Is Instructional Design the Same Thing as Curriculum?

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If you’re interested in an education that will teach you to design and develop the curriculum standards, teaching strategies and instructional materials used in the classroom, you have a lot to consider as you explore master’s degree programs. As you compare options with somewhat different degree titles, you may start to wonder whether there’s a difference between instructional design and curriculum creation. Although there technically are distinctions between these two fields, they are so closely related that many graduate programs cover both subjects. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Distinguishing Between Creating Materials and Creating Processes

Both curriculum development and instructional design are fields that involve creation within the teaching and learning process. Yet the focus is slightly different. Curriculum development has more to do with the content students learn. Instructional design emphasizes the processes of teaching and learning, as well as the instructional tools and techniques used to teach that content.

Curriculum development and instructional design are interrelated. You can’t effectively plan for instructional design without understanding the content of the curriculum that is being taught. Likewise, creating an outstanding curriculum does no good unless you also consider how the ideas and concepts will be taught to pupils.

Although it’s important for professionals working in instructional design and curriculum development to understand the differences as they relate to theory and concepts, it’s also necessary to know how they overlap in the real world. The job duties are so closely related that the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics groups instructional coordinators and curriculum specialists as a single occupational group within the field of education. In many roles, professionals in this field will handle job duties that involve both the curation and creation of curriculum standards and materials and the designing of instructional methods for teaching them.

Although public and private schools make up the largest employing industry of instructional coordinators, they account for only 42 percent of jobs, the BLS reported. These professionals also work in colleges, the government and educational support services.

Differences in Degree Titles and College Curricula

Many graduate-level programs intended for aspiring instructional coordinators and curriculum specialists offer a balance of studies under degree titles like Curriculum and Instruction. For students who don’t have a particular passion for one side of the field or the other, these well-rounded master’s degree programs tend to cover a nice blend of the principles, practices and techniques used in both the creation of curriculum and the design of instructional processes.

Other institutions use different degree titles to describe the educational programs they offer for this population. While some programs are broader, situated as concentrations within a master’s-level teaching program, others are even more specialized, emphasizing a single aspect of the discipline.

At South Carolina’s Clemson University, one of U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked graduate programs in curriculum and instruction, students actually receive a Master of Education in Teaching and Learning with a concentration in Instructional Coaching. The program emphasizes skills in training teacher colleagues, but as a concentration rather than a major program of study in itself, it consists of just four courses embedded within a broader curriculum of pedagogical coursework.

Another highly-ranked program, the University of Florida’s, is more specialized, emphasizing the Educational Technology aspect of instructional design. In an educational technology program, students can expect to devote more of their studies to understanding technological innovations in teaching and education. They may learn more about the technologies and practices used in online teaching and hybrid programs than they would in more generalist curriculum development programs. Often, specialized coursework in educational technology will take a closer look at multimedia course materials and digital games designed for educational purposes, but they may spend less of their time on studies in selecting and crafting traditional curricula materials like textbooks.

Ultimately, choosing between these programs depends more on the individual students’ interests and preferences than anything else. Both more general programs and more specialized programs can excel in terms of the quality of education they offer. Schools are likely to consider candidates with any of these relevant educational backgrounds for curriculum specialist and instructional coordinator roles. The real question students should ask themselves when choosing between these graduate programs of study is what aspect of the field most appeals to them, because the coursework and research they will be exposed to during grad school will likely shape their future areas of expertise.

In addition to focuses such as educational technology, some instructional coordinators will be primarily responsible for creating the curriculum and instructional design processes used to teach certain subjects or student grade levels, the BLS reported.

Additional Resources

What Is an Instructional Coordinator?

What Are Some Good Skills or Qualities for a Person Who Specializes in Curriculum Creation?

Which Schools Have the Best Master’s Programs in Curriculum Writing?