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The Age-Old Debate: Theory vs. Tools

Every now and then, I end up in a conversation with a faculty member, co-worker, or employee about what I consider the age-old debate: Should instructional designers learn tools or theories? While I find it important to know both - eventually - initially, the theory should come first. At least that is my thought process and I wanted to blog today about why.


This week, I had a student come to ask advice on interviewing as he has a job interview in the field of ID. As this is his first 'official' job, he wanted to know my opinion on how to discuss the different tools he has used and if he should learn a few more tools before his interview. I immediately stopped him. First, learning a new tool in less that a week can sometimes be difficult. Second, learning a tool sometimes does not mean you are proficient in it. It made me think and consider if knowing a bunch of tools is the right thing - and I stand by with that does not make you an instructional designer.

Let me first clarify, I think every IDer should have at least one authoring tool in their kit. This is especially true if you have been in the field for a year or so. However, right off the bat, I feel every instructional designer should understand the theories, models, and process behind design decisions regardless of the tool you are using. If you are using a tool without the right theory or idea behind it - you may be causing a bigger problem than actually solving an issue.

So - how do you market yourself? Welp, I am a strong believer that the theory, model, and process is harder to learn. These sometimes take experiences, multiple readings, and experiences to understand how these come into play. Learning a tool is something you can more easily obtain. There are numerous websites, training(s), and videos to help someone learn a tool. Learning the reasons behind why you do activities - is much harder and it takes more practice. When I marketed myself during interviews - I always said that learning a tool is much easier than understanding the reason for using the tool. If not understood properly, you can actually hurt the design and development of a project.

If you have a larger team - it may make sense to have a developer who would work with tools in conjunction with another instructional designer. In these cases, someone who has both experiences may be a better fit. You could have a need for a person who specializes in the tool and doesn't necessarily need a strong understanding of "why" the design is set up the way it is. However, in most cases, I feel these positions are few and far between.

Using a tool for the sake of using a tool - I'm not a huge fan of. For those who are in the hiring of new IDers - what are you looking for? Are you looking for an instructional designer who can use tools? Or are you looking for an individual who understands the process behind why you do things? Are you looking for a mix of both? What are your experiences and what are the best characteristics you want in a team member?

I'd love to hear more experiences on this and how you feel about this topic.


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