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Online Education for Instructional Designers: Picking the Right Program

by Lorna Collier

May 2, 2011


by Lorna Collier

May 2, 2011

“There is no credible ranking for online … programs in instructional design, so you need to do your research to find the best program that fits your goals.”

John O’Connor knew if he wanted to take his career in training and development to the next level he needed a degree. So he chose an online program at Boise State University [], earning a Master’s in Instructional and Performance Technology.

The degree not only gave him a credential and credibility in the field, but also taught him valuable lessons in instructional course design, says O’Connor, an instructional systems specialist with the U.S. Air Force.

“One of the things I learned is that you can have all the bells and whistles in the world,” he says, “but if your course isn’t built on proven, effective technique based on good learning theory, it’s going to crash and burn.”

Instructional designers may choose to go back to school for many reasons, ranging from career advancement to wanting to learn more about theory or tools and techniques. As a result, online programs — masters, PhDs, and graduate certificates — are proliferating, offered both by traditional universities with distance programs as well as online-only schools.

Indeed, online education for instructional designers is “a huge growth area,” says Phillip Harris, head of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology [], which represents about 2,000 instructional designers worldwide.

For-profit online universities such as Capella, Walden, and Kaplan “are really running away with the market,” he says, with traditional universities adding programs in a race to keep up.

Meanwhile, newer programs at schools such as the University of West Georgia [] and the University of Northern Iowa. [] are challenging long-standing online instructional design programs.

With so many online programs available, how do you choose?

Online grad certificates versus master’s programs

Schools as well as non-academic institutions increasingly offer graduate certificates in instructional design.

Such programs usually include about four or five classes and 15 credit hours; typically, if you take your certificate at an academic institution, all or most of these credits are transferable to that school’s master’s degree.

In fact, says Harris, some schools use certificates as promotions for their master’s programs. “They say, ‘You’re this far along, for another 15 credits you can get a master’s.’”

Nicholle Stone is the program advisor and lead instructor for the online graduate certificate program in instructional design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout [] (one of two grad certificates UW-Stout offers; the other is in eLearning). While you can use the certificate courses at UW-Stout for the school’s Master’s in Education, there is no master’s specifically in instructional design.

UW-Stout developed only certificate programs in the field because so many of its students already hold advanced degrees, says Stone.

“A lot of people already have master’s and PhDs,” says Stone. “They don’t need a whole Master’s in Instructional Design to do their jobs better. They just need the courses they need. We designed the ID certificate because we saw the need.”

If students wish to continue for a master’s, the courses transfer, but “the certificate as it stands is helpful. We’ve had excellent feedback from grads that this has helped them get interviews and helped them in their jobs.”

Coursework at UW-Stout includes understanding learning and design theories, models, and instructional strategies, as well as hands-on work developing computer-based training pieces. The work students do is customized to their current job or career interests, says Stone.

“We work with students on what their goals are,” she says. “For example, if they want to be a contractor, we make sure they will have projects that they can use as showcases for contract work.”

Students learn to deliver a design document, with a needs assessment, target audience analysis, course goals and objectives, and attention paid to HPI (human performance improvement); they develop “reusable learning object” content that meets SCORM compliance standards.

“They have to chunk content — the whole nine yards,” says Stone.

Nonetheless, some feel that a master’s degree is a better career option for instructional designers.

Hoyet Hemphill chairs the online Master’s in Instructional Design and Technology program at Western Illinois University [], which also offers undergraduate degrees in instructional design and a technology specialist certificate for K-12 teachers in Illinois.

“In the corporate world, it may help to have a certificate in terms of being a more attractive candidate — but a master’s is going to carry more weight,” he says.

If you are in education, a master’s also has more value: “It’s going to help you more in terms of pay grade,” says Hemphill.

Master’s degrees also can confer more status than a certificate.

Jen Minotti is a project developer/senior technology associate at Boston-based Education Development Corp and holds two Master’s degrees (one in Instructional Technology and Media from Columbia University), as well as a certificate of distance education from the State University of West Georgia, and is working on a certificate in online education from the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C).

Among other benefits, she says her Master’s degree has been “valuable in terms of being written into proposals for grants, as an expert, since EDC is a nonprofit organization.”

On the other hand, certificates cost less than master’s degrees and may be a way for someone to test the waters before plunging into a degree program.

A certificate “may be enough for instructional designers to test to see if they like online learning — before they commit to spending tens of thousands of dollars,” says Minotti.

Besides graduate certificates from colleges and universities, those seeking short-term training in a particular tool or technique can also take classes offered by non-academic institutions, such as Sloan Consortium.[]

Sloan-C’s courses, workshops and webinars focus on specific tools, such as ebook creation, Second Life usage, and video production, as well as pedagogy.

However, while students can earn certificates from Sloan-C, these are not academic credits and not transferable to degrees.

“If you’re young and starting out and need a degree, then a different option [than Sloan-C] might be better,” says Bethany Bovard, instructional design instructor at Sloan.

Don’t forget the docs - PhDs are another option

Master’s and grad certificates aren’t the only choices — PhDs in instructional design also are an option, especially for those who wish to teach in universities.

Alan Reid decided to get his PhD in instructional design and technology at Old Dominion University [] after designing courses at Brunswick Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he is the lead instructor for developmental English.

“I enjoyed designing my courses in BlackBoard and then Moodle, but I had no real training in any of this,” Reid says. “I realized that no one at my college had received any training in designing online — or seated — courses, and after seeing a few poorly designed course shells I wanted to know how to design and develop effective instruction, and I wanted to help others do the same.”

He also wanted to teach at the university level.

Reid chose Old Dominion’s program for its reputation, flexibility (it offers both online and on-campus options) and faculty. The coursework “shapes everything I do at work,” including developing online courses.

“My strong opinion is that all educators should have a basic understanding of fundamental instructional design principles,” says Reid.

Instead, he says, too often, those designing courses don’t know how to incorporate technology effectively, which results in students becoming overwhelmed, confused, and discouraged.

“Instructors throw new technologies at students and expect learning to result. My PhD courses have taught me how to properly design and deliver instruction.”

Questions to ask yourself

Before beginning your school quest, you need to figure out your goals, says Harris.

“You really have to develop your own personal rubric: ‘What is it I am looking to do?’” he says. “There is no Good Housekeeping book where you can look up a recipe to find your ideal school; you have to determine this yourself, based on research and an honest assessment of your professional objectives."

Minotti agrees: “I highly recommend that folks look into various online programs, but they need to do so with an eye toward what they want to do. Do they want to teach? Design? Do research? Many programs differ in terms of their practical versus theory-based approach.”

When O’Connor searched for the right degree program, he looked at what each program’s focus was. “There are a lot of them out there that focus on secondary education. Some focus on corporate training. Some focus just on creating software and hardware solutions.”

O’Connor says those considering more education should answer the questions, “What is your dream? What is your goal?”

People who are happy with a career in creating course content should get a certificate or degree focusing on this, as opposed to a degree like the one he earned at Boise State, which involves more of a management approach.

“My type of degree wouldn’t be a good fit for that, necessarily,” he says. “My degree takes all the theory and all the general knowledge — I’m the person that decides what kind of solution to make. Then I go to a subject matter expert to actually design those tools and create it for me.”

Questions to ask your school

Harris says there is no credible ranking for online master’s or certificate programs in instructional design, so you need to do your research to find the best program that fits your goals.

First, he says, look at the type of design theory the program teaches.

“If I were to look for an instructional design program, the things I’d really want to know about it are related to what it offers in terms of opportunities to learn more about learning and the new information we are discovering about the brain and how that can be addressed in instructional design work.”

Harris favors a student-centered, cognitive approach over a content-centered, behaviorist approach.

For instance, he says, in student-centered design, “you would know about the age group you are designing for and how they learn, in contrast to just knowing a lot about the subject matter and assuming, ‘If I can put it together and you can read it, you can learn it’,” says Harris. “The trend clearly favors the student-centered approach.”

