How to Get Instructional Design Experience to Build Your Portfolio

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You need instructional design experience to get hired, but how do you get experience if you can’t get a job? In this post, I’ll share four ways to get work samples for your portfolio and build your experience.

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Introduction

It’s a conundrum normally reserved for chickens and eggs. Which comes first, the job or the experience?

Anyone trying to get started in an instructional design career will recognize this paradox: You need experience to get hired, but how do you get instructional design experience if you can’t get a job?

Devlin Peck’s 2021 Instructional Designer survey found that new instructional designers with portfolios earn about 15 percent more than their peers without portfolios. Another paradox, right? What do you put in a portfolio if you haven’t worked as an instructional designer yet?

In this post, I’ll share four ways to get work samples for your portfolio and build your experience.

1. Solve a Problem for Your Current Organization

One easy way to get instructional design experience and build up your portfolio is to solve a learning problem where you currently work. For example, if you are a teacher, you could facilitate a professional development event. Or you could develop an e-learning course for either your colleagues or your students.

Even if you’re not in a learning and development role now, consider what you could design that would help others do their jobs better. Maybe you could create a quick reference guide for using a software system. Or you could make an instructional video explaining a key process. Or develop an infographic that explains how to use the copier or other equipment.

Do others in your organization frequently come to you with questions about a particular topic or process? Think about how you could turn that into a portfolio item—and add a bullet point or two to your resume, like:

  • Informally mentored others in the use of technology
  • Built learning solutions to help onboard new employees
  • Developed job aids to enhance productivity

2. Volunteer As an Instructional Designer

Another easy way to get instructional design experience and flesh out your portfolio is to volunteer to create learning experiences for a nonprofit or community-based organization. These organizations often can’t afford to hire instructional designers or developers, and the gift of your time helps them achieve their mission.

To find volunteer opportunities, first think locally. Are there any organizations in your community that you want to support? Reach out to them. Explain what you can offer them, and see if they have a need for your services. You can also search the Idealist website or check 24/7 Learn for open volunteer positions.

If you don’t have any experience, joining a project in which you can work as part of a group is an excellent way to learn from others. But even if you have a great deal of experience already and don’t need to round out your resume, volunteering can be richly rewarding and can help you expand your skill set. 

Some Examples from My Experience

Several years ago, I participated in the LINGOs (Learning in Non-Governmental Organizations) Last Mile Learning project and helped to develop the Project Management in Development (PMD Pro) certification course. The goal of the course is to improve project management practices for nonprofit organizations, particularly those working in developing countries. The information in the course helps these organizations accomplish more with their limited funds. 

According to the PM4NGOs website, PMD Pro has reached more than 30,000 professionals working at 1,250 organizations in 167 countries. The course has gone through additional revisions since I was involved, but I’m proud that I played a small part in this important work. I love projects that help to make the world a better place!

These days, I’m volunteering on another course development for a nonprofit organization, through an initiative spearheaded by Samuel Farhi and TrainOn Powered by EdApp. TrainOn is now supporting three nonprofit organizations, including the one I’m working with, SuicideIsDifferent.org.

I meet weekly with a small team of other learning and development professionals. During these workshop meetings, we share the lesson we’ve been working on and get feedback from each other. It’s a great example of working out loud, because the workshops are recorded and shared in our LinkedIn group.

Through this volunteer experience, I’m learning how to use EdApp to create microlearning while also supporting a cause I care about deeply. Being able to add examples to my portfolio once we’re done is just icing on the cake.

3. Participate in a Challenge

Another great way to learn more about instructional design while producing something for your portfolio is to participate in challenges. 

Every week, the Articulate E-Learning Heroes Community shares a different eLearning challenge—and they don’t all require using Articulate software. For example, this week’s challenge is to “design a graphic sharing your favorite tip for succeeding as an e-learning designer.”

You can also participate in any of the past challenges, such as these:

If you’re interested in freelancing, you join the Freelance Instructional Designers, eLearning Developers, & LXDs Facebook group and participate in periodic portfolio challenges there.

By participating in challenges and posting your work to a community, you can get feedback from others and sharpen your skills. You will also learn a lot from seeing what others come up with.

4. Make Something Up

If all else fails, you can always just make something up to go into your portfolio. (To be clear, I’m NOT advising making up job experience to go on your resume!)

This tip doesn’t exactly check off the experience box when you’re job-hunting, but it demonstrates what you can do. That’s usually the reason companies list things like “3 to 5 years of experience” anyway—they just want to know you can perform.

Consider developing a course, job aid, or other learning experience to teach others about a hobby you’re passionate about.

Short on ideas? Try Go Design Something, which will generate an idea for you, along with a brief to explain the problem to be solved, the target audience, and the deliverables. Here are some sample ideas I got from that site:

  • Develop a training activity for dog walkers
  • Design an email course to help young adults find their first apartment
  • Create an interactive infographic about instructional design salaries

Summary

It can be challenging to gain experience and build a portfolio before you get hired as an instructional designer—especially if your current position leaves you little time for outside pursuits. But most endeavors worth going after require some sacrifice and hard work. Instructional design can be an exciting, fulfilling career with many growth opportunities.

The four tips I presented in this post are:

  1. Solve a problem for your current organization
  2. Volunteer as an instructional designer
  3. Participate in a challenge
  4. Make something up

Additional Resources

Check out these posts for even more helpful tips, advice, and resources:

If you missed last week’s post about how to become an instructional designer, go bookmark it now. It’s packed full of helpful resources for new and aspiring IDs.

More To Explore

Comments

  • Hi Angelica! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve had the same issue you describe, and it seems to be a pretty common problem. You may not be able to use projects from past employment in your portfolio, particularly if it’s protected by an NDA or other contract. Instead, you might need to create samples for your portfolio—at least until you get more real projects you can show. You may also be able to write up summaries of past work that you could provide to a potential employer privately (if you can’t post it to your portfolio), to highlight the kind of experience you have. If you remember the content well enough, you could even recreate the eLearning courses you did before, but make them generic (without references to a specific company, branding, etc).

  • Your post is timely for me and many others I imagine, and you offer good tips for demonstrating experience. What type of “proof” should one submit when asked about a portfolio? I created e-learning projects during past employment and I no longer have access to the content. What suggestions do you offer?

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