Changing career paths can be difficult – especially if you’re not sure what field you want to end up in. There’s a lot of research to be done to find out if another field is right for you, let alone finding out the skills needed and how to improve them. It’s even harder when there are a lot of people out there who will do the minimum to help you but charge the maximum for their services. Unfortunately, for every good instructional design academy or certification or learning and development career coach, there is one who is grossly unqualified to be teaching those who are new to the field, but how is someone new supposed to tell the difference? To a novice, everyone may look equally as knowledgeable. We’re going to give you a list of criteria to consider before making a serious investment in your future.
- Experience and Expertise: Are you going to learn from the right people?
- Reputation and Reviews: Can you trust them?
- Content and Output: Will you learn what you need to know?
- Cost and Benefits: Is it worth paying the price?
- Marketing and Claims: Will you get what you’re paying for?
Experience and Expertise
Look at the person, organization, or institution in charge. Who’s in charge? Check the owner's background on LinkedIn. Do they have significant experience in the field? Experience isn’t everything, but it’s incredibly important if someone is teaching you. Is the instructor’s experience deep enough in the field? Have they been doing this job long enough to see the highs and lows, the exceptions, the unique situations? Do they have the right breadth of experience? Higher Ed is different than workplace learning. Freelancing is different than internal corporate roles. If they’re training people to work in a diverse range of industries have they themselves had that experience? Have they been an individual contributor at a company? A leader of a team? A senior-level leader? Have they worked in corporate or higher ed? Have they been a full-time employee? A consultant? A freelancer? All of these experiences are different. It’s a red flag if, for instance, someone is talking about how to appeal to hiring managers in interviews, but they have never been a hiring manager.
They may have an advanced degree – but it may not be in the field that they’re teaching. Just because someone has Dr in their title doesn’t mean they’ve completed a doctorate in the field they’re teaching today. Do your research. It’s important just to have a knowledge of their background so you can ensure it matches their curriculum and claims.
Look at the portfolio of the company, organization, or person offering the services – is it above average? Don't judge it based on your current skillset. If someone is asking you for money, they should be producing work that is above the quality of most people. It should knock your socks off. For example, if the person has example eLearning on their site, it should be simple and concise, easy to navigate, look modern and clean, and free from errors. It should also feel like the right delivery method. For example, it shouldn’t be an entire course when a brief job aid would give the same result. Hold their work to the highest of standards if you’re going to give them your money.
Reputation and Reviews
Check social media and Google for references to the program. What are people saying on the r/instructionaldesign subreddit (the tea is HOT under the veil of anonymity)? Is anyone complaining about the program on Twitter? What are the ratings, and what are the public online reviews saying? Take the good with the bad and look for patterns. Is anything coming up over and over again? Everyone is going to have a negative review here and there – you can’t please everyone, but are there repeat offenses from certain programs? False advertising? Unfulfilled promises? Financial issues? Issues with certain instructors? Poor quality of content or things that aren’t relevant? These are the types of negative patterns to look for.
Teaching the most students doesn’t necessarily mean that the program is the best – it means that it’s the best marketed. It’s also important to consider the program or owner’s reputation with other, more experienced folks in the field. Does the owner work and collaborate with experts in the field? Are they celebrated by other experts in the field? Or is their reputation built up only by new people? This can be a sign that the program is really disconnected from the actual people doing the work and researching the work every day. Does the person contribute research, publications, or conference presentations to the field? Anyone can post a video or podcast on social media, but it takes a more experienced person to contribute to the body of knowledge of the field.
If they’re a college, are they an accredited institution? Accredited colleges are held to a specific educational standard. What is the school’s reputation online? If it’s a certification, what is the worth of the certification? For example, anyone can create a certificate in Canva, but is the certificate you receive going to mean something to a hiring manager? Of course, it’s okay to pursue knowledge without leveraging the actual certification or diploma, but it might be part of your cost consideration to spend more if it helps you land a job.
Find past students and send them a message. Ask them about their own experience. Ask them if it was worth it. It can also be helpful to do a post and ask people to message YOU privately. Some of the people who were unsatisfied with the program may not tell people they went through it. Don't just go by testimonials on their site – of course they’re going to find the people who said the kindest things about their program, who wouldn’t? However, they may be the 5% of people who found the program effective.
