The Multidisciplinary Instructional Designer: Integrating Specialized Skills into Design Toolkits Book Image
eLearning Learning
April 14, 2023

The Value of the Multidisciplinary Instructional Designer

Today’s instructional designers come from a variety of professional backgrounds and those past experiences can be a strength in how they approach L&D. In this episode, Authors Megan Kohler and Chris Gamrat share lessons from stories in their new book, The Multidisciplinary Instructional Designer: Integrating Specialized Skills into Design Toolkits.


Authors Megan Kohler and Chris Gamrat encourage L&D professionals to identify the skills and talents they bring to the job from past experiences and for teams to look at the collective value of diverse experiences. They shared many takeaways including:

  • Despite their shared academic preparation and theoretical foundations, many instructional designers come to the profession with knowledge from a diverse range of other subject areas, career tracks, creative practices, or intellectual pursuits.
  • Some of this misunderstanding of instructional design is due to a limited understanding of learning, what it is, when and how it can occur, and people’s roles both in formal and informal learning. 
  • Instructional designers can apply key concepts, strategies, and lessons learned from a variety of disciplines from the social sciences, arts and humanities, and STEM – to their practice.
  • By looking for inspiration across disciplines and from the world at large, instructional designers will emerge with robust and revitalized toolkits, ready to enrich their approach to teaching and learning.

For more information about the book, please visit the publisher's website.

Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.


Susan Cort: If you're like most L&D professionals, you may have had another career before this one, but have you ever stopped to think about how lessons learned from previous jobs impact what you do now?

Megan Kohler: Everything that we do, everything that we engage in, every experience that we have enriches us and I just would love to have more people capture that richness and share it with others because that's how we can really learn and grow from one another.

Susan: That's Megan Kohler. She and co-author Chris Gamrat just published a new book that explores how the instructional design and development process can be energized and deepened through principles gleaned from other fields of academic study. We'll hear from them about their book, The Multi-Disciplinary Instructional Designer: Integrating Specialized Skills into Design Toolkits. Next on Powered by Learning.

Announcer: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. d'Vinci's approach to learning is grounded in 30 years [00:01:00] of innovation and expertise. We use proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that empower learners to improve quality and boost performance. Learn more at d'

Susan: I'm joined today by d'Vinci Learning Experience Director Jenny Fedullo and we're going to chat with Megan Kohler and Chris Gamrat about their new book and lessons that L&D professionals can learn from it. Welcome to Meg and Chris, the authors of The Multi-Disciplinary Instructional Designer: Integrating Specialized Skills into Design Toolkits.

Jenny Fedullo: Welcome to both of you. It's really great to talk to you today. I loved reading the book. I was so engaged. You were talking directly to me as an instructional designer. I can't wait to get copies for my team and go through chapter by chapter. It is really good to be able to connect with you today to talk through it.

Megan: Excellent. Thank you. We're so excited to be here. I love the fact that you love the book. That's really wonderful for us to hear.

Susan: Well, that's great.

Chris Gamrat: Thank you for having us.

Susan: You're welcome. Let's start out by telling our listeners a little bit about your [00:02:00] backgrounds. Megan, why don't you start?

Megan: My background is in theater. I was a professional actor for a number of years before entering into the field of instructional design. In all honesty, I can say that that is something that has impacted the way I go about designing courses and learning experiences for students. I'm always drawing back and thinking about different influences. I remember when I was working on a MOOC several years ago, Massive Open Online Course for anybody who may not have heard the term MOOC previously.

When we were thinking about designing the interface because we were creating something that was custom, I thought about the different types of planes, when you go through directing something on stage and how we might think about displaying the information on the page more like we think about when we're designing to choreograph a performance or to stage a performance. I transitioned over into the field of instructional design kind of by chance.

Susan: As a lot of people do, right?

Megan: Absolutely. Then one of the things that Chris and I noticed [00:03:00] with this field in general, and it was also sort of the catalyst for this book is that people have such varied and interesting backgrounds. And so in order to be able to leverage some of those skills and bring those into your skill set as a designer, can really have a profound impact on the way that you go about approaching instructional design. That's a little bit about my background.

Susan: That's great. Chris.

Chris: Originally, I was studying management information systems here at Penn State in the College of Business. A lot of that really translated into thinking about how businesses function and dealing with all kinds of different demands that then turned into work that I did with the NASA Aerospace Education Services Project. Also here at Penn State for my time with that group, about five and a half years.

I learned a lot about different crisis management planning techniques, and how to fail fast, how to avoid failure when at all possible. A lot of those things have really translated into my role as an instructional designer [00:04:00] and I was doing that here at Penn State for about eight and a half years. It's definitely helped to inform a lot of the things I do today.

