5 Essential Skills for Your Instructional Design Job

I made the biggest career change decision of my life 5 years ago, and it led me to where I am now.

Like many working adults, I had limited choices. I previously worked two jobs: part-time primary school teacher by day; airport logistics security officer by night. You can read the whole story here.

I fondly recall how it was a time of high growth for me. For 3 years, with very limited free time in between shifts, I upskilled through several free instructional design online courses on edX, Coursera, and OpenLearning.com. Eventually, it was these qualifications that landed me my current job as a learning designer in Malaysia.

However, I soon realised that in order to stay relevant, a learning designer needs to develop industry specific skills and soft skills beyond the usual instructional design theories such as the ADDIE model and Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

This blog post outlines what those skills are, and how I’ve learned them on the job during my 4 years of designing and developing online courses at OpenLearning.


1. Continuous and lifelong learning skills

This is arguably the most future-proof skill that you can develop as a learning designer, instructional designer, or someone who is in the position of designing learning experiences. 

Continuous learning is important in any profession—but it is doubly important for learning designers, who are on the giving and receiving end of the continuous learning process. 

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, explained in the 2018 Future of Jobs report that individuals must take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning so they remain relevant in the future.


How to build this skill: 

Three square images. The first says 'Learn the theory or concept', the second says 'observe how others apply them in their own courses', and the third says 'implement ideas in your own course'.

First, it’s important to learn everything you can about the theories and concepts behind learning design.

I started by reading articles on:

  • active learning
  • student-centred pedagogy
  • how to create engaging content and lessons using different types of authoring tools
  • Constructivism

I was totally immersed by the ideas put forth from these theories and kept digging deeper into them. Once I understood the concept of making learning fun as a whole, more ideas on designing activities started pouring in. 

Reading, watching teaching-related Youtube videos, and even taking free MOOCs such as The OpenLearning Learning Design Series also helped me a lot.


A screenshot from inside the Learning Design Basics course on OpenLearning

The OpenLearning Learning Design Series contains three free courses on the basics of Learning Design, such as online course creation and facilitation.


Besides that, observing how other educators present their teaching and learning materials is a great way to find new techniques and tricks for designing your own course content. One way I do this is by enrolling myself as a learner in other online course platforms such as FutureLearn, Udacity and edX to observe how other course creators present their materials and information and what type of activities they do to engage with their learner.

Finally, it's important to implement what you have learned in your own course. For me, designing online courses for clients is my testing ground where I can apply what I have learned from theory and from other examples.


2. Visualisation skills

Most of the time, learning designers will receive content in plain text format. Sometimes, you’ll be given a set of textbooks, Powerpoint slides or even a PDF. It is the learning designer’s task to process the information and think of how best to organise the concepts as infographics, storyboards, videos or even audio recordings.


How to build this skill:

Brainstorming with fellow learning designers on how to visualise instructional graphics. If you’d like to do the same, click here to join our Facebook community. Sometimes observing how other educators visualise their teaching and learning materials is a great way to find new techniques and tricks for designing your own online course. 

For example, I still remember when I worked on a course development project introducing smart factories. I received written content from my SME on “how a smart factory connects all processes and materials to generate the data necessary to make real-time decisions…” 

Did you catch that? It’s a difficult concept to teach without any kind of visual help. 

In brainstorming sessions with my team, we found out that smart factories have many interconnected processes that we simply couldn’t represent as a static image. So, we decided to create an interactive GIF which helped the concept to come alive:


A GIF showing 9 sections of a smart factory connected by a conveyor belt and drones.

A visualisation of the smart factory concept that is available in the ‘Industry 4.0: Transformation towards Industry4WRD’ course on OpenLearning. Clicking on the buttons opens up a text box explaining each process.


3. Writing skills

Writing is one of the most important skills for any learning designer, and you could say it’s the most important aspect of any online course. Crystal-clear, compelling writing is what inspires learners and helps them to capture information easily.

I struggled with this during my early days as a learning designer—fortunately, my teammates helped me a lot with proofreading and grammar. Besides this, I also took classes to improve my writing and contributed to the OpenLearning blog to demonstrate my new skills.


How to build this skill:

The only way to improve your writing is by reading and writing on your own and getting feedback from others. If you’re unable to get direct feedback, use writing assistants like the Hemingway editor and Grammarly app instead. You may also hire a copywriter or get help from writing assistants so you can improve your writing.

Try to understand your learners and write for them in a more conversational tone.  I strongly recommend mastering technical writing skills such as writing with an active voice and present tense. Also, try to chunk information as best you can.This skill is the most obvious rule of good learning design, yet it is one of the most overlooked.


4. Active listening skills

Learning designers need to have strong active listening skills. Most of the time, subject matter experts (SMEs) will send over a lot of content and materials for their online course. In some instances, you will only use some of the resources received, whereas in some cases, you will need to ask for more materials. 

It is part of our job description to go through the content and ensure that they're enough to meet the learning objectives. To figure out what’s important, you will need to ask relevant questions and listen to your clients’ expectations. It is important to capture their bigger goal for the course. This way, you'll have a clearer idea of the direction of the course and be able to meet the clients expectations better


How to build this skill:

During stakeholder discussions, be mindful of simple things like paying attention and withholding judgment. You can practise active listening by summarising and clarifying your client’s requirements after each discussion. It’s a good idea to keep a record of all stakeholder discussions and feedback using free collaboration tools such as Google Drive or Miro. 

Our free instructional design document template is fully editable and enables you to keep track of course content discussions with your clients, subject matter experts, and team.


5. Technology skills

One thing I realised in the past decade is how quickly technology changes. Often, learning designers must create and design both new and existing learning content and experiences using available technological tools—whether it’s a new authoring tool, video editing tool, or graphic design tool such as Canva. 

A learning designer needs to be tech-savvy—so if you hate learning new technology or struggle to learn on your own, a learning designer career path may be a steep learning curve for you.


How to build this skill:

Take a hands-on approach when trying out new platforms, apps, or tools. If you get stuck, remember that most software comes with a ‘knowledge base’, ‘academy’ or ‘creator community’ that is full of inspirational content and how-to guides. Try doing a quick search on Google to see if the tool you’re using offers any such support. 



The current Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the workforce and education industry as a whole. Many institutions are hiring learning designers to digitise their face-to-face programs—the demand for learning designers currently outweighs supply. So, if you are a teacher or someone who possesses the skills above, you may be surprised to find how qualified you are for a role in learning design or instructional design.

If I can do this, so can you. Get started with some of the learning design online courses that I took in my first month at OpenLearning:

  1. Learning Design Basics: Pedagogy into Practice
  2. Design a World-Class Course
  3. Facilitating for Success

All the best!


OpenLearning is an online learning platform that enables anyone around the world to create, market, and sell online courses to over 2 million people (and growing!) worldwide.


Go to OpenLearning.com

Topics: Professional Development

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