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EdTechs and Instructional Designers—What's the Difference?

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Both edtechs and instructional designers (IDs) work with computer systems and programs, yet their actual duties differ from traditional IT tasks. The resulting confusion over what edtechs and IDs do—and how the two roles differ—is rampant, not least in the sector that needs them most: higher education.

Ed Tech, ID--What’s the difference
Credit: PureSolution / Shutterstock © 2018

In a recent conversation with an assistant vice president (AVP) who manages both educational technologists (edtechs) and instructional designers (IDs), the AVP expressed confusion over the difference between the two roles. In higher education, both roles typically report to the IT department. The confusion, then, should not be surprising. Neither role falls under traditional IT programming, systems analysis, or security roles, and, while the two roles revolve around computer systems and programs, their work is very different from traditional IT tasks. To exacerbate the situation, many IDs and edtechs have experience and skills in both roles, and institutions sometimes post a position for either an ID or an edtech when they're actually seeking a person for the role they didn't post.1

It isn't just IT folks who are confused. A recent Google search for "degree in instructional design" resulted in degrees in "instructional design," "learning technologies," and "instructional design and technology." As these results illustrate, even institutions marketing the degrees see a strong connection between the edtech and ID professions.

Further, various authors who have defined the edtech skill set have also highlighted the similarity of the roles. One author noted:

Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.2

Another said:

The term "educational technologist" is used to describe the many professionals that practice in the field of educational technology. This term does not only include instructional designer [sic] and is also often interchangeably used with the term "instructional technologists."3

So, while clarity around the edtech and ID roles is not readily at hand, gaining that clarity will help institutions determine how to best use the services these roles provide. As a starting point, the "Example Scenarios" sidebar illuminates the duties of the two roles and how they complement each other.

Example Scenarios

As the following two scenarios show, the edtech and instructional designer (ID) roles each support faculty work in distinct yet compatible ways.

Scenario 1

Eric, an edtech, is working with a faculty member, Frieda, who wants to add a quiz to Blackboard. Eric shows Frieda how to add the quiz and then helps her troubleshoot the quiz. After reading through the quiz questions, Eric suggests that Frieda meet with Ilya, an instructional designer, to ensure that the questions align with the objectives of Frieda's course.

Ilya first helps Frieda reword the course objectives to meet the SMART criteria and align with the course description. Next, Ilya and Frieda work together to attach Bloom's taxonomy levels to the objectives and then match them to the quiz questions to ensure that Frieda is testing at the appropriate level.

Scenario 2

Ilya, the ID, is working with another faculty member, Frank, to design his course. She shows Frank an overview of the course design process, and they then design the objectives, tests, assignments, and activities. Ilya helps Frank set up Blackboard and his assignments. Because Frank is not proficient in using the Blackboard text screens, he asks about Respondus, which lets him create his tests more easily. Because Ilya has only a very basic knowledge of Respondus, she refers Frank to Eric for more detailed support. Eric then meets with Frank and shows him how to format the questions in Word and import them into the correct Blackboard area.

ID Role and Responsibilities

In their recent article on ID, Elaine Beirne and Matthew Romanoski state that "most instructional designers identify four categories of work they are responsible for: designing, managing, training, and providing support."4 However, they go on to say that "the defined role of an instructional designer may vary not only between institutions, but within academic departments and offices at the same institution."5

The Workable website's job description template for IDs includes the following responsibilities:

  1. Create engaging learning activities and compelling course content that enhances retention and transfer
  2. Work with subject-matter experts (SMEs) and identify the target audience's training needs
  3. State instructional end goals and create content that matches them
  4. Visualize instructional graphics, the user interface, and the finished product
  5. Conduct instructional research and analysis on learners and contexts
  6. Apply tested instructional design theories, practice, and methods
  7. Provide exercises and activities that enhance the learning process
  8. Decide on the criteria used to judge learner's performance and develop assessment instruments
  9. Create supporting materials and media (such as audio, video, simulations, role plays, and games)
  10. Maintain project documentation and course folders

This aligns with the job description from Salary.com:

Designs training programs, including classroom lectures, online courses, and self-study sessions, directed at employees, organization members, or those who use the organization's products or services. Develops and updates course content and coordinates learning curriculum to reflect learning needs. Conducts assessment and analysis to identify new development needs and recommends training methods accordingly. May design computer-based training course.