What if you are unsatisfied with the program? Can you get a refund? Do you have to drop within a particular time period? It’s important to know your options if you change your mind or even if something happens and you can’t complete the program. Do they make you sign any terms or agree not to say anything negative about them? Is that part of the program? They may also ask you to sign over your rights to the content you create while in the program, so it’s important to get a copy of the terms before you pay.
Content and Output
Compare the lesson plans and contents of the courses to other competitors. Do they seem to be hitting on all the skills and topics, or are they focusing heavily on one area? Are you going to have to watch a bunch of recorded lectures? How will your questions be answered? You should feel comfortable with the learning experience, the level of effort, and the effort of hands-on help you’ll receive. How will the content be delivered? How did they decide what a good program should include – what were their criteria to determine what to focus on? They should practice what they preach by offering solid instructional design principles to explain objectives and why they were chosen as well as how they will benefit you.
Find out how much hands-on feedback you will get. Some advertise that their programs are hands-on, but it's only student-to-student interaction once you’re in. You should have regular opportunities to speak to someone with experience – an instructor or coach – who can help you build your skills. Would you want to try and learn surgery from someone else who is also trying to learn surgery? That wouldn’t make much sense. Find out how much time and access you have to the instructors.
What are they asking you to pay for that you can’t find for free online? In the case of learning a software or tool, check if there is official training by the provider or a partner. You shouldn’t be paying more for a course on an authoring tool than the cost of that tool’s license because many tools come with free training to get you started. It would be better to spend money on the tool itself at that point. What is the content offering you that is worth the money? An opportunity to work on a real-life project? A job opportunity when you’re finished? A degree? Facetime with experts? The content should add something to what you could find out on your own – for example, access to experts or research, the opportunity to practice, feedback from professionals.
Look at the portfolios of the students. Just because the instructor or the person in charge puts out good work doesn’t mean they’ve put together a program that covers enough to make someone successful. Some programs put out subpar work because the people in charge don’t have enough knowledge or experience themselves to teach how to do something outstanding. Other programs put out quite a few bad portfolios because they want “customers” to be happy, so they avoid giving critical feedback.
Cost and Benefits
Compare prices with competitors. What is being offered for the price? Look at their social media and see if they ever offer discounts. Is there a better time to buy? Are they much more or less expensive than their competitors? Make sure that it’s something you can afford.
Make sure you understand what is included. You may have to pay separately for an authoring tool to complete the exercises. These things are expensive and add up quickly. You may have to purchase textbooks or materials. Realize that you may be sold to during the program – they may try to get you to purchase another course or certificate. Consider the benefits against the cost. How is this program better than learning what you can, on your own, for free?
Marketing and Claims
Validate their claims. If someone is saying you'll get a six figure job – what do other people say in the industry? What are the median reported salaries for that position? Is that amount possible for someone with your level of experience? Try to see whether the person is talking about the outliers or the average. Sure – you can find a job that starts at six figures, but there might be a 90% chance that you won’t. What are current job postings saying about salary for an entry level position?
Good marketing doesn't always mean a good product. If a person or organization is really good, they will have money to pay someone to make their website, to run their social media, to write their copy. Just because the website is pretty and enticing doesn’t mean that it was made by someone in learning and development. The marketing shouldn’t be shallow either – you should get a really good idea of what the program will be like and have ALL your questions answered, not be inundated with promises and buzzwords. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
Watch out for predatory tactics like "Act Now! The price goes up in 3 hours!!!" or “Only 1 seat left!” These are trying to give you FOMO (fear of missing out), even if they might be true. Be careful if you’re asked to go through an application process before you are told the price. This is a way to get you to commit time and effort so that you feel invested and obligated to sign up (also known as the sunk-cost fallacy). Some programs will make up awards and credentials for themselves. They may say misleading things like that they are the only program of their kind or that they have won many awards. They also might prey on your pain points. If you’re desperate to get out of your current job or your current field, some programs will use that desperation against you with promises of finding a job really quickly or learning years’ worth of information in a very short period of time. Don’t let them hit you in the feels. There’s no shortcut to good learning and development. It takes time.
It’s hard to think about all of these things when you’ve got a lot going on – that’s why we wanted to write this. At the end of the day, you don’t need anything to change careers – you can do it without a degree, without certification, or without a coach, academy, or boot camp. So if you want that extra support, make sure you do your due diligence to pick the best program.