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Evolve to Solve: 6 Ways to Navigate the Changing Landscape of an Instructional Designer

min read

Two instructional designers separated by the Atlantic Ocean explore common ground to stay ahead of our ever-changing profession.

Evolve to Solve: 6 Ways to Navigate the Changing Landscape of an Instructional Designer
Credit: ALEX S / Shutterstock © 2018

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

Is it possible to accurately define the precise functions of the instructional designer? Our role is so closely connected to the needs of people that the profession itself has to adapt to the ever-changing demands of our society. Each problem we solve may require a fresh set of skills and competencies, including the ability to leverage technology. However, a singular focus on technology-based solutions can result in faculty's thinking of instructional designers as tech or learning management system (LMS) support.

We aren't saying that we do not occasionally fill these roles, but rather that our function extends beyond the realm of specific technological interventions. After all, the pioneers of instructional design did not overcome their challenge simply by wielding an LMS. They were tasked with meeting a societal demand, which was to conceptualize a training and assessment system for the military during World War II. They needed to evolve the amalgamation of psychological and educational practices that were prevalent at the time to find a solution for this challenge.

Many needs are currently presiding in our teaching and learning environment, including those identified by the ELI 2018 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning. But how do we ensure that our role as instructional designers is suited to address these challenges? How can we "evolve to solve"?

These six strategies can help instructional designers keep up with the ongoing transformations in higher education.

1. Network, Network, Network

Build rapport with administrators, librarians, department chairs, multimedia specialists, researchers, accessibility offices, and other experts, both at your own college or university and at other institutions. In the rapidly evolving world of instructional design, we don't always know what the next project will involve, and it's helpful to develop connections with experts and leaders who can assist you in promoting changes. In our case, the ID2ID mentoring program provided us with lasting professional connections that we can use to improve and broaden the scope of our work.

2. Identify Your Faculty Champions

Seek out faculty who are enthusiastic about the possibilities of implementing innovative approaches to teaching and learning. They will be essential in recruiting other faculty and addressing misconceptions about the instructional design profession.

3. Gather Faculty and Student Testimonials and Evidence of Success

Plan methods to gain insight into the effectiveness of your work. Evaluate your service and be open to feedback. Explore specific areas of a project, process, and interventions. Take time to reflect on your performance and make appropriate adjustments.

4. Find Your Niche

While it is true that the functions of instructional design are ever changing, that does not reduce the importance of specializing in an aspect of instructional design. Preferably this should be something that aligns to an institutional or even a global need. Becoming the go-to person on a particular subject is valuable for your design work and career advancement.

5. Managing Your Task List = More Time for the Really Good Stuff

Developing a new training program or creating a new learner experience takes time. It is therefore necessary to put a structured process in place for administrative tasks, those daily doings that do not require much conceptualization. At the Humanities Faculty at the University of the Free State, we have created a 24/7, centralized, online platform for faculty to register courses, gain access to the LMS, and download training guides. This resource allows us to focus on the instructional objective and creative proposal at hand.

6. Embrace Empathetic Design

People ignore design that ignores people.

Frank Chimero

If we are to design for people, then shouldn't we attempt to understand their needs, abilities, experiences, and desires first? Our work is cross generational, and we may not always be up to date on the latest news in pop culture or understand what is meaningful to different groups of people. Including empathy in our design process brings us closer to designing a teaching and learning experience that is desirable in addition to being functional. Empathy Maps have been used in user experience design and may help guide the instructional designer during the design thinking phase. The act of humanizing course materials should be intentional and not just a bonus. 

We Know We Can Do Better: Tell Us How

Our profession originated in a living laboratory during a time of conflict; the only constant was change. Perhaps this is why there is no straightforward career path for the instructional designer. We want to equip ourselves for constant adaptation and would like to hear your strategies. How have you evolved to solve? Let us know in the Comment section below.


Sara Davis is an Instructional Designer with Teaching and Learning with Technology at Pennsylvania State University.

Linley Fourie is a Senior Learning Designer at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

© 2018 Sara Davis and Linley Fourie. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.