Based on my discussions with an ID who worked at Wendy's Company, Cox Automotive, and McGraw-Hill Education, this list seems quite accurate across various businesses and industries. Also, these discussions show that IDs may also research subject matter, rather than rely solely on SMEs. Further, I learned that while IDs sometimes work with graphic artists and videographers, they often serve as both a project manager and jack-of-all-trades—responsible for developing instruction content, writing video and audio scripts, managing video production, developing games and simulations, and so on. In business and industry, IDs make recommendations on activities and approaches. Based on the client and business needs and time frames, however, ID team managers sometimes deprioritize such recommendations in favor of the fastest or least-expensive approach.6

Some institutions—typically private ones—have ID departments that design, develop, and completely build programs and courses, including all course materials. They then provide the courses and materials to instructors, who are expected to follow the provided curriculum. This gives institutions some assurance that students are receiving the same quality of course content and materials, regardless of instructor.

Within an institution, the IDs can be centralized, decentralized, or both—as is the case at Purdue University and University of Cincinnati (UC). Decentralized IDs typically report to a college (or a school within a college) and work closely with its instructors to determine the content. These college IDs often do the actual course build, while instructors adjust and add materials to focus on their area of specialty or provide additional clarity on a topic. Decentralized IDs often create all supporting course materials and have access to edtechs and graphic artists to help them. College IDs who have no local edtechs typically rely on centralized edtechs for support on the intricacies of specific technologies when needed.

Centralized IDs usually work more as consultants to instructors, making design recommendations based on specific pedagogical theories and approaches. So, while they sometimes do actually develop assessments (#8 above), central IDs often simply consult with faculty about the assessments and how they align with the course objectives; the instructors then develop the assessments themselves. IDs also make recommendations on possible supporting materials and help the instructor locate sources to help them develop those materials.

Depending on the institution and the instructor, centralized IDs may take a more active role in course material creation. For example, Purdue's central IDs are specifically engaged to develop new online programs, MOOCs, and selected hybrid programs. At Purdue, the IDs develop storyboards/plans for media and direct the video production team, edit the media, and manage course materials, including the design of graphics.

At UC, central IDs use a specialized production team for high-quality video production and editing, and instructors are charged for the service. Instructors wanting to use a lightboard or their own video equipment can speak with an ID for production tips.

At both UC and Purdue, instructors have the ability and freedom to accept or ignore the IDs' suggestions; as Purdue frames it, "Faculty members are the final arbiters of quality of the instruction."7

UC job postings for centralized IDs include the following types of descriptions:

  • Partner closely with colleges/units and faculty to fully leverage the tools and resources available in the university's e-learning ecosystem.
  • Provide consultation to the UC community on pedagogical approaches and best practices for providing accessible learning.
  • Work with colleges/units to take new courses and programs online.
  • Partner with colleges/units and faculty to capture and develop university-wide best practices, use cases, and standards for course design, technology-enhanced teaching strategies, assessment, and content development.
  • Work on topics such as Quality Matters, accessibility, innovative instructional strategies, assessment, development opportunities, and orientation materials.

Purdue's postings include similar language:

  • Serve as the primary collaborator with faculty and instructors on course development, which includes all aspects of course design and development for face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses in collaboration with faculty and academic and administrative partners.
  • Serve as primary collaborator for Purdue's IMPACT program. Work collaboratively with faculty to identify and redesign course objectives and outcomes, align assessments to meet those objectives, and match pedagogical strategies to assessments.
  • Design digital course content with faculty members, assist with curriculum development and integration of technology tools in teaching and learning, and lead the associate instructional designer in building the course content.
  • Design, develop, and support professional development activities to help faculty adopt best teaching practices for using instructional design and technology as they relate to teaching and learning.

In a centralized unit, IDs need consulting skills so they can work with instructors (or SMEs) in the course design and development process. Whether acting as a consultant or a course builder, all IDs must be able to

IDs benefit from understanding and knowing how to use at least the basic functions of LMS software such as Blackboard, Canvas, D2L, and Moodle. They also need an understanding of how to apply the above-mentioned models, theories, and taxonomies to the LMS. Finally, in some positions, IDs also need to understand and use authoring software such as Storyline.

Edtech Role and Responsibilities

According to the Teaching Certification Degrees definition, edtechs are common in primary and secondary education and are responsible for identifying, purchasing, and supporting technology and computer networks, as well as for training teachers. The definition further notes that, "With the increasing use of various technologies in schools, instructional technology specialists are rapidly becoming key participants in reshaping the learning process."

