Instructional Design or Adult and Continuing Education: A look at two masters degrees

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Instructional designer working on new educational materials

As an educator or professional interested in going back to school, you understand the importance of always furthering your knowledge. While choosing to pursue additional education is your first decision, you have to determine which master’s program can best prepare you to reach your professional and personal goals.

From designing curricula to training new employees, there are several opportunities for adult educators to apply their skills. A master’s degree in either instructional design or adult and continuing education with a focus in educational technology can enhance your ability to leverage those opportunities, but understanding some of the differences between them can help you distinguish which one is a better fit for your goals and interests.

Understanding the two degrees

Whether you pursue a master’s degree in instructional design or adult and continuing education with a specialization in educational technology, you can gain the skills and expertise necessary to make a positive impact on adult learners and become a respected leader in your industry. Both degrees combine education, communication, and psychology concepts and theories to build an understanding of how adults learn. From there, the two degrees apply this knowledge in somewhat different ways.

Instructional design: creating the tools

From teaching materials to learning equipment, this field of study focuses on designing the most effective teaching environments to meet the various needs of different groups of students. In the modern classroom, this planning goes beyond paper manuals and textbooks. Instructional designers must leverage educational technology to create multimedia instructional materials, such as online courses, video simulations, and smartphone applications.

After completing this master’s program, graduates can become proficient in instructional design and performance assessment, playing a vital role in providing students worldwide with the learning materials and programs that are most effective and meaningful.

Adult and continuing education: leveraging the tools

This master’s degree also introduces students to methods for planning classes and programs to meet various adult learning needs across several academic and training contexts, but there is less emphasis on actual design of materials and tools. Instead, adult educators effectively utilize these educational resources to present information in ways that engage with and meet the needs of their students.

When pursuing this degree, graduate students gain an understanding of adult education models and theories, complete with the skills to plan learner-centered lessons, assess performance, and support adult learners in their learning experiences.

Some programs cover instructional design in certain courses, but not with the same detail as degree programs dedicated entirely to this topic. The online adult and continuing education master’s program at Rutgers, for instance, offers courses and specializations in educational technology. These classes – Teaching with Digital Tools, Web-Based Multimedia Design for Educators, and Developing Digital eLearning Environments – focus on leveraging technology in educational settings, giving your studies a touch of instructional design elements. However, the overall emphasis in this program is on effectively and responsively meeting the needs of learners, so the focus is more on teaching rather than tool development.

Many consider a master’s in Adult and Continuing Education a versatile degree, covering the concepts, strategies, and tools graduates can apply across a wide variety of adult education environments. Master’s programs in instructional design tend to discuss the more specialized, tech-heavy knowledge necessary for critical research and design in the education sector. However, instructional designers do also find career opportunities in industries beyond education, including health care, corporate training, and business development. With certain overlaps in learning outcomes and skill applications, some employers accept both advanced degrees as relevant qualifications.

Working beyond the degrees

Instructional design courses introduce students to the tools and concepts they need to create and monitor effective teaching and training materials. With online classrooms and digital learning tools becoming increasingly commonplace, this career path often takes on a technology-based nature. Along with developing instructional materials, these professionals are responsible for assisting faculty in using educational tools and resources.

With that said, graduates from instructional design programs often pursue more specialized roles, working with other designers and educators to improve learning experiences. When you graduate with a master’s degree in instructional design, you can pursue job titles such as:

  • Instructional Designer
  • Multimedia Instructional Designer
  • Learning Experience Designer
  • E-learning Instructional Designer
  • E-learning Program Manager
  • Education Specialist
  • Curriculum Development Specialist
  • Instructional Technologist
  • Learning Systems Analyst
  • Performance Support Specialist
  • Lead Performance Support Analyst
  • Director of Educational Research and Product Strategy

Instructional designer salaries range from $50,000 to upwards of $100,000 with more experience, according to Glassdoor. However, the estimated average yearly earnings for this career path are $67,047.

Graduates with a master’s degree in adult and continuing education often fill roles such as:

  • Community Education Instructor
  • Community College Professor
  • Academic Administrator
  • Adult Literacy and GED Diploma Teacher
  • Remedial Education Teacher
  • College or University Dean
  • Program or Activity Director
  • Academic Director
  • Corporate Trainer
  • Training Coordinator
  • Training and Development Manager
  • Director of Training

Salary potential depends on the role, company, and level of experience, but professionals in adult education and training with a master’s degree can expect to earn an average of $66,000 each year, according to PayScale.

Deciding between the two

The flexible nature of both areas of study means your master’s degree won’t limit you to traditional teaching roles. However, if you have an interest in the behind-the-scenes, tech-savvy development side of education, a master’s degree in instructional design may be the choice for you. If you have a desire to interact more directly with adult learners and engage them with educational technology, the adult and continuing education degree might be a better fit.

Whichever path you choose, a master’s degree can open up doors to new career opportunities, increased salary potential, and more fulfilling professional endeavors. If you need help with the decision, contact a Rutgers enrollment coach for expert advice on the option that best suits your long-term goals. When you choose to study at Rutgers Online, you can further lean on these student support professionals for help managing the admissions process, making the most of your Rutgers experience and securing job opportunities after graduation.


Recommended Readings:

Unconventional Careers you can Have with a Master’s Degree in Adult and Continuing Education

How Technology Can Shape Adult Education


Master of Education in Adult and Continuing Education by Rutgers Online

Instructional Designers and Technologists by ONET Online

Instructional Designer Salaries by Glassdoor

Master of Education Adult Education & Training Degree by PayScale