'My Privilege Is Showing': Working in Instructional Design at a Wealthy College

Josh Kim argues that instructional designers improve residential learning, but only well-funded institutions can afford to hire them.

August 9, 2017

Last year I had the opportunity to give the keynote at the Council of Independent Colleges Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction program.

In that presentation I spoke about the relationship between online teaching and residential learning, and how experiments in the former can catalyze investments in the latter. I shared how my school is in a rapid hiring phase for instructional designers to work with professors in our core residential undergraduate, graduate and professional programs.

My argument was that even small liberal arts colleges should dip their toes in online learning, as one result is that faculty end up working with instructional designers to develop their online courses. From that experience, faculty discover how wonderful instructional designers are, and how collaborating on course design with these nonfaculty educators is a positive experience that enables professors to reach their teaching goals.

At that point in my talk, one of the educators in audience spoke up to inform me that my “privilege [was] showing.” She went on to say that instructional designers are indeed wonderful people, and that she would love to be able to collaborate with these professionals at her college in developing both online and residential courses. The problem, she said, is not faculty resistance to partnering with instructional designers; rather, it is that instructional designers are expensive and that there really are no budget dollars at her school to hire them.

I thought of this exchange while reading Sharon O’Malley’s excellent piece on instructional designers in the Aug. 2 “Inside Digital Learning” newsletter. The article describes how instructional designers work, the challenges that they face and the ways in which the profession is evolving.

What the article did not address is this question of privilege. Could it be that the increasing impact and visibility of instructional designers also is helping drive great inequalities between a few resource-abundant institutions and a larger number of resource-scarce colleges and universities? Or to put it more directly, is the growth of the instructional designer field in higher education serving to make the rich richer?

What is occurring within some parts of higher education is a renaissance in teaching and learning, and the hiring of instructional designers is one part of that story. There also are experiments in open online learning, the move to build and renovate classroom space around active learning principles, and the growth of centers for teaching and learning.

Faculty are coming to campus with more training form graduate school in learning science and pedagogy, and they have more opportunities to receive professional development and join communities of practice around their teaching. Recognition, status and rewards for teaching excellence are growing -- even at institutions that have long prided themselves for their focus on research.

I argue that the reasons that investing in teaching and learning are occurring at some institutions have more to do with competitive differentiation than any other motivator. The ability to demonstrate that a school is committed to creating the highest-quality environment for learning, one where students are treated as individuals and faculty take a personal interest in the learning success of each enrollee, is a powerful motivator for prospective applicants. Sure, amenities such as student centers and athletic facilities are important, but students (and their parents) are increasingly savvy judges of a school’s commitment to teaching and learning.

Choosing to make investments in teaching and learning -- and doing so by bringing instructional designers to campus -- is a very good thing. The quality of learning is not a zero-sum game. Adding to the learning of the some (or even the few) does not detract from the learning of the many.

What is also true -- and is a development that I think we need to talk more about -- is that this higher ed renaissance in learning is not equally distributed. Schools with substantial resources are able to invest in the infrastructure and people (including instructional designers) that improve learning; schools with smaller endowments, rising costs, flat revenues and diminished public funding cannot.

This inequality of resources is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk about higher education as a sector. There are just such vast differences in the dollars available per student across our country's 4,724 degree-granting two- and four-year institutions that generalizations about higher education are difficult to make.

The coming of the instructional designers to our campuses -- and in particular the availability of these designers to collaborate with faculty on residential courses -- is remaking the learning experience for the few. At many schools, the learning experience of students in introductory or foundational courses looks nothing like it did when we were undergraduates. The learning experience for some students is so much better than it was when I was a freshman in 1987 that I want to shout out this good news from every rooftop. The availability of instructional designers is a big part of that progress.

At the same time, I understand that things are more difficult at many schools than ever before. The combination of declining public funding, shifting demographics and rising costs have caused campus dollars to be scarcer than ever. Hiring a cadre of instructional designers to collaborate with faculty to redesign residential courses is a low priority when faculty are not being paid what they should and when contingent faculty are replacing full-time and tenure-track positions.

I still believe that every school should invest in instructional designers. One way to do this is to build small low-residency online programs and use the revenues they generate to support the work of these nonfaculty educators. As long as the same faculty who teach online also teach on campus, and the instructional designers are available to work with all faculty regardless of the modality of teaching, then residential learning will improve.

Even at schools without online programs to support the hiring of instructional designers, I still argue for figuring out how to bring them to campus. Moving dollars from operational or administrative spending to instruction is one way to do this -- and every campus leader should be puzzling out how to make this shift.

Every college and university, not just the rich ones, will benefit not only from improvements in student learning but in recruitment, retention and graduation rates as well. They also will benefit in faculty satisfaction and in brand, alumni relations and alignment to mission.

Hiring instructional designers is a strategy to foster institutional resilience and organizational growth. The shift toward the importance of the instructional design profession could be a benefit for all of higher education -- but only if we commit to making that choice.


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