Finding Our Voice: Instructional Designers in Higher Education

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Key Takeaways

  • A New Jersey workshop on instructional design gave attendees the opportunity to learn about instructional designers' roles at different institutions and brainstorm good ideas, tips and tricks, important contributions to the field, and how to overcome shared challenges.
  • Instructional technologists and video production coordinators also are involved in the instructional design process, helping faculty learn how to use instructional tools.
  • A major challenge for instructional designers is faculty resistance to new pedagogies and deliveries — not just to hybrid and online courses.
  • Institutional acknowledgement of skill acquisition in their professional development can lead faculty to place a higher value on technology integration in teaching and learning.

Over the past 10 years, EDUCAUSE has conducted an annual survey eliciting the top 10 IT issues in higher education. In nine of the 10 years (2012 excluded), faculty development in teaching and learning with technology, learning management systems, and/or online learning were identified as top IT issues. This raises the question, how are these ongoing issues being addressed? Most colleges and universities have some kind of instructional design unit that assists faculty and/or students in these areas, but who are these instructional designers/technologists, and what exactly is it that they do?

During the summer of 2015, 32 New Jersey instructional designers and technologists came together to learn what they have in common, what challenges they face, and how they address these challenges in an Instructional Design Symposium sponsored by NJEDge.Net. The State of New Jersey established the NJEDge.Net consortium in 2000 to act as a central point within the state providing collaborative resources and networked information services . The consortium includes 46 colleges and universities and 48 K–12 institutions.

Here we describe some of the outcomes from this intensive, executive-style workshop. We invite other consortiums, state university systems, or any higher education system to emulate this exercise to gain greater understanding, expertise, and support among its instructional designers/technologists and university stakeholders.

Starting the Conversation

Our agenda was simple: As the two moderators, we basically let the instructional designers do all the work. After we made a few introductory comments and showed an animation of a traditional professor who wants to teach an online class to get the conversation started, attendees broke into five groups in which we mandated that those from the same institution could not sit together. We asked the people at each of the tables to identify a note-taker and/or a presenter. The note-taker wrote the important points on easel notepads stationed by each table. (Talk about low tech!)

First, the instructional designers shared information about how instructional design is done at their institution, to whom they report, and their responsibilities. They also brainstormed best ideas, tips and tricks, and what they deemed important contributions to the field of instructional design. Then each group gave a presentation that we videotaped and later created transcripts from, giving us the ability to go back and capture some of the rich, qualitative data gleaned from the conversations and presentations.

What Instructional Designers Do

Instructional designers take on a variety of roles. They can be course development focused or technology focused. They can be facilitators, mentors, trainers, collaborators, reviewers, and mediators, and more likely some combination of those. They often have different roles to fill in addition to instructional design: they may supervise computer labs, have responsibility for classroom technology, and/or oversee video production facilities.

The instructional designers who attended the NJEDge.Net Instructional Design Symposium are involved in:

  • Providing both pedagogical and technology training, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes separately
  • Moving courses between learning management systems
  • Creating new online courses or transitioning face-to-face courses to online formats
  • Producing video and other multimedia
  • Supporting a variety of software that faculty want to use to create their courses or have their students learn
  • Training faculty to teach more effectively using technology
  • Supporting students using LMSs
  • Ensuring that courses meet federal requirements for accessibility
  • Lobbying for funding for faculty who are taking time to create online courses
  • Creating challenging assessments to minimize cheating

Many instructional designers have a process that they use to work with faculty to create online courses. Most of the processes are rooted in the Quality Matters rubric, although very few go through the rigorous Quality Matters process. From a pedagogical standpoint, the process involves instructional designers helping instructors identify or create measurable learning objectives, develop original course content, and generate meaningful activities that help students not only engage with the material but also with the instructor and the other students in the course. These processes generally take between six and 15 weeks depending on how far the faculty member has gotten in thinking about the course. Often, a post-semester review is included in the process so as to make changes that the instructor would like to see based on "field testing."

