Are the Professions (Disciplines?) of Educational Developer and Learning Designer Merging?

Or not?

April 25, 2018

I’d like to share what I think I know about the professions of education developer, instructional designer, and learning designer. Then I’d like to ask your help in figuring out where my understanding is incomplete, or just downright wrong.

My goal is not to provide a complete description of the work of educational developers, instructional designers, or learning designers. Rather, I’m trying to make sense of where these professional (disciplines) differ, and where they overlap. I’m also trying to figure out if it makes sense to hypothesize that these higher education roles are starting to merge -- and in particular starting to merge in the work of learning designers.

Understanding the profession (or is it discipline?) of an educational developer is where I need the most help.  While I work in a Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), I have not yet been able to attend a Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD) conference. POD is the professional association for educational developers.

The academic home for educational developers is usually (but not always) within a CTL. Educational developers collaborate with individual instructors, academic departments, and larger campus units on a range of teaching and learning activities. This work can involve working with individual faculty members in consultations around teaching or educational scholarship (consultations and consulting), or it may take the form of designing and leading workshops or other programming.

The range of activities that educational developers include in their portfolios is too large to fully enumerate. They work at every level of the institution (and cross-institutionally), on tasks ranging from course development and improvement (through design, assessment and research) to organizational development. Educational developers may work with future instructors (grad students and postdocs). They approach the work with a holistic orientation towards human development and organizational effectiveness.

Educational developers often, but now always, come to the work with either a terminal degree in the field, or from a traditional discipline based Ph.D. program. Most educational developers that I know both teach at the university level, and conduct original scholarly research on teaching and learning. Given their administrative, teaching and research roles, educational developers occupy a liminal position between faculty and staff.

This brief description of the work of an educational developer is no doubt incomplete. I would be interested in a similarly concise but more accurate description of the profession (discipline?) of educational developers.

My main question is where and how educational developers overlap and differ from instructional designers, and if the professions (disciplines?) are coming together in the profession (discipline?) of learning designers?

The work of instructional designers shares many aspects of that of educational developers, but with many key differences. Instructional designers often work in CTL’s, but they are still more likely to be found outside of the Center for Teaching and Learning.

While instructional designers may attend POD, POD is not their primary professional association. (In fact, it is not clear to me that instructional designers have a professional association -- at least one that accredits and recognizes graduate training programs and credentials).

When I think of of the work of instructional designers, I mostly think about the integration of learning theory and course/program design. Instructional designers are fluent in leveraging educational technologies to align with the research on learning, and in support of the educational goals of the instructors in which they collaborate.

Instructional designers translate well-established methods and frameworks for learning, such as backwards course design and the use of learning objectives, into course design. This collaborative course design work often, but not always, is implemented in blended or online courses -- and therefore is mediated by technology.

Where educational developers work almost exclusively for educational institutions (and within higher education), instructional designers can be found wherever teaching or training may occur. Until recently, it may be the case that most instructional designers worked outside of academe (is this true?), designing face-to-face and online training materials and experiences in corporate, government, and other settings.

The growth of online learning in the past 20 years has been accompanied by a commensurate growth in the number of instructional designers on our campuses. Nowadays, instructional designers are part of the normal fabric of university life. They work on residential, blended, low-residency and full online degree and non-degree programs. They can speak as authoritatively about both Bloom’s taxonomy and the ADDIE framework, as well as about the latest developments in adaptive learning platforms, classroom response system, lecture capture technologies, and learning management systems (LMS).

A trend that I’ve observed across higher education, and one that is certainly present at my institution, is for the title of instructional designer to evolve into that of a learning designer.

A learning designer seems to do everything that an instructional designer does, save for somewhat less emphasis on managing and supporting educational technology platforms. The emphasis is squarely on learning. 

Technologies such as the LMS, simulations and adaptive learning platforms remain important tools -- but their use is analogous to how a social scientist might use a statistical package for their research. They are only tools. (Professionals with titles such as “educational technologist” are now taking over the selection, management, support and training for learning technology platforms -- although learning designers are certainly still closely involved in this work).

Where I’ve observed learning designers more closely resemble educational developers is with the professions (disciplines?) greater focus on departmental / school / and organizational development.  Learning designers are increasingly working across the institution (and cross-institutionally) to advance student learning.

Learning designers are also engaged in their own teaching (as opposed to only collaborating with teaching instructors), and in creating original research. Like educational developers, they not only read the SoTL literature, they are contributing to it.

My sense is that learning designers remain more likely to work in digital environments -- on blended and low-residency and online courses and programs -- than are educational developers. That technology remains more at the heart of the culture of the learning design profession than it is of educational developers. But I’m not totally sure this is right.

Throughout this post I’ve written profession, followed by discipline with a question mark. The reason I’m doing this is that I’m unclear if educational developers are part of an educational development academic discipline. And I’m not sure if the field of learning design is coalescing into an academic discipline. One that offers a consistent method of advanced training and accreditation, grounded in well understood and generally recognized theoretical frameworks, and which is unified by a commonly accepted set of methodological tools and frameworks.

I know that educational developers get Ph.D.s in their fields, I’m not sure if learning designers do?

Might we see a merging of the work, profession and discipline of educational developers and learning designers?

Are we seeing the profession of instructional design forking into educational technologist on side, and the academic discipline of learning design on the other? And if so, how much does this learning design discipline overlap with that of the educational developers?

Is there a sociology of the postsecondary learning professions?

Do you consider yourself an educational developer, and instructional designers, or a learning designer? (Or all 3?).

What was your path to your academic discipline/profession?

How has your role changed at your institution during the past few years?


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