Preparing Students for Career Success – UMBC’s Learning and Performance Technology Graduate Programs

We recently sat down and spoke with Dr. Greg Williams, program director of the Learning and Performance Technology (LAPT) graduate program.

He discussed the reasons behind the recent name change of the program (formerly known as Instructional Systems Development or ISD), how the program operates, and how the program prepares students to be successful in their careers. 

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This interview has been edited slightly for readability.

Q: Why did you change the name of the program from ISD to LAPT?

Our program is well over 40 years old and it has gone by the same name for pretty much all that time. As time went on, things changed. While I think the name is relevant, it didn’t describe our program as well as it could. 

The field has transformed since we first launched the ISD program to one where the focus has turned toward performance. Instructional design is a very narrow niche and companies essentially need a more broad-ranged approach.  They have problems that need to be solved. When the problems can’t be solved by instructional design and training, they turn to performance.

The learning part encompasses a couple of different things. A subset of learning is training, which of course, we’ve been involved with for a long time. And another subset is instructional design. The term learning casts a broader net on both of these subsets.

This program looks at technology as a system. It assesses how designing can help performance in developing people and evaluating how everything and everyone fits into a system. Our students learn how to use a systems approach to solving problems. This is a big advantage for our students. 

Q: How instrumental was the advisory board in the name change?

Our advisory board is comprised of individuals from organizations in the Baltimore Washington area. They represent organizations that are large Fortune 500 companies,  state; federal; local government, the consulting field, small business, higher education, and other nonprofits. 

They saw the industry’s broad-ranged needs shift from to more of a performance focus. To be clear, we’re not getting rid of instructional design. We’re moving to a focus where we’re giving our students more knowledge and skills and competencies than they had in the past. Our advisory board endorsed this, as they also recognize that this is where the field is headed. 

Employers want problems solved. And if you can only solve one problem one way by training, then you’re going to be limited. The advisory board strongly recommended we make the change in terms of how the program itself is addressing the industry’s overall needs. 

Organizations, not surprisingly, want to be as flexible as possible. They can’t afford to go out and hire a new person if they uncover a new problem.  We’re outfitting our graduates with a  broad background in terms of their competencies and skills. Our goal is to ensure our students are able to design and deliver solutions. 

Q: Will there be a change in the curriculum?

The master’s program that we’ve developed will add more performance-related courses.  The focus will be on the performance aspect as opposed to just instructional design. What we want our students to know is that we’re not getting rid of instructional design. We’re adding to it. 

Students also have a lot of electives to choose from, which is a great benefit. One of the hallmarks of our master’s program is its flexibility and its choice. Adult students like to be self-directed. They don’t want to be told that they must take these 10 or these 12 courses and that there are no substitutions. 

They want choices. So we do have electives in the program that offer these choices to them. For example, we have courses in instructional technology, which is becoming increasingly important today in our field. But students don’t have to take them. Sometimes a student might say, well, that’s just not my thing. I understand that it’s important. But I want to do something else. That is an instance where students can choose to take something different. Another example is the consulting course. Personally, I think it’s a great course. Some students just don’t see themselves in a consultant role, although that issue is becoming more and more prevalent, whether it’s an internal or an external consultant role. We offer that as an elective. 

When you compare this flexibility to other programs from other institutions that offer no electives, you can see the advantages. Zero. None. We’ve designed this program for working adults. We did that over 40 years ago. And that culture has continued on today where students do have choices as working adults. That’s who our students are. They don’t have a lot of time. They want to make sure that the program is flexible and meets their needs. 

We’re all about student success. 

Q: What was the reason for the change to a portfolio-based program in 2012?

We changed from the comprehensive exam approach, which is very traditional to a portfolio approach because it enhances the student experience. 

The portfolio is a collection of work samples generated during the program. Employers often request to see a portfolio in our field.  Our students begin to create one from the very first course. They develop work samples that they can share those projects with potential employers. 

Now, let’s consider the comprehensive exam. It’s exactly what it says; an exam. It is a test. And as one person said to me once, well, have you ever been given a test at work? And I had to think about that. And I said, well, no, I’ve never had a test at work. And that resonated with me. I realized that we were not doing students a service by forcing them to take an exam. When the exam is over, they have no use for it. 

The portfolio is different because they can take that portfolio with them. It’s their intellectual property. They can use those projects that are in the portfolio to show to potential employers. It’s also good to share with other colleagues in the field for their own professional development. 

