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How I Became an Instructional Designer: Julie

In the last few years I’ve noticed an increase in the number of questions I’ve been asked by visitors to Arizona State University about the Instructional Designers on our team, Instructional Design & New Media, in EdPlus. People want to know about their backgrounds and academic credentials, how we find them, how we hire them, how they work as a team, how they manage their workloads, and more. It occurred to me as I answered these questions that there is a lot I don’t know about how the Instructional Designers in our group arrived at their jobs. I decided to interview some of the team to find out more about the paths they’ve taken to get here. Along the way, I was fortunate enough to have access to some of our colleagues at King’s College, London, with whom we work as part of the PLuS Alliance. In the end, I was able to interview six Instructional Designers from ASU and three from King’s College. My goal is to include Instructional Designers from our other PLuS Alliance partner, University of New South Wales, in the future.

The following includes highlights, pivotal life moments, and milestones that came out in the conversations. One post in the series will be published here at the TeachOnline website each week for nine weeks.

 Julie – Phoenix – ASU

I was born in Mesa, Arizona, and I attended school there.

My dad was a music major originally, and he played bassoon, which was really his passion. The longer he was in it, however, the more he realized that playing professionally was probably not going to happen. In attempting to avoid a career in teaching, he pursued his bachelor’s degree in computer science and eventually landed a job at a large technology company. He made a very, very good living, but he absolutely hated his job. In fact, he ended up retiring early and now he just travels the world, staying with people and living a nomadic life.

My mom was a med tech. Originally, she wanted to be a biology teacher, but she had an instructor tell her in college that women didn’t do that, so she changed her career plans. She went back to ASU and earned her degree in computer science, so both my parents ended up eventually working in that field.

For my sister and I, playing an instrument was a not a choice. We did have a choice in terms of what we wanted to play, but we were going to be in some kind of music program. My sister played the French horn, and I played the clarinet. While we really didn’t have a choice at the beginning, we really enjoyed it as we grew up.

My mom is very practical. She’d say, “That’s nice that you like music, but don’t quit your day job. Make sure that you’re also being practical about something that is a marketable skill.

When I first came to ASU, I was an art major. That was about the same time that Disney laid off a bunch of animators. Fox Studio was here in Phoenix and they closed down. I had wanted to do hand-drawn animation, not the computer stuff, which really didn’t interest me. I’m a purist, I guess, and I was snotty about it. It seemed that, as much as I loved this, I didn’t know that I was talented enough in that ever-shrinking pool to realistically do it for a living.

I was interested in photojournalism, so I started working for the university newspaper and took writing classes. I found that I had a talent for the writing, though, and decided that might be a better fit for me. I always enjoyed writing as a creative pursuit. I’m good at organizing my thoughts in a logical way, expressing myself, and editing my own writing. I felt like journalism was at least training me for a craft, and I felt I could see a clear career progression.

I ended up getting a job at a really tiny, local independent newspaper. It was like the free papers that you get on your driveway that most people toss right into the recycle bin. The editor who hired me was just a wealth of knowledge. I think he was in his 50s, and he had worked in journalism forever. He knew this stuff, had very high standards, and was not afraid to push back — his whole thing was, there’s no crying in baseball, right? There’s no crying at work. I actually really appreciated that, because I felt that he had very, very high quality standards and I learned not to take feedback so personally.

Then I worked at Jewish News, which was just such an amazing learning experience. I’ve never worked anywhere with such unbelievable quality control. Sometimes I would see a page nine or ten times before there was no red ink on the page, and three people had signed off. It was the most intense editing process, and we went through that week after week. In looking back, maybe it was a little much. The experience, however, trained me to really have that critical eye, that extreme attention to detail when I was proofreading things that I think served me well later on.

I came across an editing position with a very large private, for-profit university. I thought it would be really interesting to work for a university, to work in education. I felt like the editing was a natural fit, since I had had so much editing experience. They were such a big employer. I thought I could probably earn a master’s degree for free. Then there was the salary, which was going to be a $10,000 increase from where I was working. So, it’s like, heck yeah! That was really a sea change moment for me. It ended up completely changing the trajectory of my professional career because I worked in their instructional design and development department.

Eventually, I was promoted to senior editor. I remember wanting to stay maybe six months after my promotion because I was already thinking about the next step. You always have to be thinking about what the next step might be.

At that same time, instructional designers were starting to leave. It just seems like this sometimes happens with organizations. It’s a turning point. All of a sudden, it seemed like all these people started to move on to other opportunities. Some went to universities, some went into corporate training, and others left to become multimedia designers. People were going all over the place, which made it clear that there’s a lot of job growth in this industry. I pursued an instructional developer position there, which was basically what we know as an instructional designer. I worked directly with the faculty to develop the course materials. I loved that the job was creative and I got to wear abunch of different hats, so to speak.

After a few years of instructional design work, I left to work for a new startup. It was a full-time telecommute position, so I was working from home each day in my jammies. The flexibility was fantastic, especially because I could go to the gym at 2 in the afternoon when nobody was there. It was pretty great. I don’t think my husband liked it much because he would come home and find me all disheveled. He’d ask if I even brushed my teeth, and honestly some days I hadn’t because I just sat in my jammies all day. In the end, though, it really was nice to have the independence and autonomy.

I ended up leaving the start-up to work for EdPlus as an Instructional Designer. The environment is worlds apart, and I just feel it in my bones that working with a for-profit is drastically different than working here. The world of EdPlus is definitely more focused on the needs of the student and academic integrity, as opposed to being worried about just profit, profit, profit.

Marc: What one piece of advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

I think I would tell myself just to not stress so much. When I was younger, I felt so much pressure to pick what I was going to do and what I was going to become. My career has been such an evolution.

I think that I would have told myself to just chill a little bit and focus on the things that really interest me as opposed to being so concerned about getting a job. I did take a lot of different classes for fun, but I wish I had focused a bit more on art and design. I think that the visual design informs so much of what we do here, and I wish I had a stronger background in that. I think that that actually would have had a nice dovetailing with what I do now.Additional editing: Debra Sims

Additional editing: Debra Sims