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Talk about “skills gaps” in higher education typically refers to the asymmetry between workforce demands and college capacity. Articles and speeches abound that explain the increasing demand for degrees -- and the failure of higher education to keep pace. But to those of us who spend time with leaders at the most innovative colleges and universities in the country, the term “skills gap” is beginning to develop another significance.

Colleges and universities, under unprecedented pressure to improve outcomes, are investing in technology at a breakneck pace. They are applying new modalities for learning (online, blended, flipped) to support faculty members and engage students. And therein lies the rub. Instructional designers are, in many ways, the linchpin of higher education’s digital transformation. But great instructional designers are hard to find.

Part of the challenge stems from inadequate supply and increasing competition for talent. Just three years ago, LinkedIn posted fewer than 5,000 instructional designer job openings. Today, the number has tripled. And CNN estimates that the instructional design profession will grow 28.3 percent over the next 10 years.

Although many colleges and universities are launching or expanding programs in education technology, a recent EduVentures report found a mere 3.7 percent annual growth in conferrals of education technology degrees. The gap is compounded by the fact that only a fraction of those graduates take positions in instructional design. And only a fraction of instructional designers pursue roles in higher education. The very best are often lured into more lucrative positions in corporate learning, which is experiencing a similar digital transformation.

Supply and demand, however, presents an overly simplistic picture of the instructional-design skills gap. On campuses, the challenge often manifests itself as a misalignment between the historic skill set of instructional designers who spent years building expertise in a particular learning management system or product, and the pace of change in an increasingly complex ed-tech ecosystem.

Great instructional designers must become experts in a near-limitless set of overlapping solutions to produce tractable, informed decisions. From 2014 to 2015, total ed-tech investment grew by 58 percent, or from $1.89 billion to $2.98 billion. The number of new products certified by IMS Global grew over 60 percent, from fewer than 100 to 161, between 2013 and 2014. Today’s instructional designers are creating the lexicon to describe ed tech’s rapidly evolving landscape, decoding acronyms across a maze of new products to guide faculty members and institutional leaders through smart decisions. But only a fraction of instructional designers can keep pace.

Pedagogical shifts also present new challenges for instructional designers. Peer-reviewed research output on the efficacy of alternative pedagogical approaches for online and blended learning is picking up steam. As a result, more professors are flipping the classroom, creating blended courses and moving programs online. Institutional mandates are creating demand for high-impact practices like experiential learning that target retention and improve student success.

The explosion of data in higher education has created yet another hurdle for instructional designers to clear. Most colleges and universities collect a wide range of analytics, but few actually use it to drive decisions and intervention. That is beginning to change. The convergence of institutional research and instructional design creates both operational and philosophical challenges for a generation of instructional designers who were not trained to leverage predictive analytics for optimized design.

So, higher education’s digital transformation isn’t all rosy. Initiative fatigue plagues the most well-intentioned institutions. Faculty members are often frustrated. And although enrollment in online courses is up, only 28 percent of academic leaders say that their faculty accepts the value and legitimacy of online education. Once again, instructional designers provide a crucial support system, helping faculty members understand why an engaging in-person course may fall flat online, providing suggestions for improvement and ensuring that faculty feel comfortable and in control.

Universities should not only realize they’re asking a lot of instructional designers -- whose multifaceted profession is very much in flux and in demand -- they should also seek to be part of the solution. Institutions should consider building programs that help mold the instructional designers of tomorrow, teaching students how to thoughtfully merge user experience with pedagogical styles, technology and data. Otherwise, the instructional-design skills gap is likely to persist -- because higher education is counting on them.

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