As with their IDs, Purdue and UC have both a centralized edtech area as well as some college-specific edtechs. The centralized and decentralized edtechs provide similar functions, with the central edtechs supporting enterprise technologies and the college edtechs supporting college-specific instructional software. Technology support may include troubleshooting issues, working with instructors on complex applications of a technology, and working with vendors. In addition to these tasks, college edtechs may be expected to set up and troubleshoot instructor computers within their colleges.

Purdue University has two primary categories for edtechs.

Educational technologists

  • Work with faculty, staff, and students to identify, analyze, and explore the university's teaching and learning technology needs and identify instructional gaps.
  • Recommend pilot technology initiatives and, when successful, recommend how to transition these initiatives to the wider organization.
  • Proactively collaborate with faculty, staff, and students to implement pilot technologies using research methodologies, and assist faculty, staff, and students in the technologies' use and best instructional practices.

Education technology consultants

  • Provide educational workshops, instructor consulting, and the highest level of expertise to solve challenges with centrally supported teaching and learning tools.
  • Prepare and develop training materials for the supported applications.
  • Consult with faculty to solve problems or issues they encounter using Purdue's centrally supported technology tools within the context of their classes.
  • Serve as the highest level of problem escalation for teaching and learning tools.
  • Work with vendors to resolve complex issues with instructional tools.
  • Provide product enhancement recommendations to campus support partners and vendors.
  • Participate in testing all product releases or bug fixes prior to installation into production.
  • Communicate to faculty, staff, and students when these enhancements, improvements, or fixes have been installed.

UC combines these two functions into a single role that is responsible for the following:

  • Develop and manage multiple, concurrent tablet/mobile device programs that are designed to improve student success.
  • Provide consultation to college/unit teams on instructional tools such as the Blackboard LMS, student response systems, and textbook authoring.
  • Partner with college/unit teams in designing and delivering course materials and discovering methods of improving instruction through the use of applicable technologies.
  • Work with the Center for Enhancement of Teaching & Learning (CET&L) to design, develop, and deliver professional development workshops on e-learning tools.
  • Conduct research to evaluate the use of new technologies and their impact on student learning outcomes.
  • Serve as an e-learning consultant, partnering with college- and unit-level IT and ID personnel to innovatively apply the full suite of Canopy e-learning tools.
  • Maintain a complete understanding of all Canopy e-learning tools and resources.
  • Serve as the primary liaison between UC and select vendors.

In its job postings, however, UC uses one job title but customizes it each time to a specific role, such as:

  • Responsible for establishing and leading learning communities focused on using the tools and applications in the Apple ecosystem to create engaging multimedia content for use in academic classes.
  • Responsible for working closely with the Disability Services Office (DSO), the CET&L, college IT staff, and other members of the Center for Excellence in eLearning (CEel) [https://www.uc.edu/provost/initiatives/elearning/excellence.html] team to ensure that Canopy tools and services are fully accessible to students.
  • Serve as the university SME for video-centric, enterprise-level e-learning tools including Kaltura, Echo360, and web conferencing.

The common factor in all the edtech descriptions is the focus on the use and support of technology for teaching and learning, rather than the pedagogies and educational theories for designing or teaching a course.

Edtechs need consulting skills to be able to understand instructor concerns and communicate solutions. Although IDs need a basic knowledge of instructional technologies—particularly how pedagogical theories are best implemented using those technologies—edtechs need a deeper understanding of the specific technologies used within their institutions. Further, because different technologies use different terminology and approaches, edtechs must be able to investigate technologies in order to find solutions. At both Purdue and UC, for example, each central edtech specializes in a specific set of technologies.

Commonly used instructional technology categories include

In some cases, central edtechs may also be responsible for supporting classroom technologies, such as projection systems and pen-based monitors. For colleges that "own" classrooms, the college edtechs are responsible for those classrooms.

Educational Backgrounds

As Joel Gardner noted,

A degree in instructional design is different than a degree in instructional technology. Clearly there is a lot of overlap, but different programs have different emphases. I earned a master's degree in instructional technology, and we spent a lot of time focusing on the tools. In contrast, a degree in instructional systems design might place more emphasis on the instructional design process.8

Higher education offers significantly fewer programs in ID than in edtech. In fact, finding ID degree programs is difficult. For example, Instructional Design Central, a website dedicated to helping ID professionals and students learn about the industry and discover useful resources, lists what it identified as the "Top Instructional Design Degrees and Programs." The list includes four certificate-only programs, but it notes that degrees—often graduate degrees—are typically preferred. The top programs on the list are as follows:

None of these are more obviously designed for an ID than an edtech—except, perhaps, the educational psychology degree, which strongly emphasizes learning and instruction. A review of edtech job postings at Purdue and UC shows that the position typically requires a BA:

  • Purdue edtech: BA/BS in instructional technology, education, computer technology, or related field. Consideration will be given for an equivalent combination of related education and experience.
  • UC edtech: bachelor's degree (or equivalent) in computer science, computer engineering, education, or related field.

