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That's Higher Ed ID: Expectation vs. Reality!

Instructional designer Alex Mitts joins me to discuss his transition from a position in educational technology to higher ed instructional design. He talks about his expectations for a what an instructional design role might be and those differ from the role he currently has. He also talks about his strategies in preparing for his transition, including brushing up on tools Like Storyline, and expanding his network. Alex also shares his thoughts on whether he thinks it's easier or more challenging for educators to transition into corporate or higher ed ID.

Connect with Alex on LinkedIn, Twitter, or check out his website at


The following transcript was auto-generated and may contain typos or spelling errors.

Leslie Early 0:04

Okay, today I have instructional designer Alex Mitts here with me. And he is here to talk about his transition from education into instructional design in the higher ed setting. And also, which I think is kind of fun to discuss some of, you know, his expectations for what this role would be like, versus the reality of you know, what's really come to pass in his day to day. So, thank you so much for joining me. Alex, would you like to take a minute or two to introduce yourself?

Alex Mitts 0:36

Yeah, thanks for having me. My name is Alex Mitts. I am an instructional designer for California State University, Bakersfield, and Bakersfield College as an adjunct so they bring me in when they have extra grant money to do that. I also work with Cara North for Learning Camel LLC, and I do freelance voiceover work. And but um, but the the nine to five or the eight to two, five is instructional design for Cal State Bakersfield.

Leslie Early 1:02

Awesome, so and so I guess you are still relatively new to this world. So how long have you been doing instructional design full time.

Alex Mitts 1:11

So it's January of 2021. Now and so I got hired in June of 2020. And it was kind of an interesting way that I got hired was I you know, kind of giving a bit of past on where I come from. I was a classroom teacher I used to teach English in in California. And I did that for three years. And then I got an opportunity to to be called, called out to a different district to do educational technology work, I was what's called a teacher on special assignment. So they took me out of the classroom, because of my edtech expertise, and my job was to help teachers become better technology users to then pass that along to their students. And so I did that for two years and the district that I was in, and I weren't really jiving, like we did for the first year, like for the first year, it was awesome. And then the second year, there was some administrative restructuring. And it made it made it made doing my actual job really hard. I kept getting tapped to do other things that weren't my job. So I'm like, you know what, thank you. But no, thanks. And so I went back to the classroom. And that was the year you know, that COVID hit. So you know, from August to March, I was teaching English again. And as much as I enjoyed my new site in my school, and my administrator, I was having, I was having some issues overall, I'm not sure you know, how far I want to go into it. But I knew that the move to instructional design was something that I needed to pick up again, because it was something that I was kicking around and studying for and all that stuff. But you know, I that that last bit was, you know, alright, it's maybe it's time to move on. And then COVID hit. And so I was doing the teaching from home, remote distance learning, it was kind of a panic, goji sort of situation. And we did that we finished out the year. And then I think it was in like late May I get a phone call from from my current employer going Hey, do you remember applying for this job? I went, yeah, I applied for this job. Nine months ago.

Leslie Early 3:14


Alex Mitts 3:15

I know. And so I went, yeah, they're like, do you still want to interview for it? And I went, sure, because at this point, I was doing all the things I needed to do. I was you know, that was already a regular Camtasia user. I was learning how to use storyline i was i was reading books, I was watching YouTube channels, I was following instructional designers left and right, I was working with my my esteemed colleague and mentor Karen north to get my feet wet. And then this kind of came along. And I was like, This isn't like this is this might be this might be the path. And so they set me up on a zoom interview. And I went through and I did the whole song and dance and let them know that my time as an edtech consultant, or ed tech specialist was, you know, relevant to these things. I gave my demonstration. And they're like, cool. We have like four other applicants that we're going to interview and then we'll, you know, we'll let you know, one way or the other. And so they went through the rest of the candidates that day. And then they called me the next day and went, you're the guy.

Leslie Early 4:10

Wow, that was fast. I mean, yeah, like long to get there. But then at the end like sprint to the finish, I guess?

