As online enrollments grow and many colleges ramp up their digital course and program offerings, the role of instructional designers -- staff members who work with instructors to adapt or build new digital courses -- is growing in importance.
But new data from Inside Higher Ed's just-released 2018 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology suggest that instructional designers -- and colleges and universities that want them to play a central role helping instructors create high-quality, well-built courses -- have a lot of work to do in building awareness of their role.
Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, its survey partner, asked an expanded set of questions about instructional designers in this year's iteration of the annual faculty technology survey, in recognition of the profession's increasingly important role.
About the Survey
Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys
key higher ed professionals on a range
The Inside Higher Ed Survey of
Faculty Attitudes on Technology
was made possible in part with
support from Mediasite, Pearson,
Portfolium and VitalSource.
As was the case last year, the 2,000-plus faculty respondents were asked whether they had worked with an instructional designer to create or revise an online or blended course (or a face-to-face course), and whether they had received professional development about designing an online or blended course.
The answers this year were virtually identical to last year's: about a quarter of respondents (25 percent) said they had worked with a designer on an online or blended course, and about 45 percent said they had received professional development about course design.
Forty-four percent of all survey respondents reported having taught online, and those who had done so were, not surprisingly, far likelier than their peers who haven't (44 percent versus 9 percent) to say they had worked with an instructional designer.
Still, the fact that fewer than half of those who had taught online said they had worked an instructional designer -- even though 87 percent said they were involved in designing their online courses -- troubled some experts.
"The fact that only a quarter of instructors worked with an instructional designer on online courses (about the same as the share who worked with an instructional designer on face-to-face courses) suggests that many of those working in online teaching are still more or less experimenting on their own," said Martin Kurzweil, director of the educational transformation program at Ithaka S+R.
The expanded set of questions sought to dig deeper into the relationship between instructors and designers -- and the reasons why they may not be forming those relationships in the first place.
Instructors who had worked with instructional designers overwhelmingly appreciated the experience, with 37 percent describing it as "very positive" and 56 percent as "positive." More than two-thirds agreed that the designers had helped them "understand the available educational technology tools" and integrate them into their courses (75 percent), that designers "improved the quality" of their courses (70 percent) and that they "shared helpful tips and effective practices for fostering student engagement" (70 percent).
They were less inclined to say that the designers "worked with me on a wide range of aspects of my course, from defining learning outcomes to creating assessments" and "helped me with specific areas in which I lacked expertise" (50 percent agreed with each statement).
Faculty members who had not worked with instructional designers were asked why. About a quarter (26 percent) said they did not believe they needed a designer's help, and 16 percent said they had "no interest" in one.
But significant numbers of instructors cited reasons that should concern instructional designers and those who believe they should play a more important role. The top explanation chosen was that "my college has not shared information about the availability of instructional designers and how to go about working with them" (29 percent), while 25 percent said they were not familiar with what instructional designers do and 20 percent said their institution does not have any, or enough, designers.
Professors who had taught online were significantly less likely than their peers who had not to say they didn't know what instructional designers do (17 percent versus 30 percent) or that they have no interest in working with designers (10 percent versus 21 percent).
But they were only slightly less likely to say their college had not shared information on working with designers (26 percent versus 31 percent) and were more likely than professors who had not taught online (25 percent to 17 percent) to say their university did not have enough designers.
Steve Kaufman, senior instructional designer at the University of Akron and vice chair of Quality Matters' Instructional Designer Association, said the data "speak to the lack of information about the value an instructional designer brings to the course-development process."
"Whenever I meet new people, and they ask about what I do for a living, they give me curious and puzzled looks when I tell them that I’m an ID," he said. His definition: “I help faculty translate their face-to-face course into an online course in a way that’s intuitive, deliberate and objectives driven.”
Beyond that, "the art of teaching is exclusively a faculty space, and understandably, anyone who may be seen as stepping into that space can and will on occasion receive pushback," he said. "The importance for IDs to frame the narrative as, 'I can help you with the design of your course, so that your learners will know where to click, how to reach you, and can see the alignment between your lessons, interactions and your assessments' cannot be understated. We don’t judge faculty’s teaching ability; we merely want to help build meaningful online experiences where the technology can 'get out of the way.'" Kurzweil of Ithaka S+R said the results revealing lack of awareness about how instructional designers can help professors create better digital experiences for their students reflect a larger pattern in the faculty technology survey.
Other data in the study show a majority of faculty respondents don’t believe their institutions provide enough professional support or appropriately incentivize online teaching and course development. All those data indicate that "we have a long way to go before teaching with technology is really systematized at most institutions," Kurzweil said. "This is important because real impacts on student outcomes and productivity at scale have only been achieved in the context of systematic, institution-supported efforts (with significant faculty buy-in and engagement).
"Grassroots faculty efforts without institutional support tend to remain at the margins."