In contrast, the ID job postings require a master's degree:

  • Purdue ID: master's degree in instructional design, instructional technology, education, or related field. Consideration will be given to an equivalent combination of experience and education. Prefer: PhD or EdD degree.
  • UC ID: master's degree with one year's experience OR a bachelor's degree with three years' experience. Degree must be in instructional design, educational technology, adult learning, curriculum and instruction, or other related field; experience must include online/blended course design, curriculum development, faculty development, or other related areas.

Salaries

A brief survey of job sites shows that the salaries for IDs and edtechs differ based on sector, and that higher education typically pays less than business and industry (see table 1).

Table 1. Salary comparison for IDs and edtechs

Job Title

HigherEdJobs

Glassdoor

Salary.com

University of Cincinnati*

IDs

Online Instructional Designer—entry
$53,788

Instructional Designer
$74,306

Curriculum Specialist
$71,903

Instructional Designer
$55,667

Online Instructional Designer—senior
$62,042

Senior Instructional Designer
$86,127

Curriculum Specialist—senior
$89,001

Instructional Designer—senior
$72,028

Edtechs

Instructional Technology—specialist
$56,428

Instructional Technology—specialist
$64,584

Instructional Technology—specialist
$58,060

Instructional Technologist II
$67,761

Instructional Technologist—senior
$74,067

*Based on author's personal communication, 2018

A Thin Grey Line

Although IDs and edtechs often work side-by-side, they typically have distinctly different backgrounds and education. In their daily work, however, the distinctions are not always clear-cut. I have managed teams of edtechs, teams of IDs, and mixed teams, all of which were focused primarily on online and hybrid course design. Given their typical tasks, the line between edtechs and IDs is often grey: edtechs invariably pick up at least a rudimentary understanding of instructional design theories and processes, while IDs work with the technologies daily and therefore gain at least a basic grasp of how they work.

To benefit most from the edtech and ID roles, institutions should provide faculty with access to both IDs and edtechs; doing so helps ensure that instructors have broad support to build quality programs that engage students. Further, when edtechs and IDs jointly consult with instructors, they often find better solutions because they can think through each instructor's goals and course objectives together. And whether or not the instructors themselves actually understand who does what may not matter as much in the end.

At UC, for example, I directed a team of IDs in CEeL and a co-worker directed an edtech team. In my experience, the instructors seeking help with instructional technology usually did not differentiate between these two areas but instead simply contacted whichever one they had worked with previously, regardless of the task at hand. The overlap was there, and it went both ways. But that's another article.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Adam McCash and Cody Connor for their help and support!

Notes

  1. See, for example, a comment by kforgard on Mark Lieberman, "Learning Engineers Inch Toward the Spotlight," Inside Higher Ed, September 26, 2018.
  2. Albert D. Ritzhaupt, Florence Martin, Raymond Pastore, and Youngju Kang, "Development and Validation of the Educational Technologist Competencies Survey (ETCS): Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities," Journal of Computing in Higher Education 30, no. 1 (April 1, 2018): 3–33.
  3. Ritzhaupt et al., "Development and Validation of the Educational Technologist."
  4. Elaine Beirne and Matthew P. Romanoski, "Instructional Design in Higher Education: Defining an Evolving Field," OLC Outlook: An Environmental Scan of the Digital Learning Landscape, OLC, July 2018.
  5. Beirne and Romanoski, "Instructional Design."
  6. Personal communication with Adam McCash, an ID at Ohio State University, September 28, 2018.
  7. Personal communication with Cody Connor, manager of ID at Purdue University, October 3, 2018.
  8. Joel Gardner, "The Difference Between Instructional Design, Instructional Technology, and Instructional Science," blog, International Institute for Innovative Instruction, February 28, 2017.

Pat Reid is Founding Partner, Curriculum Design Group (CDG) [http://www.curriculum.design/] and was formerly Director, Instructional Innovation, University of Cincinnati.

© 2018 Pat Reid. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.