Harris says employers increasingly aren’t just accepting a degree, but looking at the ability of a candidate to perform tasks, usually evidenced by a work history or portfolio. This means it’s important that your degree program provide hands-on work, so that you can gain firsthand experience.

He suggests scrutinizing the specific courses offered and asking to see the syllabi in order to judge the content. Another idea: get a list of graduates and talk with them about their experiences.

Look at a school’s faculty — at their experience in the field, “so you can judge whether the people you are going to take classes from have been engaged in the design of some particular learning task.”

Reid examined faculty bios when choosing his Ph.D. program, going so far as to read articles they’d written.

Cost also needs to be “on your evaluation rubric,” says Harris, “but shouldn’t be the deciding factor.”

What about a program’s status? While many notable and long-term programs exist online (see the chart at the end of this article for a few examples), some are newer and perhaps not as well known. Does this mean you should avoid these degrees? Will employers question them?

“If you had a degree from a place that I wasn’t aware of, that would only give me pause to ask a few other questions about what you know and the work you’ve completed,” says Harris. “It wouldn’t deter me from interviewing you but I’d certainly have to dig a little deeper.”

Overall, says Harris, what’s most important in picking where you go and what you study is “what you want for yourself as a professional. That’s going to be the most important criteria you have to come up with in deciding whether a program is a good choice for you.”




Walden University

Master's in Instructional Design and Technology

$14,153 - $16,913, depending on hours taken; doesn't include $80/semester fee


Certificate in Instructional Design and Technology

$5,340 - $5,520, depending on specialty; doesn't include $80/semester fee

Indiana University

Master's in Instructional Systems Technology



Certificate in Instructional Systems Technology


(Cost may differ for students living in Bloomington, IN.)

Florida State University

Master of Science in Instructional Systems

$14,744 - $15,882 (Florida residents, depending on location)

$37,474 - $38,613 (Florida non-residents, depending on location)


Certificate in Online Instructional Development

$6,143 - $6,618 (FL residents, depending on location)

$15,614 - $16,089 (non-FL residents, depending on location)

Penn State World Campus

Master of Education in Instructional Systems - Educational Technology



Graduate Certificate in Educational Technology Integration


Virginia Tech University

Master of Arts in Education in Curriculum and Instruction - Emphasis in Instructional Technology

$14,963 (Resident)*

$29,055 (Non-resident)

* Discount for in-state K-12 teachers

Utah State University

Master of Education in Instructional Technology


University of Arizona South

Master of Science in Educational Technology

$16,399 (resident)

$47,173 (non-resident)


Graduate Certificate in Educational Technology

$8,171 (resident)

$20,590 (non-resident)

University of Memphis

Master of Science in Instructional Design and Technology

$13,950 (resident)

$16,440 (non-resident - if taking all online courses)

University of Wisconsin-Stout

Instructional Design Online Graduate Certificate

$4,536 - $4,764 (depending when taken)


E-Learning and Online Teaching Graduate Certificate


Nova Southeastern University

Master's in Instructional Technology & Distance Education

$21,285 (does not include student services and registration fees)

Topics Covered

Appreciate this!

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Also consider the MS program at New York Institute of Techonology It is available on campus and online.
I just completed the second of four courses for the UW-Stout Certificate in ID and I'm quite happy with it. I thought long and hard beforehand as to whether or not it was worth it for me. I already have a MA in an education related field. I'm also very self disciplined and learn well on my own.

But I determined that it would give me the kind of focused learning and experience that I wasn't likely to get on my own, and force me to dive deeper into thornier issues such as learning theories, writing objectives, and assessment. And so far, I'm right.