Alex Mitts 4:17

Well, here's the kicker is because historically, they normally have to because my college has 800 faculty members and two instructional designers to handle them all. And so then one of the instructional designers left and I think that was in October of 2019. And they left the other guy by my current partner, they left him by himself until they hired me. But you know, COVID hit and everyone had started to go online, and then they're gearing up for the entire term to be online. They're like, you know, we should probably get this guy. Oh, yeah. Yeah. And so that's what they did is they took the, you know, they did the interviews, they've knocked out all the candidates. They were like, Alright, cool. You're the guy. And, you know, great story. I'm used to being a teacher where your salaries like a grid, it's like, you know, yours years served versus units, post baccalaureate. And so when they called me, they're like, yeah, you're the guy. You know, I was like, great. When do you want me to start Monday yesterday, if you can, and I went, Oh, that's awesome. Cool. Can we talk about salary? And they went, yeah, here's this number, and I went, your jaw dropped? Yeah, in a bad way. I was like, Oh, no, that's not what I want. Like, I was really, it was bad. It was a bit, you know, cuz that's one thing that's sort of a trend is, you know, higher ed, instructional design does not, does not quite pay as well as private or, you know, freelance or any of that stuff. And I wouldn't mind making a lateral move. And I didn't even mind giving up some salary to make this jump, but it was big. And so it was it was, you know, hopefully, hopefully, HR is not listening to this. But it was like a big, it's a big drop, it was like $7,000 off where I needed it to be to be a completely lateral move. I'm like, you know, if I can score within 3000, I can do that. But once again, I'm used to the grid. It's like, here's your number. That's it. There's no wiggle room. Yeah. But But then as she dropped the number, all this is going on in my brain, and I went, wait a minute, this isn't teaching. And so I went, Hey, can I come back at you with a different number. And she went, sure what you can do that I went, I need this number. It was 7000. Above. And I went as close to that number as you can get. And you know, using that language, it gives them permission inadvertently to you know, kind of shaft you a bit which I was ready for I was like it needs close to this number as humanly possible. And she's like, Alright, cool. Let me take this back. I should either haven't, I should have something for you at the end of today, or at the beginning of tomorrow. Next day rolls around, right on the right on the dollar. And so I was like, Alright, that's it, I'm out. And so they they had me come in Monday, and I was just hitting the ground running, it was a lot of faculties first time on line. And so me and my partner were just hanging from the ceiling trying to get everything done. And that's the story of how I got in.

Leslie Early 6:56

Wow, that's actually a pretty good. It's a pretty good story for people who are thinking about making the transition, because you're right, like higher ed, is significantly lower than what you would be offered in, you know, a corporate position. And I thought your jaw dropped because I've heard stories of people who former teachers who are going into position starting positions in the next couple of weeks here. And they're making twice...

Alex Mitts 7:22

Way more.

Leslie Early 7:22

Yeah, twice what their teacher salary was. So that's just a little salary negotiation story for, for listeners.

Alex Mitts 7:31

Yea, you know what I was, before COVID hit, I was actually entertaining an idea because I live in California, but I live in the central part of California I live in. For those who don't know, California, I live right above Los Angeles, but below, friends now, I don't know how big friends I live. I live right above LA. And so but San Francisco is about a five hour drive north for me. And so I was courting with a different company about being hired as an instructional designer, but I would have had to have driven to the Bay Area because I wasn't in a position to move. But they're like, well, what maybe we could do is we could have you drive up on Monday, like on Sunday night, you know, put you up in a hotel, have you stay there Monday through Thursday, and then you go home, and then you spend Friday, Saturday and then Sunday morning, back at home and then come back. And they were willing to do that, in addition to giving me a salary that's that was 20,000 or $25,000, more than what I was making as a teacher. So not only a $25,000 bump, but like gas and lodging to bring me up there to do. So yeah, for those thinking of going into ID private or freelance is where the money's at higher ed, not so much. But if you're moving from teaching into higher ed, if you've got the right skill set, the work life balance is definitely a bit more desirable. I don't know. It's one of those things where like, you know, teaching is one of those things that's either your calling and it's like in your blood, you can't imagine not doing it or not. And I unfortunately fell into that second group. Like I thought like, Oh, yeah, I'm gonna be a teacher and write this out. I'm gonna retire, you know, fat and happy. But ultimately, it was the it was the bureaucracy of school districts stuff that just got under my skin. I couldn't hang love The kids love the content.

Leslie Early 9:12

So it sounds like um, even before you got this call back on a nine month old application, you said you were already sort of had your gears turning in you were already sort of, you know, doing self study and kind of preparing for a life and ID so you It seemed like you had something in mind. You had some expectations about the type of skill sets you need the type of knowledge you would need the type of network you would need to make that transition. So I'm just curious how that sort of panned out for you. So you did kind of talk a little bit about what you were preparing. But do you maybe want to give a little bit more background on like what you were doing for self study.

