More institutions of higher education are considering blended or hybrid instructional formats as growing evidence that blended learning significantly outperforms face-to-face classroom instruction. As a result, the need for instructional designers who understand the connection between learning science and designing high-quality online learning experiences is growing by the day.
When it comes to design, a digital course isn’t simply a digitized version of a traditional lecture course. An online course, particularly one being developed to support blended instruction needs to embed principles of learning science to produce the best student outcomes; this means having clear alignment between the intended learning objectives, activities, and assessments such that in-class and out-of-class curricula work together toward common learning objectives.
However, faculty members aren’t always immediately comfortable sharing responsibility for course design. According to an Intentional Futures survey of 853 instructional designers, the biggest problem these professionals face is resistance from faculty, who often don’t understand the role of an instructional designer.
When this disconnect occurs, it may be a missed opportunity. By applying learning design, colleges and universities can improve the quality of online learning in blended and online courses so more students complete more courses successfully.
Giving instructional designers their due
While college instructors are highly qualified subject matter experts, many learned to teach through trial and error, recalling their own experience as a student in a classroom.
Instructional designers, on the other hand, are often highly-educated in learning theory. According to the Intentional Futures report, 87 percent of the respondents possess master’s degrees in their field, while 32 percent have earned Ph.Ds. Many have also spent several years teaching and doing academic research.
Despite these qualifications, many of the respondents report that faculty members don’t see them as qualified partners. Some faculty members think of instructional designers as simply the “LMS help,” says one of the instructional designers quoted in the Intentional Futures report.
Other instructors only approach instructional designers when they’re overwhelmed, asking them to put together a blended or online version of a course on a very short deadline, according to a group of 32 professionals who gathered for the 2015 Instructional Design Symposium in New Jersey. A report published by Educause about that meeting expresses the frustration many of them have with faculty members’ inability to accept them as equals.
“[When] it comes to designing a course, many faculty assume that they are the only experts, whether or not they have experienced any kind of professional development in teaching and learning,” writes report authors Sandra Miller and Gayle Stein. “Their discipline expertise, they believe, supersedes an instructional designer’s knowledge of good instructional design.”
Indeed, professionals in the instructional design field see themselves being limited unproductively to support roles rather than contributing their expertise to help create high-quality learning experiences. The Intentional Futures survey finds that designers are more likely to spend their time training faculty and staff in the use of technology or managing a project than designing courses. (Some admit to entertaining technology questions from faculty as a way of starting a conversation about pedagogy.)
Why the resistance?
Professors may resist sharing influence over their courses for several reasons, according to a recent EdSurge article: they may fear the loss of control in their own classroom, they may worry about a loss of academic freedom, and they may also resist the new pedagogies that online and hybrid courses require.
Faculty may be worried about having to learn new ways of teaching or may have fears about struggling with unfamiliar technology in front of a classroom of students. They might be worried that the new pedagogy won’t be as effective as what they’ve been used to. They may also be concerned that an instructional designer’s job is to come in and tell them what to teach or how to teach. Faculty have also expressed concerns about not having the time or resources to learn a new pedagogy while teaching their existing classes.
None of this should happen — an instructional designer’s job is to help ensure student success by helping faculty overcome instructional challenges and by designing more effective learning experiences for students. In fact, a quality instructional designer will make a professor look good. Educause reports that faculty members are often relieved when they know they have the support of an instructional designer. But to reach this point, however, there must be faculty buy-in.
“Faculty may be having a difficult time integrating new methods and practices when they are comfortable teaching what they know,” according to the Intentional Futures report.
Fortunately, this is something administration can help with.
Bringing instructors and designers together
To build trust and respect between faculty and instructional designers, administrators have several options. First and foremost, instructional designers must have a seat at the academic table.
According to the Intentional Futures report, only about 38 percent of instructional designers report to the Department of Academic Affairs. A significant number of instructional designers work for IT or other administrative departments. The designers who attended the 2015 Instructional Design Symposium found that instructional designers who work for academic departments receive more respect from faculty.
Stipends and other financial incentives for faculty members are another way institutions can support instructional designers. Case in point: while many colleges encourage faculty to implement digital learning, according to a survey by Tyton Partners, not all institutions provide incentives to the instructors for developing online or blended courses.
The designers surveyed by both Educause and Intentional Futures felt strongly that colleges should provide incentives for faculty, paying them or offering time release to take advantage of the professional development offered by instructional designers.
Administrators can improve cooperation between faculty and designers by involving designers throughout an institution’s shift to digital teaching, by normalizing instructional design, and by implementing clear, consistent standards of course design.
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.