People can learn a lot on the job but we all know how much poorly designed instruction there is out there. Obviously many on the job are not learning well. As mentioned, job growth in this area is huge and we need designers who've taken the time to learn how to design well.
I completed my grad cert from STOUT and should say it was worth it. Should not leave a chance to learn from Susan Manning. You will know how it is to learn from the best!
A low-cost alternative is the E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate Program from ASTD and Allen Interactions. It costs about $1100 ($1300 if you need a membership).
Great article for those of us in the field who have gotten in to the profession from other disciplines. I already hold a PhD and have been considering the pros and cons of a certificate from an educational institution vs. intensive workshops from ASTD or others. That is the logical follow-up to this article and one I would love to read.

Andrew Collins
Another great program is the Learning Systems Design and Development Masters Degree at the University of Missouri - Columbia. They also have a PhD in Learning Technologies and Information Sciences which is quite good!
Thank you for putting forth such a great list of solid schools that offer promising programs of study for those that are seeking continued education in the Distance Education field.

There is one EXCELLENT program that I feel was left off your list. I just attended my own Commencement Ceremony on May 14, 2011 from the University of Maryland: University College, where I received a Master of Distance Education degree.

I had such a wonderful experience in the MDE program I just had to contact you. I have worked in the eLearning Instructional Design field for 11 years and I can say - without a doubt - that the MDE program at UMUC was an amazing complement to my every day work experience. I was able to consistently take what I learned at UMUC and APPLY it to what I did on a day to day basis. They also offer grad cert programs as well.

Please consider this wonderful program, if you ever have the pleasure to write an article like this again?

Melissa A. Smith, MDE
Senior Instructional Designer
Schneider Electric
Does anyone know of any online undergrad degree programs. I've been in the corporate training business for 14 years but have not attained a degree. Now, 14 years, a full time job, and a family later, I need to complete this. For obvious reasons, it needs to be done online.

Any thoughts on the Instructional Design programs at UMass?
KimGreen, I just completed my M.Ed. through UMass-Boston and overall, I consider it an excellent program. One unique feature this program has -- the introductory courses on Nantucket -- gives students a real edge in terms of meeting some profs and classmates. As much of a fan as I of online school and work, it made such a difference to know some of the people in my classes.

Also echoing a previous anonymous comment... Allen Interactions' classes have had a huge impact on how I design. Thumbs up to them.
Don't forget Bloomsburg University. Online and Face-to-Face since 1985.
Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA
Masters in Instructional Technology (
e-learning developer certificate (

(Three semesters to complete)
Pennsylvania Residents, full-time $11,000 (includes fees)
Non-residents, full-time $17,000
I wish there was information from the viewpoint of someone with maybe only 10 years left to work who has lots of work experience, no problems with design, but keeping up with changing technology is another issue altogether and unfortunately, it seems to be the one thing these programs do not get into. Too much theory and not enough practical application with the tools available.
I'm surprised that Emporia State University wasn't included - they have a great Master of Science degree in Instructional Design & Technology, delivered entirely online:

Most of the faculty members are active members of AECT as well as regional and national e-Learning consortia, and the students consistently earn high rankings as well as win ID competitions, such as the PacifiCorp instructional design & development competition:
Another great program to add to your list is the Masters of Instructional Design and Technology (MSIDT) at California State University, Fullerton, College of Education (

The program is completely online except for face-to-face meetings at the beginning and at the mid-point. In my cohort, we had participants from all over the country. Approximately half of our group consisted of K-12 teachers and the other half were corporate or military trainers. Working full time and going to school was difficult, but worth it. My confidence level has increased significantly. It is refreshing to be able to cite specific research results when I need to support the ID decisions I make. I encourage anyone interested in increasing their credentials to consider this program.

The MSIDT is currently accepting applications for the fall 2012 semester.
Just an update -- the FSU online MS program has just seen a tuition REDUCTION for out of state students. The new rate is $544.19/credit hour, bringing the cost of a degree to just under $20K for out of state students.
Here's a more comprehensive listing of various programs:
FYI - All state employees in the state of Florida can get full tuition waivers to take courses at Florida State University - including courses for the Master's degree in Instructional Design & Learning Technology, and the certificate in Online Instructional Development.

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