Susan: That's great.

Jenny: Congratulations on the book. I think I said in the welcome that I really enjoyed it. I felt like it was really speaking to me as an instructional designer. Curious, what inspired your idea? What brought you to this point to say, "Hey, let's write a book."

Megan: I think the catalyst for this really ended up being a presentation that Chris asked me to give us several years ago. He's part of an instructional design professional development team here at Penn State. They were planning a series to help instructional designers build out their different skill sets. I was slated for October. And so he had this great idea of bringing me in to talk about my background in theater and how I could help instructional designers be better presenters when they went to a conference to share their different thoughts and ideas or work that they have been sharing out.

From there, Chris reached out to me. [00:5:00] Several years later, it was what about two years later? He was like, "Hey, I have this idea for a book." It was really funny because he shared it with me and I was like, "Chris, you got to be kidding me." I was like, "I was thinking the exact same thing." It was one of those instances, like those serendipitous moments where Chris and I were just so in sync with one another, by the end of the conversation, we were like, "Yes, we're going to write this book, this is going to be amazing." So that's, sort of how it happened. Chris, do you want to elaborate on that at all?

Chris: Well, I'll say that that tends to be the way that you and I collaborate quite often, which I think has been really beneficial to the quality of this book. It really kind of snowballed into realizing that over all the years that we've been in designer roles and getting to know so many of our colleagues, how many of them have such diverse backgrounds, the opportunities we've [00:06:00] had to learn from them, from that would really transition well into a book format and Redlynch agree.

Susan: You sound like a great team, that's for sure.

Jenny: Absolutely. I'm curious, what part of the book was most fun for each of you to write?

Megan: I think that's sort of a multifaceted answer. We were so fortunate that we had such amazing co-authors for all of this, so many amazing contributors. I think, first and foremost, having the ability to interact with so many different people, some people we had very good friendships with. Other people were brand new, and we'd never met them before. It was really fun to sort of have those relationships evolve.

I think for me, one of the aspects that I love about this book the most, and perhaps this is my background in theatre coming forth. But I really loved the stories that all of the contributing authors wrote at the beginning of the book, because it really allows a reader to like you were saying, see themselves [00:07:00] in those stories. I think that that is something that's so unique about this book is that it just has a personal element to it. It stands out so much from the very typical conceptual book that shares ideas and practices for how to go about implementing instructional design. Instead, this is more of like a, "Hey, this is what I bring to the field as unique individual, and I want to share this with you." And I love that.

Jenny: I was just saying. Chris, what about you? What was fun for you?

Chris: The thing that really pushed it over the edge for me, in terms of realizing this is really going to be a cool book was that very first meeting we had with all of our contributing authors, and just how much enthusiasm and energy and interest there was in sharing those stories. Everyone was just super excited to get going on [00:08:00] that. I will say, we were kind of feeling it out on our own. This is our first book, so we're trying to figure out how do we coordinate. We had 11 chapters, and a lot of those chapters have more than one author, there's a lot of people. But we just realized, there's so much passion in this room, this thing is going to be something pretty cool.

Jenny: Great. You discuss that the nuances of instructional design are not fully understood. You state and I'm going to literally read this part but some of this misunderstanding is due to a limited understanding of learning, what it is, when and how it can occur, and our roles both in formal and informal learning. Unless one has studied Learning Sciences, they might not understand that learning is broad and occurs at micro, meso, and macro level. When I read that, I thought, "Yes, you guys nailed it." How do we overcome that?

Megan: I want to make sure that we give credit where credit is due. That chapter is the introductory chapter. [00:09:00] It's really focused on defining instructional design. And that was written by Carl Moore and Julian Phelan, who are amazing, and I'm so grateful that they were able to be a part of this project. I think when they were talking about that aspect in the book, it's really comes back to the fact that learning occurs in so many different ways.

We have our very structured, formal learning environments like that, that our students experience in the classroom. But then you also have your more informal learning opportunities that occur more like what we experience now as professionals in the field, where we develop our own personal learning networks. The thing that I love that they talked about within that chapter was really how it's all of these different levels. The main concept is really that information and learning really becomes almost like this currency. It becomes almost like a competitive edge for an institution or an organization.

I think that that's [00:10:00] something that we really need to keep in mind. It was interesting because I was having a conversation with another colleague, previously, and he was talking about how sometimes professionals in the field tend to either be individuals who continue to learn and seek out learning opportunities like this book to enhance their skillset. Those are the folks who are going to grow and flourish over the years.