Instructional technologists and video production coordinators also are involved in the instructional design process. They help faculty learn how to use instructional tools such as lecture capture, synchronous meetings, asynchronous discussions, collaborative document writing, group work, clickers, learning management systems, video production, and video editing.

Teaching faculty involves one-on-one sessions, workshops, and a variety of institutes. Often, the workshops/institutes vary in expected levels of expertise to accommodate beginners, intermediates, and technology-adept faculty. By assuring faculty that they remain in control, instructional designers/technologists can reach them at their level.

Instructional Design Unit Reporting Lines

In most of the institutions represented at the symposium, instructional design units report to CIOs or vice presidents for IT, although many have dual reporting relationships with senior academic administrators such as provosts. Their location within the greater organization often affects funding, understanding of their role, and their ability to do their jobs. This begs the question — does governance play a role in their positioning? What repercussions does their organizational location have for instructional designers, faculty, and the process of developing and supporting faculty in teaching and learning with technology?

The instructional designers found that it made a difference in terms of trust and respect accorded them when they sat on the academic side of the house. In fact, we heard strong consensus that instructional designers belong under the instructional wing, not the financial wing. Under the academic wing they could fly with important standards in course design — standards that might come internally or out of a program like Quality Matters. Under the academic wing instructional designers can find the buy-in, encouragement, and understanding of what instructional design actually is. Nonetheless, the majority of instructional designers at the symposium report to the IT side and ultimately (usually) to the financial/administrative side, despite their preference for the academic side.

Faculty respond to administrative support in a variety of ways. For instance, they tend to resist top-down initiatives, but at the same time they have no respect for initiatives not supported by the top administration. This is Lesson 101 for every new provost. And guess what? Instructional designers fully understand this lesson as well. If the respectful but firm channeling toward taking advantage of the help instructional designers can provide comes from the provost or the academic leadership, it will gradually alter faculty priorities in a direction that can only benefit their teaching and learning — and our students.

Challenges with Faculty

This group of instructional designers found in their relationships with faculty that their expertise is not necessarily recognized. As faculty members seek respect and acknowledgement in their disciplines, instructional designers do as well. Many of us have our master's or doctoral degrees in this field; many of us have published; many of us teach, and many of us have years of experience doing what we do. Yet, when it comes to designing a course, many faculty assume that they are the only experts, whether or not they have experienced any kind of professional development in teaching and learning. Their discipline expertise, they believe, supersedes an instruction designer's knowledge of good instructional design.

This belief becomes especially apparent when faculty approach an instructional designer for help in designing a hybrid or online course. Without regard for the time and commitment required to design such a course well, these faculty members sometimes have two weeks or less to come up with the course. General consensus among the workshop attendees was that it takes at least a semester to develop a really good online course. It takes time and reflection.

A major challenge for instructional designers is faculty resistance to new pedagogies and deliveries — not just to hybrid and online courses. This resistance emanates from a variety of reasons, such as fear of not looking knowledgeable in front of their students as they struggle with a new technology and uncertainty about the efficacy of the new teaching delivery. Both objections can be overcome with trust and openness towards the instructional designers whose job it is to (a) make sure that the faculty are comfortable with the technology tool chosen for their pedagogy and (b) to vet the new type of teaching and learning through research and experience. Instructional designers are passionate about what they do; they want their faculty clientele to be happy and fulfilled in their teaching as a result of their collaborative work.

Instructional Designer Wish List

Instructional designers have their own challenges. How can they get good data feedback on the course design they helped with? Faculty get that feedback; can they have access as well? Would learning analytics help with this? That question could not be answered by any of the instructional designers at this symposium. Many institutions have not yet adopted learning analytics, although the promise looks huge. For instructional designers to do their job even better, feedback is essential.

