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Instructional designers and digital learning professionals gather at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Courtesy of Metropolitan State University of Denver

Auburn University has introduced 35 online programs over the last few years. To get them off the ground, in summer 2015 the Alabama public university set up an internal Auburn Online unit, currently made up of one full-time instructional designer and two part-time assistants. The team has been a success so far -- so much so that some at the institution see a need for growth.

“When we hired the first ID, I told her, ‘One of the indicators [of success] that I want you to use is when you look at me and say, “We need another one like me,”’” said Asim Ali, project manager for university initiatives in the Auburn provost’s office. “We’re at that point, absolutely.”

Comments similar to Ali’s are echoing with increasing frequency across the country. As institutions expand their commitment to online education, many now recognize the value of dedicated staffers who assist faculty members in translating old courses to a new format and creating new courses out of whole cloth.

But hiring new staffers requires a considerable investment that doesn’t always pay off immediately, and can cause concern for cash-strapped institutions. Even bigger institutions with established instructional design teams, meanwhile, struggle with finding the right balance of staff and faculty members, among other considerations.

“Inside Digital Learning” talked to numerous instructional designers and digital learning leaders on different-size teams for this article; most said they’re optimistic that institutions are starting to understand the importance of instructional designers as online programs expand.

For some, though, the definition of instructional designer is becoming both broader and muddier, as the term encompasses professionals with a wide range of skills and backgrounds. It’s still not uncommon, in many cases, for instructors to mistake designers for tech support. Most designers want to see their work valued as part of the institution’s academic landscape, whether that means housing the design unit within an academic division or creating pathways for connecting designers to faculty members.

One-Stop Shop

Some instructional designers work solo, often in newly created positions, as the institution makes a tentative push into online. That responsibility can be both freeing and daunting.

Weiwei Zhang’s title at Western Oregon University -- a public institution with 6,000 enrolled students, five online graduate programs, and this fall, 125 online courses and 75 blended courses -- is “academic technologist.” A better title might be jack-of-all-trades: instructional design, faculty development, learning management system administration. She also mentors two part-time graduate students who serve as essentially her only direct colleagues.

The job is changing beneath her feet in some ways. She was hired in 2015 under the institution’s center for academic innovation, a department currently undergoing evolution, possibly with a greater focus on teaching and learning. Meanwhile, the proportion of Zhang’s duties that revolves around the LMS has dwindled considerably, replaced with more collaboration with faculty, and even some research.

Her tasks go beyond the fundamentals of instructional design as well. She’s also charged with quickly identifying her graduate assistants’ strengths and utilizing them to her advantage. She typically only needs a week or two to get to know her assistants before she’s assigning them tasks -- anything from creating a social media account for their department to engaging directly with faculty members on their needs.

So does Zhang want more team members to lighten her load? Yes -- but with some caveats. She’s more interested in seeing her team expand to encompass different perspectives, such as a multimedia specialist, a graphic designer or a faculty member with instructional design expertise, than to simply run up the numbers with “five more Weiweis” like a larger university might need to do.

“We really need to have a vision first and then figure out what’s the most effective way to get there. We have to weigh our cost and benefit carefully,” Zhang said. “You use the best steel to make the knife’s edge. Use the resources where they are needed the most.”

The story is different at Lee College, in Texas, where Rashmi Chhetri, instructional design specialist, is working to establish a culture of instructional design on a campus that has had an on-and-off relationship with the profession in recent years.

“There is no institutional policy or a chain or a body in place that would make faculty aware that these kinds of support and services are there,” Chhetri said. “That initial step already was a huge one … Some of them are really surprised when I help them in so many different ways that they didn’t envision.”

For her part, Zhang hopes to more often utilize her teaching background, as with a class on critical thinking for leaders that she’s been asked to teach next year.

“It’s not just for me, my personal interest,” Zhang said. “What I learn in this process, I’m also giving it back to the teaching community.”

Trey Martindale, associate professor and head of the department of instructional systems and work-force development at Mississippi State University, said the lone instructional designer at his institution -- a former doctoral student of his from the University of Memphis -- is regarded by many instructors as a “unicorn” who deals with teaching and learning in some unknown capacity.

As a scholar of instructional design and a former designer himself, Martindale hopes to see institutions clearly marketing their designers' skills to instructors.


Many institutions recognize the value of instructional design and have staffed up -- but as Zhang put it, numbers don’t always tell the full story. Taylor Kendal, senior instructional designer at Metropolitan State University of Denver, serves on one of two largely independent three-person teams, each made up of a senior designer, a senior course developer and a media specialist.

The group recently gained greater agility when the institution with 20,000 students shifted its position from within the IT department to under academic affairs, “which will really help the perception around what we represent and the growth of online courses,” Kendal said. The size of the team wasn’t necessarily holding the team back as much as the perception of its narrow focus, according to Kendal.

On the hiring side, too, quality matters as much as, if not more than, quantity. Camille Funk, director of instructional design and learning innovation in the division of continuing education at the University of California - Irvine​, thinks instructional design teams live and die based on “charisma -- the x factor that’s hard to hire.” (Funk also serves as director of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association's eDesign Collaborative.)