Alex Mitts 9:57

I think that I think the very first day inkling of like instructional design is was something as a viable career option was a was an article written by an instructional designer named Matt sustaita, who was a former teacher. And I don't know if that's everyone's gateway drug into moving into it, but it was certainly mine. And I bring that up every chance I get if you if you haven't read that article, for those listening at home, go find it. It's incredible. And it gives you so much hope. And it lets you know that like, hey, you're marketable. And you're, I don't know, there's a stigma about being a teacher where it's like, well, once you're in, you're in for life, like you have to get jumped out or something. I don't know. But that's not the case. There's a lot of marketable stuff and especially if you are tech savvy, so I read that and then I just started diving into the career like, well, what, you know what, I was looking at job postings, what do they want? And then I take that list and then I develop like, and I go, Okay, well, they want storyline. I see storyline coming up a bunch. It's like, Alright, cool. I'm gonna go buy like three Udemy courses on story storyline. Yeah. And so just burn through those. What else? Go look up the the instructional design celebrities of LinkedIn, you know, like Tim Slade, and Alex, Alice and Karen north, and, you know, Matt sustaita, and just in so on and so forth, and start looking at what they're doing and what they're putting out in the world. What other you know, other things have the job. You know, Addy, what's it? Okay, cool. I can buy a book on this by Tim slades book, you know, and so I'm just sitting there just consuming content, and setting aside time every day, which is kind of the hard, but most important part is to set aside time every day to like, study and learn. And so I felt like I had a lot of the, how you transfer knowledge from one human brain into the other from my years of teaching, it was all the nuts and bolts stuff, like how do I use storyline? How do I use? You know, I already had a lot of experience with Camtasia.

Leslie Early 11:40

But that's development, not necessarily instructional design or curriculum design, but more like, the elearning development side of it. What Yeah, where we're kind of lacking when you're just a teacher. I mean, I shouldn't say just a teacher, but like, you know, that's the sort of stuff that you wouldn't have as much experience with, right?

Alex Mitts 11:58

And I think boning up to on things like Addie, or learner, you know, curriculum development in a more formal way. Yeah. Helps like, even though it's things that you know, you know, them is something else. So it's almost like you have to translate your knowledge into a different language. And so I think, I think, having done that helped me score. This job that I'm currently in now is that I was able to talk about it in a way that made sense to me. And I didn't feel like I was just regurgitating keywords or buzzwords that I would hear on LinkedIn. It was like, Oh, I understand this concept, but I understood it a different way. In teacher land. Yeah. So yeah. So like, really just kind of taking what you know, and repackaging it in a way that's translatable to the job you're currently seeking. I think that's a really important step.

Leslie Early 12:47

Yeah. So you're doing all of this kind of research study, and just kind of mentally preparing yourself for this transition. But once once you got this callback and started interviewing. Did you find that you needed all of this as you're moving into a higher ed position?

Alex Mitts 13:09

For a higher ed position? No, I don't think so. Because it was totally different than what I had expected. Because all this self study was really preparing me for private or corporate. Because you know, and, you know, correct me if I'm wrong, because you're, you're in a private or corporate right. So what I was expecting was the assess the need does this, do we really need training? What problem do we need to solve? If we do need training? How are we going to approach this? Who are my subject matter experts? Who are my stakeholders? How am I going to develop this? What tools Am I going to use? Is it going to be storyline? What sort of assessments I'm going to have at the end? And all of that stuff that you rinse and repeat to solve problems for your organization? That was not what I landed in, when I got to higher ed it?

Leslie Early 13:53

That's interesting.

Alex Mitts 13:54

Yeah, it was, it was completely, I don't know, it was very similar, higher ed ideas very similar to what I used to do in that district as an ed tech specialist. So it's weird. I used to describe my job in that district, as an ed tech specialist as the bridge between teachers and it. Because teachers speak one language, and it speaks a different language. And they both want one things, and they're oftentimes in completely different directions. It's like teachers, like I need this piece of technology to do this thing in order to teach my students and then you have it who's like, yeah, I hear you. But there's infrastructure in place, it's not going to allow us to get you to do that. And then it becomes my job to go well, wait a minute. What if you give a little bit here and then it gives a little bit there and then we find something in the middle? So it takes a you know, this this job in higher ed almost takes it person who is fluent on both sides of the aisle, both sides of the aisle have it and teaching to sort of bring it together in a way that benefits everybody?

