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You may have seen a story late last year originating from George Washington University. It’s a story that any college would hope to avoid when trying to build online courses and programs: graduate students filed a lawsuit against the school alleging inferior quality of the online educational experience. The students listed issues from poor user experience online to nonresponsive professors.

Stories like this illustrate the need for schools to invest in quality instructional design, but they can also stoke the fears of faculty considering teaching an online course. Who wants to be the professor who gets the university sued due to inadequate knowledge or training?

However, a lot of the concerns surrounding the building of online programs can be alleviated if proper attention is giving to fostering a collegial and collaborative work environment for instructional designers and faculty.

Such work environments can be developed with an integrated approach toward online education: clearly defining and communicating roles in the course development process; encouraging instructional designers to engage in online teaching; and providing faculty with training and resources geared toward online pedagogy.

In other words, don’t just define separate roles in the course production process. Additionally, provide opportunity for faculty and instructional designers alike to experience one another’s worlds.

Subject-Matter Expert and Applied Technology Expert

The easiest way of defining roles in the online course development process is to view the faculty member as a subject-matter expert and the instructional designer as a learning technology expert. In other words, the faculty member is primarily responsible for the course content and assignments. They define what students consume and interact with in the course. The ID is primarily responsible for how students interact with and consume that content in an online setting. This means the ID needs to be thoroughly familiar with the online learning tools and platforms the school is using.

Defining roles and clearly communicating them is easily the most common, practical and helpful advice in the area of ID-faculty relations. In fact, you can look at some of the helpful tips Inside Higher Ed has supplied on this topic here and here. So we know this is a crucial step to take, but assigning roles is not the first and last step. It’s important for the ID and the faculty member to understand why these roles exist.

As IDs, one way we explain these roles to faculty members at Biola University is to say, “Our job is to take the burden of making the technology work off your shoulders so you can focus on your content and your students.”

This achieves the goal of not just establishing clear roles, but emphasizing the deeply collaborative nature of the work. One cannot do without the other. Additionally, and most importantly, it keeps the focus on the primary target audience -- students. If the subject-matter expert is focused on content for students and the ID is focused on the user experience for students, then both are working shoulder to shoulder toward the same goal. However, that primary audience can be a blind spot for IDs who may be used to working only on the development side of an online course.

Instructional Designer as Instructor

When building online programs, many colleges provide the necessary digital tools and initial training but implicitly expect faculty members to somehow transform into effective online educators. This approach requires faculty to become instructional designers, but the cautionary tale of George Washington University indicates this to be an inadequate approach.

At Biola, we flip this equation. Rather than expecting faculty to be instructional designers, we encourage our instructional designers to be instructors. Several of our instructional designers teach online classes in a variety of disciplines at several institutions.

This front-end classroom experience provides hands-on experience that shapes discussions with faculty and provides more than just an empathetic ear. It provides a common set of language and experiences that deepen the relationship between IDs and faculty from mere team members to colleagues. It also provides opportunity for professional development and diversification for IDs in a maturing field that can lack clear career direction.

However, in the trust building that must occur in order for effective teamwork to happen, it’s not just the ID who must know something about the faculty experience. Faculty, too, should learn something about the ID’s world.

Faculty Member as Technologist

For some faculty, the idea of rolling out new learning technology is an exciting part of their lifelong learning process. They’re ready to dive right in. For many others, the water needs to be warm enough.

Here, schools can encourage faculty to develop their technological prowess by providing more than introductory training in learning technology.

I recently spoke with a department chair at another institution about her program’s use of learning technology. She noted that the university’s frequent introduction of new learning technology without any ongoing support contributes to faculty ambivalence and lack of adoption.

This doesn’t have to be the case, but it often is. When faculty are overwhelmed with having to learn new technology (in addition to all their other duties) without proper support and training, the resulting sense of frustration and inadequacy can feed antipathy toward online education.

A faculty member comfortable with the necessary learning technology is a robust collaborator in the instructional design process. That confidence carries over into the delivery of the course to students.

Building Meaningful Collaboration

In the rapidly advancing world of online learning, teamwork is a necessity, but it’s more than mere collaboration between IDs and faculty. Developing online courses and programs is also an ongoing learning process that all parties need to be engaged in as learners. For IDs, this means learning the art of teaching online. For faculty, it means learning effective technology use and online pedagogy.

This integrated approach does more than build mere empathy or cooperation. Effective collaboration in the world of online education means pulling equally toward the same goal: a high-quality education for students.

Universities looking to build high-quality online programs (and avoid lawsuits) would do well to encourage IDs and faculty members to not just work together, but to learn from one another, too.

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