Difference between instructional designer and elearning developer

Posted by Greten on 06 Mar 2021 under Terms

There are many job titles in the field of learning and development: instructional designer, elearning developer, courseware specialist, and learning experience designer, to name a few. In practice, many of the functions associated with these roles overlap. However, they are not the same. Some companies, however, hire people with instructional designers in mind and then later have them do the job of elearning developers or vice versa. We now have these job vacancy advertisements for instructional designers that include some elearning development tasks in the job description or elearning developer vacancies with instructional design tasks.

Sometimes, companies will make a new title that encompasses both the elearning developer and instructional designer, for example, courseware development specialist or elearning specialist. Learning experience designer is apparently a different thing; it overlaps with the instructional designer and user experience (UX) designer. Another definition I encountered about learning experience designer is that it utilizes the learner's daily activities, such as the tasks at work, in the learning process.

Now that we have coursewares, specialists, and user experience designers out of the way, let's focus on the more prominent ones, instructional designers and elearning developers.

Elements of instructional design, a review

To better understand what instructional designers and elearning developers do, let us review the different elements of instructional design process.

  • Learning objectives
  • Plan
  • Development
  • Delivery
  • Assessment
  • Feedback

An earlier post provides the details of these elements. I call them elements rather than steps because their sequence and the number of times they are done depend on the instructional design model (SAM, ADDIE, etc.) that the designer follows.

What is an instructional designer?

The instructional designer is responsible for the way the lesson is presented. They make decisions such as the content coverage of the elearning lesson, the timing of the content's appearance, the interactive activities to reinforce a topic, and the graphics and animations that the elearning lesson will use. Going back to instructional design elements, instructional designers are mainly responsible for learning objectives, plan, and part of the development. Another important responsibility of an instructional designer is working with the subject matter expert (SME).

Many instructional designers have a degree in education and have experience teaching in academic settings. Other instructional designers are company-employed trainers who were promoted or laterally transferred to instructional design role.

As a step in content development, the instructional designer gathers the thoughts and knowledge of the SME by interviewing them and taking down notes. Another option is to request from the SME a manual or documentation covering the topic of the planned elearning lesson. Interviewing the SME is preferable if your company hired the SME temporarily, like say only for an interview during that day so you can pick up their brain. The second option is more suitable if the SME is also an employee of your company and you already have documentation lying around. For example, you are developing an elearning lesson of how to use a software application that your company developed, and your SME is the programmer or regular user of that software application.

A left-handed person scribbling on a paper with clipboard while in front of a computer.

After interviewing the SME or obtaining the documentations, the next step for instructional designer is to organize the interview notes or documentations into a format that the elearning developer can use to develop the elearning lesson. Depending on your team's or company's internal instructional design process, the output that an instructional design can be in the form of script, storyboard, or content outline.


The script contains the narration and dialogues that learners are going to hear. The narration explains the lesson, while dialogues appear when the lesson has parts containing two or more characters talking to one another. A script may also contain onscreen text that the instructional designer wishes to emphasize. When an instructional designer produced only a script, the decision on the graphics and animations are usually at the hands of the elearning developer


The storyboard contains the narration and dialogues, onscreen text, images or image descriptions, and instructions on how animations and interactive elements will work. The storyboard allows the instructional designer to design the lesson in all its aspects. Sometimes, the instructional designer has ideas that the technology and applications the elearning developer use cannot produce; in such case, they need to talk with the elearning developer to come with a compromise solution.

Content outline

The content outline is the content of the lesson in an organized format, nothing more. It contains every fact and information that will appear in the lesson, but not how it will appear. For example, the content outline can be a stack of bullets and sub-bullets; it is not useful as a script because the way humans talk does not have bullets. Content outlines are commonly used when the instructional designer is also the elearning developer.

What is an elearning developer?

The elearning developer is responsible for transforming the learning process that the instructional designer designed into an elearning module. The elearning module can be in the form of videos, animations, interactive web-based exercises, interactive diagrams, among others.

Elearning developers typically have knowledge and skills in web programming and multimedia applications. Thus, an elearning developer could be coding HTML5 and javascript or could be editing video and audio files using applications like Adobe Premiere and Audacity.

More recently, both the multimedia and interactive web modules can be produced by a kind of software called elearning authoring applications. Some examples of elearning authoring applications are Adobe Captivate, Articulate Storyline, and Lectora Inspire. These elearning authoring tools also enable the rapid prototyping approach to elearning development and instructional designers who can also work as elearning developers.

If the instructional designer provided a script, the elearning developer has more creative control over how the medium will present the lesson. If the instructional designer provided a storyboard, it means they used their knowledge on how to present a lesson for optimal learning and retention. Thus, the elearning developer needs to follow the storyboard as close as possible. Of course, the work dynamics between the instructional designer and the elearning developer can also be affected by internal work processes, company culture, and available technology. As mentioned already, it's also a common trend to merge instructional designers and elearning developers into one role; in such cases, the person in that role needs only a content outline as a personal guide in developing the elearning module.


Instructional designers plan the content of the lesson and kind of media to optimize learning. They work with SMEs and make plans and decisions on presenting the lesson in the elearning module. Instructional designers usually have teaching degree or experience as a trainor. An elearning developer produce the elearning modules based on the instructional designer's plan. The elearning developer may have some leeway from the plan depending on the available technology and the existing work process in the company. Recently, it is common for many companies to merge the instructional designer and elearning developer in one role.

Last updated on 06 Mar 2021.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning