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Hot on the trail of an e-learning career

By Lisa Currin / May 2003

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You can almost see the tumbleweeds blowing through the once-vibrant e-learning job market. Some of the most promising storefronts have been boarded up, and even those companies still turning a profit seem hesitant to hang out the "Help Wanted" sign.

It's not a great time to be looking for a job in e-learning. Of course, it's not a great time to be looking for a job in any other field either. But, perhaps because e-learning's star shone so brightly a couple of years back, its fall seems especially stunning.

Take heart. E-learning is here to stay. What we're seeing right now is the flip side of over-hype. Many ill-conceived e-learning ventures failed to survive the economic downturn, and the survivors are keeping spending to a bare minimum right now. Likewise, universities and corporate training departments, both good prospects for jobs in e-learning, have largely put hiring plans on hold.

"It looks grim across the board," says Larry Moyer, an e-learning strategist with EDS. "In downtimes, companies typically cut in areas where they think they can survive for the short term, and training is always the first to go. As soon as organizations feel a little more comfortable, they'll start investing in training again."

Okay, so the economy will eventually recover and jobs in e-learning will become more plentiful. But while it's all well and good to say the sun will come out tomorrow, the rent has to be paid today.

Where the Jobs Are

There are jobs, although there's no denying the good ones are far from plentiful. Here's a quick look at some of the more available jobs in the e-learning field:

Account manager: Companies that create e-learning materials need people to sell their products. "Companies are always looking to add to their top line," says Dave Forman, consultant and founder of Sage Learning Systems. "The best job security you can have is to be a top-flight salesperson. A couple of years ago, sales jobs were about 35 percent of the listings on my job board []. Today, that percentage has doubled." Sales might not be what you had in mind when you decided on a career in e-learning, but it can be a way to get your foot in the door.

Instructional Designer: These people combine an understanding of the science of learning with an ability to put the available media, methods, and tools to work in the most effective, efficient manner possible. There are more jobs for instructional designers than for any other job category in e-learning, but many of them are temporary, contract positions, and almost all require experience with specific tools, such as Flash, LMS applications or Web tools. SkillSoft, a leading vendor of e-learning courseware, expects to release 650 new courses this year. Dorman Woodall, SkillSoft's director of e-learning strategy, says the company hires most of its instructional design personnel straight out of university programs. "We can hire them for less money because they don't have the experience," he says. "We say they've got high aptitude, high attitude, and low experience. We train them in the way we do business, and we have a very low turnover because they're working in a challenging, learning environment."

E-learning instructor: The University of Phoenix Online alone hires some 400 new faculty members per quarter, according to CEO Brian Mueller. For the UofP, the basic instructor requirements are simple: a graduate degree in your chosen discipline, plus at least five years of recent work experience. Successful candidates go through a rigorous 12-week training program. Most instructor jobs are part-time, though, so you'll still need some sort of a day job. According to Mueller, to be successful as an e-learning instructor, candidates must have a mastery of the course content, as well as be an effective written communicator. "You've got to be persuasive in the written communication you provide to students, you must be affirming, and you must be motivating," says Mueller. "In addition, you have to be able to create an intellectually challenging academic environment online. You've got to get people to think critically and strategically; you've got to be able to engage them so they feel challenged."

Learning Designer: In addition to instructional designers who handle the nuts and bolts of course design, companies such as SkillSoft employ people with an in-depth knowledge of learning theory and business problems to direct larger development projects. These people generally have advanced degrees in education or instructional technology. It also helps to have strong business skills. "By and large, our profession has not been well thought of by business people, because we often haven't thought like business people," says Forman. "That's something we need to start doing."

Forget the Job Description

The key to finding a job in e-learning today seems to be flexibility. Bring a variety of competencies to the table, and don't be a stickler for a concrete job description. Your forte might be learning theory, but you'd better know your way around the technology of e-learning as well.

Companies today are focused on keeping their operations lean and mean, says Forman. "Employers are looking for what I call specific generalists. People who can do a lot of things, who aren't wed to a hard-and-fast job description, and who can roll up their sleeves and work with the technology tools as well as do a needs analysis."

Jessy Keiser, an organizational development and performance consultant in San Francisco, first developed an interest in e-learning while working as a consultant in instructional design with Digital Think. She gave up her consulting business to accept a full-time position with EDS' Learning Solutions group, but was laid off in late 2001. Unlike most victims of the current economic doldrums, Keiser found herself in demand right from the beginning.

"Companies started calling me for interviews before I even left EDS," she says. "I considered taking another full-time job, but then I started calling my old clients, doing some prospecting and business development, and within a month or so I had landed a small contract."

"I think I've been successful because the skills that I bring are so broad," says Keiser, who holds a master's degree in organizational development and human resources development, and a bachelor's degree in psychology and social relations. "I'm more of a strategist than a technician, but I also have a creative vision, as well as the ability to work hand-in-hand with the Web designers to make that vision a reality."

Today, Keiser stays busy with a number of steady clients, including e-learning vendor VitesseLearning. She also teaches for the University of Phoenix Online. Keiser believes breaking into the e-learning business was easier a few years ago than it is now. "Companies like Vitesse are under tremendous pressure from clients to build solutions rapidly, so if you haven't created three or four courses already, you probably wouldn't even be considered. The way to differentiate in e-learning is to get the job done faster and for less money. That doesn't leave a lot of time for mentoring. An inexperienced person wouldn't be able to keep up with the deadlines."

Be Ready when Opportunity Knocks

Experts vary in their advice to would-be e-learning professionals. While Woodall suggests learning as much as possible about the technical side of the business, Moyer says, "The education background is more important, because the technology is changing too quickly. Understanding what's important from a learning standpoint will persist."

"Now would be a good time to go get that doctorate or master's degree in education or distributed learning," adds Moyer. "That degree will be invaluable when the time is right."

Besides furthering your education, experts agree that developing a strong network of interpersonal contacts is critical. Attend conferences, join professional organizations, introduce yourself to key people in your desired field. "Seventy to 80 percent of jobs are landed through a personal network," says Forman. "It's very important to feed and nurture that network."

Sabrina Catrini, an e-learning specialist with Telecom Italia Learning Services in Rome, followed that blueprint to land her current job. After three years working in HR for Deloitte & Touche in Rome, she attended a lecture on e-learning in Florence, which she calls "the kick-off of my discovery." When her boyfriend moved to Boston, she followed him to launch a career in the field.

Catrini took a couple of courses, becoming proficient in Web design and Flash technology. Unable to find a U.S. company willing to sponsor her for a work visa, Catrini returned to Rome, where she landed her current position.

With a classical education and a bachelor's degree in foreign languages, Catrini hardly seems to fit the e-learning mold. But in a way, that's the point—there is no mold.

"This is a time of enormous evolution of the technology," says Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "Rather than having some kind of static list of jobs, this is the kind of field where inventing your role is still feasible. For people who don't want to be a square peg in a square hole, but want to create a niche for themselves, I think e-learning is one place that's very possible."

Doing Your Homework:

There are things you can do to enhance your chances of finding your niche in e-learning.

  • Evaluate your strengths—and weaknesses—honestly. Shore up weak areas with extra coursework, or seek an internship with a company willing to let you learn the ropes.
  • Expand your job search. Corporate training departments are only one possible venue.m Courseware developers, universities, and software companies all hire e-learning professionals.
  • Use the Internet. Job boards like contain the largest number of listings, while other niche boards (like can provide a more targeted match. Still others, like, can help you locate corporate jobs that aren't posted anywhere but the company's Web site.


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