May 12, 2022

Instructional design

Rolando R. Garza’s stands at the convergence of several forces that are transforming higher education.

As an instructional designer at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, Mr. Garza works with hundreds of faculty members, helping them translate their in-person courses to offer them online.

The job requires technical ability, design skills, pedagogical knowledge and a deft interpersonal touch. “We’re on the same team,” he often reassures academics when he begins working with them. “I’m here to tell you how to teach remotely.”

Jobs like Mr. Garza’s are increasingly important and sought after in academia. Membership Association for Educational Communications and Technology, which consists primarily of instructional designers at the post-secondary level, has grown by 50% over the past decade to more than 2,400. The number of instructional designers attending online education conferences, such as Educause’s learning initiative, has also increased significantly in recent years, as have job vacancies.

The push for instructional designers reflects a number of broad trends: growing pressure on colleges to improve teaching and scaffold learning; the maturation of online courses; and the increasingly sophisticated technology available to reach and engage students and analyze their behavior. But that growth has largely happened under the radar, in part because work is as multifaceted as it is hard to define.

“We’re usually behind the scenes and nobody knows what we’re doing,” says Penny Ralston-Berg, senior instructional designer for the World Campus at Pennsylvania State University, a recognized online learning provider. Some instructional designers focus on graphics, while others are technical experts. Many of them are increasingly expected to know the theory and pedagogy of learning.

Whatever its definition, work essentially has the same purpose. “Proving that goals are achieved is what designers do,” says Ralston-Berg, who is also president of the Quality Matters Instructional Designers Association. At only three years old, the association already has nearly 600 members.

The roots of instructional design date back to World War II, when the armed forces needed to effectively deliver technical training to large numbers of people. Companies are now using instructional design to develop training materials for their employees.

Colleges have long relied on instructional design for their distance learning and extension programs, which tend to attract non-traditional students with family and work obligations. As the proportion of these students increases, online learning has become more popular, and with it the need for instructional design.

[[inlineframe url=”//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/MGDRx/2/” align=”left” size=”half-width”]] [[inlineframe url=”//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/tO9V9/2/” align=”left” size=”half-width” height=”100″]] [[inlineframe url=”//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/TXlYr/1/” align=”left” size=”half-width”]]The share of students taking online courses has almost tripled, from less than 10% in 2002 to 28% in 2014, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. Over a similar period, Babson also found that the percentage of university leaders who see online learning as essential to their institution’s long-term strategy has risen from about half to nearly two-thirds.

Meanwhile, technology has become embedded in the everyday classroom, in blended courses, and through learning management systems used in face-to-face settings. The lines between technology and education have blurred, says Malcolm Brown, director of the learning initiative at Educause, the higher education and technology consortium.

In the past, technology was a world unto itself. Today, he says, it is seen as a tool for teaching and learning: “The question,” he asks, “is: what are we going to do with it?”

The answer does not come easily to many instructors. “Many teachers are uncomfortable and unaware of best practices for online education,” says Albert D. Ritzhaupt, associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently reported that only about a third of chief academic officers said most of their faculty members used digital learning tools effectively.

This sentiment may reflect deeper skepticism in academia. Many university officials and faculty members view online offerings as inferior to face-to-face classes. It is not uncommon for instructional designers to assuage the anxiety and suspicions of instructors. The profession of designer is also still being professionalised. A recent analysis by Ritzhaupt found that 70% of job openings for instructional designers don’t require a graduate degree.

Instructional design also has a way of playing on broader concerns about changes in educational practice. Many instructional design theories are based on systems thinking, a form of analysis that originated in engineering and focuses on the interaction of components in a larger environment. Instructional design can be seen as a force for standardizing education and its processes, placing effectiveness above the individual relationships that are central to teaching and learning.

“The learner becomes a generic factor in the planning of mechanized, programmed knowledge brokering,” Sean Michael Morris recently wrote on the website. Digital pedagogy laboratory. “The instructor, through design, becomes nothing more than a recording, a megaphone, its only nuance the occasional typo.”

Melody J. Buckner, director of the Office of Digital Learning at the University of Arizona, sympathizes with this kind of criticism. She worries when systems become more important than the people they are meant to help. With a doctorate and leading a 12-person office (with six instructional designers, an instructional expert, graphic designers, videographers, project managers and a quality assurance coordinator), she and her team reflect the profile and scale of this work.

While its staff has technical expertise, the real benefit it offers is helping faculty members use technology in a way that enhances the educational experience, Buckner says.

It’s a painstaking process that begins when she and her colleagues meet with faculty members. The first thing she does is ask instructors how they approach their in-person classes. What do they feel most comfortable doing in their class? How can she help them transition to online teaching?

His team follows each instructor’s course week after week, distilling their goals and reimagining them in online form. Teaching online may be a different mode from teaching in person, she says, but the underlying goals are the same.

Online courses have the potential to be particularly effective if executed well, Buckner says. “You can make online just as rich and engaging, and in some cases more so, because online teaching is more student-centered than face-to-face teaching.”

Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, curriculum, and quality in education. Follow him on Twitter @danberret, or email him at [email protected]

Corrections (02/03/2016, 2:04 p.m.): This article originally provided an incomplete name for an association. This is the Quality Matters Instructional Designers Association, not the Instructional Designers Association. The article also misrepresented Malcolm Brown’s title. He is director of the learning initiative at Educause, not director of Educause. The article has been updated to reflect the corrections.