Instructional Designers, Looking to be Heard

A new study suggests instructional designers think they would benefit from conducting research in the field of teaching and learning. But institutions and others don’t value their exploration, respondents say.

September 20, 2017
 
Rick Henry/Oregon State University Ecampus
Susan Fein, instructional designer at Oregon State University Ecampus, works with a professor.

Institutional support trails the fervor of instructional designers’ ambitions to do research, sometimes due to the relative novelty of the job title, according to a new study released Tuesday. More than half of the study’s instructional designer respondents indicated that their institutions assign “low” value to their research, while a similar number said faculty members and others assign “moderate” value to their inquiry.

Some instructional designers who lack research experience still want to collaborate with instructors on research -- even when they perceive their institutions don’t support such partnerships, according to the study by researchers at Oregon State University Ecampus.

“This group is the backbone of the innovation of this field for helping our students learn better, and they’re able to tell us what works and what doesn’t,” Katie Linder, director of the Oregon State Ecampus Research Unit and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “And what this report tells us is that we’re not leveraging that and empowering them in the ways that we could.”

Study Specifics

According to the report, an instructional designer is “a higher education professional who is engaged in course design and development and who provides faculty support to aid in the adoption of academic technologies and effective teaching strategies across face-to-face, blended and online modalities.” The Oregon State Ecampus researchers this spring asked instructional designers nationwide to document their formal research training, speculate about the research training they need to do their jobs more effectively and offer thoughts on how their research efforts affect their overall credibility among faculty members and institutional leaders.

A majority of the 311 respondents indicated they lack some of the background qualifications to engage in teaching and learning research. Slightly more than 50 percent of respondents said they did not take any undergraduate-level courses in research design and research methodology. Sixteen percent said their training at the graduate or undergraduate level emphasized specific methodologies, and only 7 percent said their education emphasized specific research skills.

Close to 40 percent said they had engaged in academic research for one year or less. More than half of respondents (55 percent) believe they need more training to improve their research skills, while a third said they don’t and the remainder weren’t sure. More than half already engage in research training or plan to do so in the future.

The report shows that instructional designers sometimes struggle to make their mark at institutions where faculty members resist digital innovation or interference from administrators.

“But four in five instructional designers interviewed for the study said they think they would be perceived as more credible if they could gain knowledge of research design and methods before conducting research of their own.”

More than 50 percent of respondents said they had worked on collaborative research with faculty members, and 43 percent said their institutions expect them to do so.

A vast majority of respondents cited professional development, understanding instructor and faculty needs, and opportunities for faculty collaboration among their main motivators for pursuing research. More 69 percent said research enhances their work “quite a bit” or “a great deal,” and 25 percent used the more modest descriptor “somewhat.” Only 6 percent said research enhances their work “a little” or “not at all.”

Report Recommendations

The Oregon State Ecampus report urges institutions to expand professional development opportunities and review policies to ensure instructional designers are included in teaching and learning research efforts. It also recommends that universities recognize research engagement by including it in job descriptions and evaluation criteria for instructional designers.

“Instructional designers are collaborating most closely with faculty and providing guidance on scholarship of teaching and learning as consumers of that research, but they’re not able to give back to that research,” Linder said in a statement. “Since this is a growing market, there is a huge missed opportunity if we do not give instructional designers the option to conduct research, if they want to.”

Options for institutions striving to capitalize on instructional designers’ research ambitions, according to the report, include encouraging them to engage in research projects, read scholarly literature and collaborate with partners on research designs, analyses and dissemination.

Penny Ralston-Berg, a senior research instructional designer at Penn State World Campus who participated in the study, thinks her profession is making progress in its quest for credibility on campus. “Instructional designers have become intertwined in teaching, learning and the student experience.”

She sees further research efforts as the next logical step in that evolution. “Research skills are necessary for instructional designers because research is tied to iterative design, continuous improvement, and course quality,” Ralston-Berg, chair of the Quality Matters Instructional Design Association, told Inside Digital Learning in an email. “Further investigation will bring more attention to the value of instructional designers as part of design teams and also help pinpoint the professional development needs of designers.”

Linder and co-author Mary Ellen Dello Stritto acknowledge that their research could be extended further. In particular, the report raises the question of how research design and methodology training are included in degree programs, and calls for additional analysis of nontraditional opportunities in those areas. More study of how instructional designers have already contributed to research literature would also be useful, the report says.

The study also leaves room for other researchers to survey other stakeholders about their perceptions of instructional designers.

“The more we can learn about how best to leverage the research skills and experience of instructional designers, the better positioned we will be to improve the teaching experiences of our faculty and the learning environments of our students,” the report reads.

Study Respondents

Nearly 70 percent of respondents identified their gender as female, 26 percent identified as male and 4 percent identified differently or opted not to identify.

Public institutions had the highest representation in the survey (63 percent), with private institutions accounting for another 31 percent. Nine respondents reported working at for-profit institutions, while 80 work for nonprofits. Four respondents said they work for fully online institutions.

Approximately 33 percent of respondents have worked in instructional design for less than five years, while 28 percent have been in the field for more than 10 years. The majority of those surveyed had worked as instructional designers for between two and 10 years.

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