Organizations seek an outside consultant to fix a problem, improve on efficiency, enhance effectiveness, or create ease to a process or procedure. The instructional design consultant must therefore be a proven expert, prepared with the blended knowledge of problem assessment, learning theory, instructional design systems, evaluative tools, and the skills to demonstrate their ideas (if not implement them entirely) through modern technology. A true consultant is never the decision maker, only there to give advice and guide the client towards effective decisions, but that line is often blurred in instructional design consulting as the consultant may also be responsible for participating in building the solution: developing the instruction, instructional materials, and evaluations, training the trainer(s), and mining the data to interpret it into something the client can easily understand. By leveraging their knowledge and skills, the instructional design consultant provides insight to the client to foster learner success and solve the problem which originated the project, facilitating a return of investment for the client and continual improvement for the organization.
Earning the Consultant Title
Today’s industries are full of consultants; some are revered, others feared. They may play the role of the critic, the doer, or prefer to spectate from the sidelines and wait their turn to facilitate the group’s dynamic (Hale, 2007), but all share a common bond – all consultants must be a proven expert in what they consult upon. If they were not, their opinions would not hold value to the client. Organizations seek an outside consultant to bring a fresh perspective to fix a problem, improve on efficiency, enhance effectiveness, or create ease to a process or procedure (Stefaniak, 2015). The consultant must therefore be perceived as the one knowing the solution, requiring that they possess detailed, yet blended knowledge on the many facets of their consulting field, along with the necessary skills to apply that knowledge, and an insatiable hunger for continual improvement.
The Instructional Design Consultant’s Expertise
In the field of instructional design, there are many areas of expertise for designers to devote themselves toward, such as educational gaming, learning management systems, and distance education. But before narrowing the scope of practice, all designers must master the basics of instructional design; from identifying instructional problems, to implementation of a design, and conducting confirmative evaluations. Without an intimate understanding of the foundations of instructional design, a consultant would be unable to design or implement an effective solution for a client.
Required knowledge. An instructional designer (and thereby an instructional design consultant) must know how to take a systematic approach to any project, which all begins with identifying the problem. This may include a needs assessment of felt, expressed, or critical (in-the-moment) needs, a goals assessment to define the aim of the solution to the problem, and/or analysis of the learners, their attitudes, abilities, and their environment (Morrison, Ross, Kalman, & Kemp, 2013). From there, an instruction will need to be designed or an intervention selected, which will require a working knowledge of design – outlining the objectives first and sequencing the content around those objectives by implementing instructional strategies. There are arguably more instructional strategy theories available than any one consultant could master, but all instructional design consultants must know pre-instructional strategies to prepare the learners for instruction, and message design which will evidence learning through recall, integration, organization, and elaboration (Morrison et al., 2013). Both during and after the development of the design, an instructional designer will also know to perform evaluations. The formative evaluations are conducted during the development and revisional stages of the design to aid in the planning and refinement of the implementation strategies. The summative evaluations are meant to evaluate the learners’ progress at the end of a section or to be a final exam upon completion of the instruction. Confirmative evaluations are the third and final evaluative tool, one that is not always well known by an instructional designers but should be well known to a consultant as it provides data months after instruction has been completed and is the true evaluation to determine if a problem has been successfully resolved. The instructional design consultant must know how to leverage all of these types of evaluations for the success of the learner, to provide insight to the client on the return of their investment, and to continuously hone the skills of the consultant.
Required skills. “Instructional design is the science and art of creating detailed specifications for the development, evaluation, and maintenance of situations which facilitate learning and performance” (Richey, Klein, & Tracey, 2011, p. 3). The development of the message design and performing the tasks of the design begin to depart from the absolute terms of knowledge and release the consultant into the artistic hand of skill. A consultant may employ a variety of mediums into their design, but each requires the skill to utilize the technology of the media and the creative insight to make it meaningful and engaging. An instructional design consultant is considered able to perform their duties if they have the abilities to create and operate a slide-sharing program such as Microsoft PowerPoint®, a word editor, a by-the-numbers data system along the lines of Microsoft Excel®, an image editor, and the Internet – at a minimum. Today’s age of technology has placed higher expectations on the finished product than slides and index cards, but the consultant may or may not be in the position to create the instruction themselves. They may only have the task of guiding the client in instructional design decisions with an educational technologist at the ready to implement the consultant’s simple mock-up into an online learning module. This will depend on the tasks the consultant was hired to perform.