Most résumés that cross Funk’s desk meet the basic requirements of knowing about learning objectives and pedagogy. Most applicants to instructional designer positions come from institutions with a specific course development method that might not match the one at Funk’s institution. As a result, she concentrates more on personalities that reflect an ability to work with faculty members -- "a feat in and of itself,” Funk said -- and a capacity to define a broad strategy vision for the team.

That said, Metropolitan State’s growing number of online courses -- currently at 1,500 -- keeps the teams busy enough that Kendal and his colleagues recently devised a new system for meeting with faculty members. The team allots tokens to faculty members that represent amounts of time for one-on-one meetings.

Now instead of “firefighting” to field frequent requests from instructors, Kendal said, the team can thoughtfully approach how to structure its time and ensure that designers aren’t overworked. They can also more thoroughly keep tabs on the success of their various online efforts, steering their decision making on future projects.

Still, the team is small enough that Kendal often has to focus more on the mechanical basics of his responsibilities than having “more fun” hosting training programs for faculty members and building “flashy” media elements into courses, he said.

“Everybody could use more personnel,” Kendal said. “Online education’s not going anywhere, and it’s just a matter of the system catching up to that need.”

Go Big or Go Home

Institutions with centralized online operations tend to employ bigger teams, which bring their own experimentation opportunities and bureaucratic challenges.

Oregon State University Ecampus -- which boasts approximately 50 online degree programs -- employs eight instructional designers offering a full range of services, including training faculty members, planning course design, building out courses, posting content on an accessible platform, and ensuring clear navigation and proper LMS settings. The goal is for faculty members to focus on course content without having to “know anything about teaching online when they first work with us,” according to Shannon Riggs, director of Ecampus’s course development and training unit.

To that end, designers typically work on eight to 12 courses per semester. Riggs would prefer a ratio on the lower end of that spectrum, but it frequently edges in the opposite direction, even with a sizable team that’s grown by two instructional designers every 18 months for the past few years. (Several other instructional designers pointed to an ideal ratio for instructional designers to faculty members at about one staffer per eight or 10 courses created.)

Riggs’s designers offer a full range of services from beginning to end of the course development process, but many in the profession serve as consultants who offer advice and light-touch guidance while leaving most decisions up to the faculty members. The consultation model can be financially lucrative for institutions because those positions demand lower salaries. But the workload then falls on faculty members, who can become dissatisfied or might lack the necessary experience, Riggs said.

Each designer on Riggs’s team brings a different focus: one is passionate about accessibility, another specializes in adaptive learning. Riggs can also assign a single instructional designer to an entire in-development academic program, ensuring consistency for the student experience.

Steven Crawford, associate director for academic innovation at Arizona State University’s College of Nursing & Health Innovation, has seen the field from the consultant side. Though he and his colleagues are full-time employees and sometimes get invited to faculty task force meetings on key issues, he often finds out about course projects after they’re already in progress, rather than catching issues right from the beginning.

“That’s the biggest question a lot of ID teams deal with, especially those in the consulting style like mine: How do we get more involved? We feel like we’re an untapped resource,” Crawford said. “There’s so much work to go around -- we know we can do more than just fix the LMS.”

Riggs sees the role of an instructional designer as someone who can offer a variety of workable options to faculty members who want to maintain an active role in creating the courses they teach.

“If it doesn’t work, it’s the ID’s role to think of three or four other ways to accomplish the same teaching and learning goals,” Riggs said. “It’s a partnership and a collaboration, but it’s the faculty member’s course.”

Penny Ralston-Berg, an instructional designer at Penn State World Campus, started her career two decades ago as the lone instructional designer at Western Illinois University, where she had no choice but to learn design, web maintenance and other technical skills that have served her well in the job since. She thinks it’s important for instructional designers to bring diverse experiences.

Working at Penn State has meant more resources for multimedia and design, and “a more defined process,” which allows routine tasks to proceed at an efficient pace. The downside is that the layers of institutional leadership make acting outside those established processes more difficult than they would be at an institution with a more vaguely defined strategy.

“In a small team, if it’s just a few people and they get a faculty that has buy-in, and they find a tech they want to try, it’s ‘Should we do this?’ They can have a meeting in an afternoon and get to the yes,” Ralston-Berg said. “But they’re usually spending less money, too."

Regardless of the team’s size, consistency is key to winning over faculty members long term, Ralston-Berg said. Once, Ralston-Berg developed an online chemistry course with two colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. She got reassigned shortly after finishing the project, and her faculty collaborators were disappointed they couldn’t develop another course with her.

As online education takes hold, faculty members' expectations are likely to solidify. Ralston-Berg has observed people with instructional design titles who lack her standards for formal training in the profession. She hopes institutions will refine and expand their commitment to the profession as the need for it grows -- and that graduate programs in instructional design will respond accordingly.

“It’s like there’s a trend to have designers, but it doesn’t go very deep,” Ralston-Berg said. “What do designers do? What can they contribute? What skills and knowledge should you look for? I think that’s not there yet.”

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