning Technologies Specialist.

    I sort of like Technology Integration Specialist as it suggests someone familiar with cutting-edge technologies who is trying to figure out ways to best integrate them into environments or contexts that existed long before computers, code or networked systems ever did. The technology could be a slate tablet or Sakai, but the focus remains on the thing that the technology is being integrated into. It’s interesting to see how the tools and titles have shifted and will continue to shift in this field.

    Do you have any thoughts on the most important skills and emerging technologies to have a handle on for Instructional Technologists over the next few years? I assume LMS integration and the leveraging of social media tools is important. SCORM, Captivate, streaming video and html/css are extremely important. I worry that many in my graduating cohort have not sufficiently picked up these skills and will find the job landscape daunting.

  3. @jeff
    That’s the problem, isn’t it? Almost everyone in our field wears more than one hat, and it’s very hard to nail down a definition (let alone a title) for what they do. This is especially frustrating when trying to deal with salary issues and determining your worth. Comparisons are very difficult because who do you compare yourself to? There’s no standard definition.

    @kyle
    I think it really depends what the person’s focus is. It seems the most attention is given to variations of e-learning: traditional asynchronous e-learning courses, blended learning, synchronous online learning, etc. However, an instructional technologist can work in many areas, including classrooms and labs that don’t use the internet at all. For example, I’ve always daydreamed about creating exhibitions for museums. There are all kinds of great uses of technology in museums, and many more possibilities, but they don’t necessarily tie in to the internet or social media. The Experience Music Project in Seattle is a great example of museum-meets-lab, with lots of great use of technology.

    If the technologist’s focus is some form of e-learning (as opposed to classroom- or lab-based based technologies), then it would certainly behoove them to become intimately familiar with the medium: HTML (including HTML5), CSS, JavaScript (including frameworks), some Flash/ActionScript, streaming video systems, etc. Rapid development tools such as Captivate and Articulate Presenter are useful, but if you’re looking to do custom integration between systems, many of these off-the-shelf tools don’t give you much programming flexibility.

    In my mind, social media (from a technology point of view) is essentially a set of web-based services that provide public APIs; these APIs are simply tools in a toolbox, and you have to find a use for them. They will not always be useful. However, if you determine you want to use them for education/training purposes, then you’d need to have an understanding of what the systems can do, plus have the vision and programming skills be able to integrate the APIs with your other system(s), whether it’s an LMS, a CMS, a blog, or whatever you’re experimenting with. Vision can’t really be taught (though it can be nurtured), and programming tasks can be farmed out to specialists.

    As far as the technical skills of ITEC grads, they run the gamut from super techie to as technologically savvy as grandma. It’s to be expected some people will graduate without a sterling set of technical skills; however, as I mentioned in my post, the ITEC program spends a lot of time on educational psychology (theories such as behaviorism, constructivism, etc.) and pragmatic skills such as curriculum development and project management. Not everyone needs to be a developer or IT-minded person.

    1. It hasn’t gone anywhere near as smoothly as we had hoped. I’ll refrain from naming the vendor for now (sorry, it’s a touchy subject at the office).

  4. I wish I was smart enough to be an Instructional technologist. I stumbled on your website looking for information on which LMS worked best with CP5. If you have time I have some questions but I broke my shoulder So I am typing one handed. My work is just converting from Flash to CP5 for courses, so I have alot of questions.

    1. I suggest posting them on the E-Learning Technology and Development Google Group, as there are many experienced Captivate developers there (including me) who have used a variety of LMSs.

      I was in a motorcycle accident once and couldn’t use my right hand for weeks (I’m right-handed, so it was very difficult). I suggest using a speech-to-text tool, it will make life easier. 🙂

  5. Thanks for responding. I think I’m doing pretty good with CP5 but I would like to understand better all these other files that are created when a project is created with SCORM reporting.

  6. I’m not sure where I fit but that’s not unusual; I’m easily confused. My title is ‘instructor’ and I love teaching and interacting with young adults (which keeps me fresh). By day, I ‘instruct’ in a two-year engineering-technologist programme and, by evening, use my comp sci degree to (attempt to) create better learning and assessment materials.

    I use LaTeX with Acrotex for interactive pdfs (particularly good for nice-looking calculus materials), php for engineering-type problems with randomized inputs and immediate marking/feedback and some Flex-based active solutions. I’m starting to look into HTML5 and Javascript (that’s what brought me back to pipwerks; I’ve used your SCORM wrapper for Flash – wonderful, thanks – and was returning for the JS sibling). This is independent of my day job but I have seen very positive results from my learners.

    As you are aware, all this development takes a lot of time. The philosophy at the institution where I work seems more concerned with the quantity of course modules produced than the actual quality of any particular product. How common is this in your experience? As a result, I prefer the freedom of being unpaid rather than the frustration of being underpaid and turning out arbitrary-deadline-driven mediocre product.

    Having developed a certain ambivalence towards the area of ‘instructional design,’ I was quite (pleasantly?) surprised when I stumbled across the (largely) distance-delivered master’s programme in digital media and instructional design offered by Harvard University Extension School and found that I most of the courses cover areas in which I have considerable interest (and, I must admit, already have some experience). There does seem to be more focus on technology than pedagogy, although there appear to be a couple of interesting educational theory courses. I have already started along this path so it may be late to ask: Do you know anything of this programme and how it compares to ITEC?

    Thanks again for the resource that is pipwerks.com.

    1. @dave Thanks, I’m glad you’ve found the site useful. RE: Harvard, haven’t heard of that program, but it sounds very interesting. RE: quality versus quantity, I’ve had multiple clients/bosses, so I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I’ve definitely worked with people who don’t care if the product ships with bugs or is instructionally deficient, so long as they can tick the item off their compliance to-do checklist. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with supportive people who care about quality and are willing to provide extra time to ensure the job is done right, knowing that in the end it will pay off with fewer maintenance issues, more future-proof code, and hopefully more engaging and enjoyable instructional content.

      I’ve also definitely spent a lot of my personal time on some of these projects; regardless of deadlines and budgets, I have my own standards to uphold.

  7. I myself did use Instructional Technologist but now I say e-learning developer. The whole adding of E… to whatever in our everday life for some reason makes it easier for people to digest. Of course with the mobile revolution being what it is we might have to start saying something like Mobile Learning Developer. I would be more profitable.

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