Leslie Early 14:57

So that's interesting, because I have I I've talked to Dr. Luke Hobson, a little bit about higher ed in a previous episode. And it's interesting. I wish I knew more about the higher ed. Id position because I really don't it's still like behind a cloak of, you know, vagueness to me. But it sounds like what you're saying is that, you know, if people are coming or looking to make the transition, and they're coming from that ed tech kind of place, that might be an easier transition than to go from K 12. ed tech, straight into corporate although I do, I'll meant I'll name drop here for a second. I do know that Erica Zimmer came from a very similar edtech position. And she did get into a really nice corporate ID position with that experience as well. So it's like not set in stone. But it sounds like what what you're saying is that if you come from Ed Tech, making this jump into higher ed ID isn't too much of a stretch.

Alex Mitts 15:58

I think, I don't know, I think it's, it might be easier and more difficult in some ways, I think it would be I think it's more difficult in some ways, just because the town you're in probably has a limited number of academic institutions requiring instructional designers. So for me, I happened, I was very fortunate. And I happened to get into both collegiate institutions in my town, I have the CSU here, which is sort of like the big in California goes UC, you know, like UCLA, USC, USC, the University of California, CSU is tier two, and then community colleges somewhere, you know, little bit farther down the line, not necessarily in terms of quality, but in terms of like cost and prestige, and blah, blah, blah. But, you know, I had two options, and I managed to scoop up both of them. And I feel kind of bad about that. Because like anybody else who wants to get into higher ed ID in my town has to wait until either myself or my partner either gets fired or quit. So making that transition into higher ed ID, if you have the opportunity, I think is great. Just be just because if you know anyone listening, coming from an edtech background knows that faculty, teachers, you know, anyone who works in educational, it who works in education, oftentimes has a really serious lack of technological prowess. And you know, not not saying that, in a way, that's like looking down my nose, it's just one of those things where it's like, it's such a new frontier, and so many technologies have flooded into classrooms and such that people need help, like, people really need higher ed instructional designers, or they or they need k 12. ed tech specialists to get them where they need to be.

Leslie Early 17:33

And it's such a, I don't know, it's kind of the pandemic has, has definitely, you know, ushered that in, it was already happening, but like, it's really happening now. I mean, districts don't have a choice, they have to do things virtually now. But yeah, so there is a lot of opportunity and, and need now more than ever for these types of roles.

Alex Mitts 17:56

Yeah, it was a it was a wake up call for sure for most educational institutions. But I guess going back to the main point is, if you can get into higher ed, I highly recommend it just because I feel like I was really scared and still am scared of jumping into corporate or private or freelance, just because I still don't know what to expect. But now that I'm in higher ed it, it's like, oh, this, I have a sense of familiarity with this particular type of job. And I think settling into this role and owning it for however long I'm here, which you know, knock on wood is as long as it can be prepare me to jump into a private or a freelance or a corporate, if and when I decide to do so nicely. If and when you know, anyone at my job listing, it's not like I'm looking to leave or anything but you know, people move life happens, you know, if ever If ever I leave my, my wonderful place here at Cal State Bakersfield, I will feel more confident going into the new gig than if I hadn't been here for a while before getting my feet wet in this arena.

Leslie Early 19:01

Yeah, yeah. And I would say I mean, since I went straight into corporate from I went the other way. So I, I think you would probably be okay. I think I think teachers really do have so many strengths and a lot of skills that aren't necessarily like you can't quantify them. But we have a certain flexibility in our approach to things because you have to be flexible as a teacher and educator like you have to think on your feet and you have to come up with creative problem solving. And all of those things I think probably are equally useful in in a higher ed or corporate setting. So I think you would be just fine. But let me say this, if people out there have more questions or would like to connect with you to kind of, you know, continue this conversation, where would be the best place that people can reach you?

Alex Mitts 19:57

Well, any place that you can find me as generally good because I'm one of those crazy people who have notifications on for everything. But if you're looking specifically, my LinkedIn profile is, you know, LinkedIn slash in slash Alex Smith's elite, MIT s. You can find me on Twitter at who is Alex Smith's, you can go through my website, which is mitts tech Comm. And I think those are the main places. So and I'm also really responsive to I was very fortunate to be part of the ATD emerging professionals showcase so long with you. And I don't know if it happened to you. But my LinkedIn exploded immediately after that. And people just reached out and wanted to talk and I've had long conversations through LinkedIn messaging. So feel free to reach out because I am a real person and will really respond to you.

Leslie Early 20:44

Yeah, that's great. All right. Well, thank you so much, Alex, for coming on and kind of sharing your insights into the world of higher ed ID right now.

Alex Mitts 20:52


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