Then there's other people who might not be as driven to enhance their skill set, and then, they're probably not going to see the same types of successes. When you think about it, especially the way that our field is so rapidly changing, it's really going to be those people who invest in themselves that are going to thrive in the long run. It's really going to be a very important step for us.

Jenny: d'Vinci when we engage with a new client, one of our first questions is always, "How are we going to measure the success of the program?" Often the answer is, "Well, you set your completion or passing rates," and we know, as learning professionals, [00:11:00] that doesn't tell us that our solution is going to impact performance. In the book, you address this, and you talk about how exercising a consultative marketing mentality is an opportunity for the ID and its L&D department to demonstrably contribute to the overall success of the organization. Tell me more, what can IDs learn from marketers?

Megan: That chapter was contributed by my good friend, Robyn Defelice. One of the things that I love that she highlights in that chapter is the fact-- She tells a story about how she was working with farmers. The farmers were actually learning from one another. Again, it goes back to that notion of personal learning networks that I mentioned just a minute ago, and how those farmers, they had a sense of trust amongst one another. No matter what information was really presented to them, they came back to that notion of trust.

I think the same is very true when we work with faculty or subject matter experts. I can think of an example just the other day in which I [00:12:00] had done a consultation on a piece of technology with just one faculty member. Then several weeks later, I was doing a consultation with another faculty member, and they were like, "Have you heard about this technology? So and so implemented it in their class, and they absolutely love it. I'm really interested in that. I would really love to integrate that into my course, too." When we talk about the idea of measuring success, I think that that's absolutely it.

As designers, we want to craft experiences that are impactful, and that are engaging, and that people are really going to walk away having that sense of value from, or having that sense of a meaningful experience. That's absolutely true of this, whether it's farmers or faculty members talking to one another, and just sharing their experiences, that's a sign of success because when somebody else is out there saying, "This is fantastic." You know you've done a great job.

Susan: Robyn was actually a guest on a previous episode of Powered by Learning, [00:13:00] and talked about micro learning. She's got so many great insights to share. I'm glad you were able to make her part of your book, too.

Megan: She and I have been friends for a very long time. Actually, when I graduated from my program at Bloomsburg University, she hired me as her intern. She was my entry into the field, and I just adore her.

Susan: Oh, that’s a neat connection.

Megan: Yes. She's amazing.

Jenny: So many teachers are making the jump right now from education to instructional design. The story about the two English teachers, Eric and Sharon really caught my eye. What can instructional designers learn from their stories?

Chris: I'll jump in and say that I think what's interesting and cool about the chapter with Eric and Sharon is how they were able to approach from same sort of background, they're both English educators, and match it in the two very unique conversations. I think it's represented in the title of the chapter, in a play-off of A Tale of Two Cities, really kind of diving into [00:14:00] what it's like to teach English from the perspective of writing and composition, versus English language acquisition, which is an entirely different side of things.

There's a lot to that and really explodes out this idea of there's so many facets of that kind of process in teaching, and these are just two pieces that really lend themselves incredibly well to understanding how design work functions and how you can translate a lot of those things. I'm hopeful that if there were other teachers who are reading this, that they can see that this is something they can totally do. They have a lot of that skill-set, and there may be some other pieces that they might need to pick up. Anybody has skills that they can pick up or leverage to do that kind of design work.

Jenny: Great. There's just so much to cover in the book, the stories, the practice activities, the relevance. I've said it before,  every instructional designer will feel it was written for them. I know I did. I was curious if we could try something fun. Try A little round [00:15:00] of Rapid Fire with you. I was going to maybe say a phrase or two from the book and have you answer in one or two sentences only. I think you can do it.

Chris: That sounds tough, but I'll try.

Megan: Yes, we'll give it a shot.

Jenny: Okay. Let's give it a try. First one is therapeutic landscape.

Megan: How a place or location impacts our ability to learn through social constructs.

Jenny: Good one. All right. Feminist approach.

Chris: I'm really intimidated now.

Susan: We're not keeping score, Chris. It's all right.

Jenny: Yes. Let's take in feminist approaches.

Megan: Intentionality in instructional design.

Jenny: All right. Dance choreography.

Megan: It's okay, Chris, I'll take those for you.

Chris: That is managing multiple moving parts, and that one was alliterative too.

Susan: You get a bonus point for that, Chris.

Jenny: [00:16:00] All right. Risk-taking.

Megan: Chris, you better answer this one. This was your chapter.

Chris: No, this is Paul's chapter. It's the opposite of my chapter. My chapter is avoiding risk.

Megan: You're right.

Chris: Risk taking is not being afraid of trying out things.

Jenny: Good. All right, Megan's story. Megan, you're going to answer that one, right?

