Still a Mystery

The field has been around for 75 years, but many still wonder what instructional designers -- who are gaining acceptance in higher ed -- do.

August 2, 2017
 
George Washington University Online

When J. Ann Dumas, now a senior lecturer in Pennsylvania State University’s department of film-video and media studies, was an undergraduate in the 1970s, she was among a small handful of students on campus who spent a semester taking a course via computer.

“My first thought as a student was, ‘How do you do school without a teacher?’ ” she recalled. Yet over the next few months, she realized, “I didn’t miss the teacher that much.”

Fast forward nearly 30 years, and Dumas found herself creating an online version of a course she had taught dozens of times in a traditional classroom. Once again, she fretted about the absence of a teacher in the class, but this time, she had a different reason: “It was very difficult for me to come to terms with a course where my role was minimized,” she said.

In short order, however, she learned, “It isn’t really minimizing the presence of the teacher. It is remotely placing you in proximity” to the students.

Dumas learned this, she said, from the instructional designer who helped her translate her face-to-face class into one suitable for delivery online.

“The instructional designer had lots of information to respond to my inquiries about how to do this and how to do that when you’re the student in the classroom and you don’t have access to the teacher,” she recalled. “You’re not in the same room with the teacher, but it’s still possible.”

Penny Ralston-BergThat ID -- as instructional designers call one another -- was Penny Ralston-Berg (right), who works at Penn State World Campus, and who counts Dumas’s experience as a win for a field that, despite a 75-year history, is still a mystery to many in higher education.

“Sometimes,” she admitted, “I run into faculty that object [to working with an instructional designer], and for good reason. If a person has so much experience teaching a class, of course they have expertise in that area of content and teaching … Sometimes the faculty is afraid that what they have will be thrown out and that the online course will be completely different.”

So a good part of Ralston-Berg’s job is to show the faculty member that it won’t.

“I want to know what’s already working in the classroom, what helps the students get it and understand what’s going on in the class,” said Ralston-Berg, chair of the Quality Matters Instructional Designers Association. “Because when you translate it from face to face to online, you don’t want to lose anything. You transform the form; it’s from a distance. But you don’t want to lose anything that’s successful.”

Rolando GarzaIn fact, agreed Rolando Garza, an instructional designer at Texas A&M University at Kingsville, designers don’t hijack the courses they work on; they collaborate with the professors who may have taught them in the traditional classroom but have never attempted to teach online

“Ideally,” said Natalie Milman, associate professor of educational technology in George Washington University’s graduate school of education and human development, “it’s a partnership.”

In a nutshell, Milman explained, instructional designers analyze, design, develop, implement and evaluate instruction -- a model known in the field as ADDIE. “Whatever is involved in designing instruction … an instructional designer does it.”

Garza, vice chair of the Quality Matters Instructional Designers Association, added, “We cultivate quality assurance.”

However, as reported in Inside Digital Learning, sometimes instructors don’t welcome an instructional designer’s help. Ralston-Berg and Jon Aleckson, in their book MindMeld: Micro-Collaboration Between eLearning Designers and Instructor Experts (Atwood Publishing), offer tips for instructional designers working with faculty members on online course development and vice versa.

Roots in Military Training

The practice of instructional design emerged during World War II, when the military assembled groups of psychologists and academics to create training and assessment materials for troops. In 1954, Harvard University psychology professor and author B. F. Skinner introduced the concept of programmed instructional materials through his article “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching.”

Within a decade, noted academics -- including Robert Gagne, widely considered the father of the field of instructional design -- had embraced the importance of assessment and learning objectives in teaching and learning.

Although higher education typically left course design up to the professors who would teach in traditional classrooms, the popularity of online courses created a need for input from professionals trained in the science of teaching, instructional methods and the technology that would make learning possible for remote students.

And now, the field is growing. A 2016 report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation estimated that a minimum of 13,000 instructional designers work on college campuses. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last year counted 151,000 jobs -- across all school levels and industries -- for instructional designers and those with similar titles: instructional technologist and director of educational research and product strategy, for example. In 2012, CNN Money predicted the field would grow by 28.3 percent within 10 years.

Milman noted that business and industry also have stepped up their hiring of instructional designers as they transition their employee training programs from the classroom to the web. “To provide professional development … in a very effective way, a great deal of content is online,” she said.

“This is a crucial time for the field of instructional design,” said Trey Martindale, head of Mississippi State University’s instructional systems and work force development department. “And that’s solely because of the growth of online learning and the recognition by university administrators that faculty need help to create effective instruction, that what they were doing in their face-to-face classrooms is not enough, is not analogous and does not translate to online instruction.”

He added, “This is a real opportunity for people in instruction design to say, ‘We know how to do this. We know what effective instruction is, and we’re here to help.’”

Advanced Degrees Preferred

An increasing number of campuses have dedicated centers for teaching and learning that employ teams of instructional designers and supporting professionals, like graphic designers, or an office of online learning that includes a designer. And several universities offer master’s degrees or Ph.D.s in instruction design or technology.

Some of those programs focus on pedagogy and instruction, while others teach more technology and computer skills, Martindale said. Ralston-Berg said the same is true among professionals: “There are instructional designers who are really experts in learning theory and strategy. Then there are instructional technologists who are experts in how to use the tools … There’s a lot of confusion [about the ID’s role] in higher education today.”

At the same time, instructional designers are gaining stature in the academic community. Most institutions require at least a master’s degree for job candidates, who earn salaries in the mid-$60,000 range, on average. Ralston-Berg said some universities prefer Ph.D.s.

“When you’re working with faculty, a Ph.D. always adds more credibility,” she said. Instructional designers with advanced degrees, she added, “have a better starting point, a base of information to pull from, if they’re familiar with the theories and models.”

Twenty years ago, Ralston-Berg said, the requirements -- and the job -- were simpler. “When I first started, we were just happy if everything worked,” she said. Today, however, she helps professors incorporate complex activities, different kinds of assessments, multimedia, virtual reality, simulation and other digital teaching tools into their online classrooms.

Slowly, Garza said, “the culture is changing.”

And it will continue to change, said Lance Eaton, an instructional designer at Brandeis University. Those changes, he predicted, might take professors -- some of whom still have not embraced the intervention of instructional designers -- some time to get used to.

As the online classroom and its protocols become as familiar to students and teachers as the traditional classroom, online courses could become more standardized, Eaton said.

“We’re going to find a digital comparison [with the face-to-face classroom], but it will further encroach on the decisions faculty believe are their domain,” he said. “The institution might feel otherwise, and the instructional designer will be the person in the middle trying to balance that dynamic.”

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