Playing the Part
The Instructional Design Consultant’s Role
Clients and consultants must keep in mind that the role of the consultant is to give advice when a client is faced with a choice (Block, 2011). For the instructional design consultant, that advice will not be presented until the problem has been identified through proper analysis. A true consultant is never the decision maker or manager, only there to give advice and guide the client towards effective decisions, but that line is often blurred in instructional design consulting as the consultant may also be responsible for participating in building the solution (Hale, 2007). Instructional designers often work with a team from (or hired by) an organization, but may be the only one on the team that is trained in instructional design. In these cases, the consultant will perform the analysis, develop the instruction, instructional materials, and evaluations, train the trainer(s), revise the instruction as needed, and complete their consulting project by mining the data and interpreting it into something the client can easily understand.
Accomplishing the task. Instruction as an intervention to a problem can take on many forms because the solution cannot be preconceived. A school district might be looking for more effective typing instruction for students during their computer lab time, so the consultant would follow the theories of early-childhood skill learning while selecting/designing web-based modules for the computer, but their performance assessment might reveal environmental challenges in the form of slow bandwidth in the computer lab. The intervention might drastically change from what the client initially envisioned. It is the consultant’s job to be prepared to handle these challenges and changes. As an instructional designer, the consultant becomes the point person for the team and coordinates between subject matter experts, technology designers, trainers, facilitators, managers, stake holders, systems technologists, and other consultants – anyone involved in the decision making, development, and implementation of the instructional intervention. The instructional design consultant is then able to use the input from the team to formulate the instructional design and its subsequent revisions. If bandwidth upgrades are unavailable due to the rural location of the computer lab, the intervention may change to locally installed software.
Measuring results. The effectiveness of instruction must be measured against the problem which originated the project and the objective(s) of the solution. Similarly, the consultant is measured by the effectiveness of the project and the return on the investment of the client. The results must be interpreted into measurables; such as improved efficiency as evidenced by increased completions of a task per hour, or higher online enrollment rates to demonstrate a more easily understood tutorial. Surveys may also be implemented as part of an instruction’s summative or confirmative evaluations to ask about attitudes, efficiencies, effectiveness, and/or ease enhancements perceived by the learners. When the client sees numeric data to confirm their problem has been solved in partnership with the monetary values of time saved, their expectations of the consultant should be fulfilled or exceeded (provided the consultant did not establish false expectations at the onset of the project). And when the learners are satisfied with what they have learned and how they have learned it, they will have their needs met by the organization, regardless if they know of the existence of the consultant working externally or behind the scenes.
An operational definition seeks to define the standard practices, procedures, and measures, yet instructional design consulting is anything but standard. Each consulting project will be a unique experience with interventions tailored to the individual problem. The instructional design consultant must be prepared to handle the challenges and changes presented to them by relying on the best practices of instructional design. Instructional design consulting might therefore be best described as: “The science and art of facilitating learning through problem analysis with an objective of guiding the client towards instructional intervention to fix a problem, improve on efficiency, enhance effectiveness, or create ease to a process or procedure.”
Block, P. (2011). Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Hale, J. A. (2007). The performance consultant’s fieldbook: tools and techniques for improving organizations and people (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Morrison G. R., Ross S. M., Kalman H. K., & Kemp J. E. (2013). Designing effective instruction (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Richey R. C., Klein J. D., & Tracey M. W. (2011). The instructional design knowledge based: theory, research and practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
Stefaniak, J. E. (2015, September). Identifying instructional problems. Instructional systems design. Lecture presented at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA.