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The answer to the question “Who is leading the digital transformation at your university?” isn’t your president, your provost or your CTO. It’s COVID-19. As the virus threat escalated, universities transformed their on-campus course schedules into virtual catalogs in a matter of days, and now they are settling into virtual office hours, virtual symposia and soon virtual graduations and alumni reunions.

While everyone has been careful to call the overnight move online “remote teaching,” that won’t be good enough when universities have months to plan for fully online summer sessions and possibly even partially or fully online fall semesters. Students and their tuition-paying parents won’t stand for simply winging it. Even the most resistant faculty members, students and administrators will have to fully embrace online learning and all that entails.

Online learning requires a more intentional approach to teaching than the remote delivery we’ve been doing to finish our semesters. It requires that we ask, “What are the goals of a course and how can they best be achieved using online tools and teaching methods?” And it compels us to look hard and long at our teaching habits and assess whether they serve the needs of our students optimally.

Luckily, we won’t be starting from scratch. More than a third of college and university students were enrolled in online courses before the pandemic. Thirteen percent were in fully online programs. Online learning is already a mature field, built on decades of research and experience, supported by billion-dollar companies, and guided by established practices. Perhaps most importantly, where on-campus faculty are generally thrown into a classroom solo, online learning is always a team effort.

Professors may be experts in their fields, but they can’t all be expected to be experts in the research supporting online teaching and learning. They may know organic chemistry or classical mythology, but they don’t keep up with studies of learning outcomes or assessment design strategies or adaptive learning technologies. And so instructional designers have become the sherpas of online learning teams, experts in how to teach and design a course.

We’ve both seen this phenomenon over and over: seasoned faculty members are at first hesitant about working with instructional designers. But after the collaboration, they become complete converts. Like having a personal trainer at the gym, having the fresh eye of an expert on material we’ve been teaching for years can be invigorating. Not only are the new online versions of these traditional classes improved by the collaborative input of an instructional designer, the faculty member’s on-campus teaching is renewed, refreshed and transformed for the better as well.

The field of instructional design has exploded over the past few decades. Since 2004, demand has been on the rise -- up by more than 20 percent nationwide. Even before COVID-19 led the global wave of online educational disruption, the dozens of instructional design certificate and degree programs couldn’t meet the growing demand.

Because of the black swan event that is COVID-19, this new field of academic labor has received a boost previously unimaginable. While universities institute hiring freezes and dangle the threat of layoffs, those same universities are posting new advertisements for instructional designers, learning designers and instructional technologists. The titles cover overlapping aspects of the same process of online course design that schools know will be essential to their future success.

For those universities that choose not to build but to buy this capability, there is the option to turn to companies that offer course development and instructional design support. But these companies often extract a steep surcharge that sifts a significant percentage off of tuition dollars. Instructional design is one of a number of bundled support services that OPM companies offer universities, along with marketing, course building, platform support and student success coaching.

And as we have seen so often in the press recently, these companies can charge up to 60 percent or even 70 percent of tuition revenue. Confronting these unsustainable numbers, even the most cash-strapped universities will have to expand their in-house resources and teams of instructional designers. It won’t be cheap, but it is better than outsourcing course design in exchange for the lion’s share of tuition revenue. And, most importantly, it will focus attention on effective teaching and improve the educational experience.

Perhaps the biggest revelation about instructional designers, however, is that their talents aren’t only relevant to online classes. Every on-campus course would also benefit from expertise on syllabus design, learning outcomes and the advantages of different methods of assessment.

Pedagogy, or the theory and practice of teaching, has been around as long as Socrates. But COVID-19 may enter the history books as pedagogy’s greatest transformer.

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