I want to propose a simple heuristic. Count the number of academic librarians. Hire that many instructional designers.
Now let me answer your objections:
Objection 1: Are you saying that instructional designers should replace academic librarians?
God no. If you have ever done the hard work of teaching or research, you know that the academic librarian is indispensable. My point is that anyone who knows anything about how quality universities run knows that academic librarians are essential.
How might instructional designers achieve a similar level of respect and status, and therefore headcount, as academic librarians?
I know that I look at academic libraries and academic librarians with rose colored glasses. Our librarian colleagues have to fight tooth and nail for headcount and budgets. All academics should be at the front lines in advocating for robust resources for libraries and librarians. As goes the academic library, so goes the university.
Objection #2: Back to instructional designers. Why do you think that colleges and universities should be creating so many new instructional design positions?
As learning has transitioned from an activity done mostly in a physical room, to one that integrates physical and digital modalities, teaching has evolved from a solo to a team sport. Instructional designers partner with faculty in design online, low-residency, and blended courses. This collaboration between professors and instructional designers results in higher quality courses with better student outcomes (including lower attrition).
As schools move away from purely face-to-face models of instruction, the instructional designer has emerged as the critical educator enabling this transition. Instructional designers bring training in learning science and pedagogy, as well as expertise in both digital platforms and project management, to their partnerships with faculty.
Any college or university that is building its educational brand around a quality learning experience - and any school looking to move into online or blended education - need to prioritize the funding and recruitment of many more instructional designers.
Objection #3: Isn’t it true that every dollar spent on instructional designers is one less dollar that can be spent on professors? At a time when adjuncts are replacing tenure track faculty lines, why would you advocate doing anything that would diminish the resources available for hiring and paying faculty?
Any institution interested in offering a quality education must invest in educators. Full stop. What I’m arguing is that we need to broaden our definition of educators. In today’s world of postsecondary education, the instructional designer is a partner to the professor in creating that quality learning experience.
So taking even a single dollar away from faculty to hire instructional designers would be crazy. Investments in instructional designers should come as part of a commitment to invest a more significant proportion of the budget in instruction, inclusive of faculty and non-faculty educators.
But money is tight. If you are not taking the resources out of the faculty (or the librarians), where will all this money for hiring all these new instructional designers come from?
First, I think that it is possible to grow the pie. Online programs and instructional designers go hand in hand. You cannot create a quality online program without instructional designers. Let me repeat that. You cannot create a quality online program without instructional designers. Online programs mean online courses, and that means faculty.
Second, we need to be taking a hard look at our schools about how we might shift positions from those not core to the mission, to jobs that are directly connected to the teaching and research enterprise.
Today, most of the university technology spend is on administrative computing. As student information systems (SIS) follow learning management systems (LMS) and e-mail to the cloud, there may be opportunities to re-purpose those IT administrative dollars to the academic computing side of the house. So more instructional designers.
Objection #4: This seems like magical thinking. Where do you think the money will come to hire all these new instructional designers? You are aware that the economic, demographic, and policy trends have not been favorable to higher education, right?
There is no doubt that we are living in an era of permanent academic scarcity. The idea of committing to hire a bunch of people to our campuses outside of new tenure track faculty will strike many as insane.
My argument is that higher ed will not survive, much less thrive, unless we make some bold choices. Reclassifying instructional designers as educators, rather than staff, would be such a bold choice. Doing what it takes to find the money to hire instructional designers - and then publicly promoting that investment - would be another bold choice.
A critical mass of campus instructional designers will accelerate the creation of new quality online and blended programs. Creating opportunities for deep faculty / instructional design partnerships will lower attrition and improve retention. More instructional designers mean more and better educational programs.
Maybe one of these days the college rankings mafia will recognize the ratio of students to instructional designers as an indicator of quality.
Objection #5: Isn’t your plan to dramatically increase the number of instructional designers a recipe for concentrating privilege among the few schools wealthy enough to afford to hire all these non-faculty educators?
This objection is harder to get around. I believe that wealthy schools that are committed to leadership in teaching and learning quality will be making investments in instructional designers. We already see this occurring at many institutions. The instructional designer numbers are not quite at academic librarian parity, but the trend is clear.
It is also true that instructional designers represent an opportunity for schools that wish to improve their brand and relative standing. Rather than spending money on a fancy student center or residence hall, ambitious schools could differentiate themselves by publicly investing in faculty and non-faculty educators. They could hire more instructional designers, and then do everything they can to make their presence visible.
To the extent that schools are prioritizing online and blended education, instructional designers are again critical in these plans. We don’t do a great job in this country at graduating our students in a timely fashion. Way too many students don’t finish in five or six years, if at all. A college student today is more likely to be working, a parent, or both - than an 18 to 22-year-old living on campus. Rather than spending money on new technologies or expensive classrooms, schools should spend that money hiring the instructional designers who will partner with the professors to create great courses.
Do you know of any schools with as many instructional designers as librarians?