Megan: Yes.

Jenny: Or we could reverse that, and he's going to tell your story, and you have to tell his.

Megan: Improving communication and collaboration with subject matter experts.

Jenny: Good. Chris, Chris' story, that's next. That's the last Rapid Fire question. Chris' story.

Chris: If you're putting in the effort to design, there is no such thing as a design crisis.

Susan: Good. Good one.

Megan: Like it.

Jenny: Thank you. That was fun. You guys did it. Since you were writing the book, did you begin to sketch ideas for the sequel? [00:17:00] What would you want to explore next?

Susan: For the movie, if this becomes a movie.

Jenny: Who would you pick to play you?

Megan: Margot Robbie. Hands down. She's fantastic. I think in terms of a sequel, I think that we have just scratched the surface of the information that we can glean from a variety of different fields. There's only 11 chapters in this book, and we know that there's so much more expertise out there that can be shared. We haven't even touched on topics like painting, or music, or psychology, or nursing, or forestry. There are so many different things out there that we can leverage in order to enhance our designers' toolkit.

I would really love to see us, hopefully, for the second book-- We'll hold off on potentially, a third, we'll keep our fingers [00:18:00] crossed for a second and hold there. But to see an international version, I would love to be able to have collaborators from Africa, New Zealand, China, Australia, Hungary, Germany. There are so many different places, and just to get an international perspective on how instructional design is perceived in all of these different countries, and how we can just expand our horizons. I would love that.

Susan: It's interesting because so many of the people we talk to on this podcast are accidental traders. They have come to this from something else. As Jenny said, I think when people read the book, they're going to see themselves in it, but almost more importantly, I think they're going to learn that the skills that they have are inherently valuable to this industry. They may not understand how those dots connect, but after reading this, and hearing those stories and thinking about their own personal journeys, I think they may have more of a connection to understanding what [00:19:00] they bring to the table. Wouldn't you think?

Megan: I think we as designers, we're not insular, we're rich. Our knowledge, our expertise is rich. We're incredible human beings. Everything that we do, everything that we engage in, every experience that we have, enriches us. I would love to have more people capture that richness and share it with others because that's how we can really learn and grow from one another. That's my hope.

Chris: Yes. I just wanted to add to that, that I really feel like in addition to designers and K12 audience people thinking about coming into design work, I think that this could also be a really beneficial read for faculty, for subject matter experts to really see what the designer brings. Many situations where I've collaborated with people over the years, subject matter experts, the faculty that I work with, they really get the process of working with a designer that a light bulb turns on in their mind. [00:20:00]

They just suddenly realize that they can ask very valuable questions, they can do really creative things and it really can be a hugely beneficial partnership once they realize what that could be. I think that this book might be a helpful window into that audience seeing this as a potential benefit as well.

Susan: Great. Thank you so much for joining us today. Tell people where they can find your book.

Megan: Sure. Our book is available through Rutledge Publishing Company. You can purchase it either directly from their website. It's also available on Amazon and it can also be purchased through Barnes and Noble. Again, the title of the book is The Multidisciplinary Instructional Designer and we really hope that for those of you who are listening to this podcast and if you decide to pick up a copy, we hope that you are as inspired by reading it as we were in creating it for you.

Susan: That's great.

Jenny: Thank you. It's great talking to you. I enjoyed the conversation. I enjoyed the book. [00:21:00] Good luck.

Susan: Good luck.

Megan: Thank you.

Susan: Jenny. That was so nice to talk with Megan and Chris, I know you read their book and loved it. What is it about the book that you think is so important for people in this industry?

Jenny: It's so important because it really validates that instructional designers do so much more than write storyboards. To be an effective instructional designer, we have to possess a blend of multiple disciplines. We're learning scientists, we're project managers, we're change managers, we're writers, we're creators. It's actually a pretty amazing field to be in.

Susan: Recognizing that and the value it brings, I think is also really important. Talk about our team at d'Vinci and of course, all of our team members come from a variety of backgrounds too. How do you see that coming into play to benefit the work that we do?

Jenny: I love the part of the book about every chapter started with a story. Everyone in this field has that unique story and we're no different. It's that blend of stories and that makes us unique [00:22:00] and with every project, we bring those elements of our stories to life.

Susan: Thanks very much, Jenny.

Jenny: You're welcome. It was a lot of fun.

Susan: Special thanks to our guest authors, Megan Kohler and Chris Gamrat for joining us today. If you have an idea for a topic or a guest, please drop us a note at poweredbylearning@d'

Jenny Fedullo

By Jenny Fedullo, Director, Learning Experience

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