This is the way the industry is moving. We did an assessment of our current students, our alumni, employers, and everybody said, great idea, do it. So that’s what we did. From an applied learning aspect, it seems like it would be very appealing to students.

Q: Can you talk about the internship course and what is expected and required from students?

The internship is a field-based experience program where we require students to work directly with a client for a semester. They work on a project that meets the needs of the organization. 

We’re flexible with this, especially with the COVID-19 situation. We’re not going to miss a beat with this. Students can work with organizations. They don’t have to be physically present in that organization. Occasionally, they might have meetings to go to, and those can be conducted virtually.

Essentially, we have a whole array of organizations that work with us. But students can have choices. Many times, students come to us and will say, here’s the organization I want to work with. Here’s the project I want to do. What do you think? And then as the supervising faculty member, I will work with them to make sure the experience is the best it can be for them.

The internship project has to be approved to see if it has enough academic rigor to it. Students will then sit down with the client after it’s approved and talk about the project, and then they will work on the project with them. I always like students to work on internship projects that address a need in the field. For example, I want students to do something that addresses something that is a challenge for organizations across the board because it will help them to stand out and make them more employable. 

The internship is one of the hallmarks of our program. Students can intern with the company they are employed with or a different organization, both options are available. If they choose to work with their current employer, it has to be a new project and the work that just can’t be business as usual. It needs to be on a new project or they need to work in another division on a project that they don’t normally work with. This gives students the flexibility to make a choice. There’s flexibility there, which again, are part of the hallmarks of our program. 

We think that students like this flexibility and freedom. They can work on a project that they can add to their portfolio. The organization benefits. We like it from an academic standpoint. So it’s a win-win for everybody.

Q: In your opinion, how can a student best succeed in this program?

I encourage students to choose challenging projects that meet a need in the field. Now, some students, of course, will take the easy route and just do something to meet the requirements of the course. But I try to challenge them and push them to take projects that meet a need in the field and then in their portfolio. That work sample can demonstrate that they indeed are proficient in these competencies and these skills. 

Employers do notice. I remember talking to a student once who got a job as a director of learning at a large local bank. And I asked him, “Hey, why do you think you got the job?” And he said, “When I showed them my portfolio, they got really excited because they said it was full of the things they needed.” 

The portfolio and the challenging projects do indeed make a difference.

Q: What do hiring managers look for in candidates as far as skills traits, educational credentials, and overall experience?

They want people to have experience, obviously, in instructional design. They want people to have experience in training. They want to have people who have more experience with instructional technology. They want them to be able to solve problems. They want them to be able to assess situations, identify the root cause of the problem, and identify alternative solutions other than training. They want them to be able to think on their feet. 

The more flexible our students are in terms of the skills, competencies, and knowledge, the more value they’ll be able to provide to the organization. This relates back to why we changed some of the coursework and the program name. Things are changing and we want our students to be able to change with it all.

Q: Is the industry growing? In other words, will students have jobs after graduation?

Yes, the industry is growing. It’s promising these days. One of the strange things that I think is starting to happen with the COVID-19 situation is that more and more organizations will say to themselves we handled COVID-19 and the telework really worked out for us. Maybe it wasn’t ideal, but it worked out for us. 

I think a lot of organizations are going to say, okay this is an opportunity for us to save money. They’ll consider their rental space or their mortgage payments and realize they could save a ton of money by not having these physical offices. 

So that in a strange way presents opportunities for people in our field because people are going to start to work more remotely. They’re going to use more technology. Virtual trading will be even more important. E-learning is going to be even more appealing and organizations are going to be forced to deal with this. It positions students from our program very well for career opportunities.

Q: Do students need a background in instructional systems development to be able to enroll in the program? 

The short answer is no. They don’t need any particular background or educational credentials. We have students that will have bachelor’s degrees from everything from A to Z, from accounting to zoology. We have people that have accounting, engineering, liberal arts degrees, et cetera. 

Those most ideally-suited for this program are those who are inquisitive and excited to solve problems. They want to help organizations achieve their goals. So problem-solving and creativity are always good traits. Our students have those traits. 

It’s an exciting time for people in our field.

Q: Any final thoughts?

There are a lot of opportunities in the field. Due to COVID-19, there will be more opportunities in this field than in the past. I think it’s going to help e-learning to grow even more than it all already has. Our program is well-positioned. We’ve got superb faculty, and the vast majority of them are practitioners in the field. They know what’s happening in the field because they’re working in it.  They are the heart and soul of our program. 

There are many opportunities in this field. And we look forward to the changes.

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