Another issue is that of implementing standards and consistency across the institution. Faculty believe in academic freedom and, too often, view standards or templates as an impingement on that freedom. Best practices in teaching and learning resulting from research over the years and good pedagogical theory can aid in creating those guidelines. However, it is not within an instructional designer's jurisdiction to mandate these; it's not necessarily within the administration's jurisdiction, either. One of the major requests brought to the table at the symposium was for the authority to require that faculty members receive the proper training and use the appropriate standards prior to implementing a hybrid or online course.

Although normally handled by the disability specialists available to help students, accessibility seems also to have fallen into the hands of instructional designers at many institutions because of the virtual classroom. Accessibility sparked a philosophical discussion of accessibility versus usability among attendees. Are they different, or do they lead to the same end? One instructional designer indicated that by designing for usability, you may be indirectly covering accessibility matters as well. Another felt that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) would help those with disabilities because it would create flexible learning environments that can accommodate the range of individual learning differences. Regardless of how accessibility is approached, every instructional designer there felt that it was an important issue to deal with.

The last main issue brought up by all five groups was the need for continuous professional development for instructional designers. Not only does the technology change constantly, but learning deliveries and pedagogies are undergoing changes on a much more frequent basis than ever before. In fact, not only did everyone recommend that faculty planning to teach online take a course online, but that they, themselves, should as well.

Overcoming Barriers

First and foremost, instructional designers felt that offering faculty stipends, time release, and/or payment for course design would greatly assist in overcoming the major objection of time needed to develop a hybrid or online course. People value what they get paid for, and it's unclear to many faculty if the professional development offered by instructional designers has particular value for them. Faculty have other priorities than just teaching and learning, such as research and service. Institutional acknowledgement of skill acquisition in their professional development can lead faculty to place a higher value on technology integration in teaching and learning.

The instructional designers felt that using nationally normed standards could help overcome faculty resistance because the research behind these standards had been thoroughly vetted. Many faculty feel relief when they realize that they don't have to completely reinvent the wheel for teaching and learning — just for the change in delivery of their particular course. Using the overarching principle of pedagogy first, with technology used to enhance teaching and learning rather than as an end in itself, assuages faculty concerns.

Although it sometimes appears as though it doesn't, excellence in teaching has to matter: It makes or breaks student experience in the classroom. Many faculty do care, but it's not always something that they instinctively know how to do. Having a course design and development process can make a difference in raising faculty's awareness of how to become more effective.

A Useful Model

The Instructional Design Symposium provided a positive experience that has led to networking relationships between instructional designers at different institutions. More specifically, it has led to NJEDge.Net deciding to make the workshop an annual event. Other consortia of higher education institutions may want to follow this example and build on it for their own purposes.

Sandra L. Miller, EdD, is deputy CIO and director of Instruction & Research Technology at William Paterson University.  She provides leadership and vision for the Center for Teaching and Learning with Technology (CTLT), Media Services/Classroom Technology Support, and Broadcast, Production and Support Services. Miller was PI for NJVID, an IMLS National Leadership Grant in 2007–2011. She has presented at numerous conferences including EDUCAUSE, Lilly Conference, NERCOMP, VALE, and more. Miller (2015) published an article on "Teaching an Online Pedagogy MOOC" in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching from MERLOT; a chapter (2013) on "Creating a Video Dialogue" in the Plugged-In Professor, Eds., S. Ferris and P. Wilder, and more. Miller has served as Past-President of CCUMC.

Gayle K. Stein, PhD, is associate director for Instructional Technology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Stein is a university senator, a member of the Institutional Research Board, and an adjunct faculty member in Rutgers' Library and Information Studies department, where she teaches privacy and policy development, Introduction to Information Technology and Informatics, IT project management, IT for librarians, management of technological organizations, disruptive IT, and change management courses and coordinates the Internship Program. Stein leads the Rutgers instructional technology group, which provides faculty support for technology in teaching and learning, Sakai, video services, and assistance for faculty and students with learning and motor disabilities. She is also the newly appointed co-chair of the university’s web accessibility and accessible course materials executive councils.

© 2016 Sandra L. Miller and Gayle K. Stein. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.