The Liminal Role of Instructional Designers

Josh Kim writes that instructional designers, who are helping make important changes in teaching and learning, should be faculty members.

August 23, 2017
 

Should instructional designers be counted as staff? This is a straightforward question -- with complicated answers.

Colleges and universities have (mostly) two types of employees: faculty and staff. I say “mostly” because nothing is ever simple when it comes to higher education.

The answer to the question is important, because higher education staff are mostly viewed as costs to minimize, whereas faculty are seen as assets to cultivate.

It may come as a surprise to the majority of faculty who are not tenure track/tenured -- whose employment status is increasingly fragile -- that they are considered “assets.” Fair enough. Our language gets tricky around faculty, as any blanket statements about the profession will fail to capture the reality of most people in the profession. We should acknowledge the inequalities within the faculty designation, but also recognize that some faculty (on the tenure track/tenured) enjoy a series of protections and a level of job security that is unavailable to other people who work in higher ed.

Further, it is also true that colleges market themselves based on their student-to-faculty ratios, with more faculty always viewed as a good thing. I’ve yet to see any college bragging about its staff-to-student ratio.

Within the faculty designation, we have tenure track/tenured and nontenured. We have professors and instructors. Full-time non-tenure-track professors teach the same courses as part-time adjuncts. Some non-tenure-track faculty have one- or three-year contracts; some teach on a semester-to-semester basis. Faculty rank and status varies widely by security, income and responsibilities.

Then there is the question of administrators. The way I think about administrators is that they are academics in institutional leadership roles who have mostly, but not always, followed a faculty career path. They are the presidents, provosts, associate provosts and deans. Sometimes they are directors or VPs, and often they have dual administrative-faculty appointments.

Librarians are another category (at least in my mind) within the postsecondary work force. Some librarians at some schools enjoy faculty status. Academic librarians have a cohesive identity (at least to an outsider) and a set of professional norms and practices that places their work as distinct from “typical” staff roles. I have no doubt that within the world of academic libraries issues of status, security, career progression and autonomy are as contested as in every other part of academia. So I don’t really know how to think about librarians -- except to say that I tend to think of my academic library colleagues as being in a different category (their own category) than faculty or staff.

Graduate students are another complicating factor in understanding the higher ed labor force. There have been bitter fights about the status of graduate students as employees or students, and only recently has NLRB ruled that graduate students at private institutions can unionize.

In every case that I know -- except for some wonderful Canadian exceptions -- instructional designers are staff. I don’t know any instructional designer who has tenure. The instructional designers I know were not hired for their research potential or their teaching skills, but rather for their experience in and knowledge of instructional design.

Many instructional designers that I know engage in scholarship, teach courses and contribute to their profession. Instructional designers, in my experience, are drawn about equally from graduate programs in instructional design and from training in traditional academic disciplines. Some have Ph.D.s, others have master's degrees, and some are working on a Ph.D. while working as instructional designers.

As far as I know, in the reporting that colleges and universities do, instructional designers are counted as staff. And the number of instructional designers is not captured within the student-to-faculty ratios that colleges love to brag about.

Articles on the rising cost of higher education often blame administrative bloat, citing the growth of nonfaculty jobs in higher education during the time of rapid cost increases.

A 2015 opinion piece, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” by Paul F. Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, is emblematic of the idea that the growth of nonfaculty positions (staff) is among the central problems of postsecondary education. Campos writes, “A major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.”

These discussions of administrative bloat almost never distinguish between staff who work directly on the core teaching and learning mission of the institution -- such as instructional designers -- and other nonfaculty roles.

A Better Approach

The simple faculty/staff dyad is, I’d argue, no longer very useful in capturing the story of an institution's investment in teaching and learning. In fact, the placement of instructional designers in the staff category may be inhibiting investments in growing their numbers on our campuses. It is hard to argue for more money for staff -- harder still to raise funds from alumni for staff positions.

A better approach may be to count everyone who works directly on teaching and learning (and in some cases research) as educators. A student-to-educator ratio would be a more accurate representation of a school’s commitment to teaching and learning than the traditional student-to-faculty number.

There are challenges to this approach. Who gets counted as an educator will be difficult to sort out. For instance, librarians should definitely count, but which librarians? How about people who work in technology or student affairs professionals? All staff play a vital role in meeting the mission of the institutions.

The challenges in categorizing and counting educators should, however, not dissuade us from this task. Reasonable guidelines for an educator designation can be made around the main work in which folks engage. If you spend your days focused mostly on course design, teaching and faculty development, then it is reasonable to say that you are an educator. If the product of your work is primarily consumed in educational settings -- in courses -- then it makes sense to say that you are working as an educator.

As our definition of learning expands to include experiential and co-curricular activities, then the definition of educators should expand as well.

What is not disputable is that instructional designers are educators. They are part of the growing group of nonfaculty educators who collaborate with faculty to develop and teach courses. Nonfaculty educators are key members of teaching teams. Their work has moved beyond online and low-residency education to blended courses and programs.

The rapid changes in teaching and learning across higher education -- including the move to digital learning and the alignment of teaching practices with learning science -- can be attributed largely to the hands-on and ground-level collaborations between instructional designers and faculty.

We need to find a way to talk about our changing postsecondary work force that recognizes and celebrates the contributions of nonfaculty educators such as instructional designers.

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